Source: Curriculum Planning.
Forrest Parkay and Glen Hass, eds. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, Inc., 2000.

The Case for Essentialism in Education
WILLIAM C. BAGLEY (1874-1946)

ABSTRACT. Founder of the Essentialistic Education Society and author of Education and Emergent Man (1934), Bagley was critical of progressive education, which he believed damaged the intellectual and moral standards of students. This article reflects the essentialist belief that our culture has a core of common knowledge that should be transmitted to students in a systematic, disciplined manner. Though similar to perennialism, essentialism stresses the “essential” knowledge and skills that productive citizens should have, rather than a set of external truths.

     What kind of education do we want for our children? Essentialism and Progressivism are terms currently used to represent two schools of educational theory that have been in conflict over a long period of time—centuries in fact. The conflict may be indicated by pairing such opposites as: effort vs. interest; discipline vs. freedom; race expenence vs. individual experience; teacher-initiative vs. learner-initiative; logical organization vs. psychological organization; subjects vs. activities; re mote goals vs. immediate goals; and the like.

     Thus baldly stated, these pairings of assumed opposites are misleading, for every member of every pair represents a legitimate—indeed a needed—factor in the educative process. The two schools of educational theory differ primarily in the relative emphasis given to each term as corn pared with its mate, for what both schools at tempt is an integration of the dualisms which are brought so sharply into focus when the opposites are set off against one another.

     The fundamental dualism suggested by these terms has persisted over the centuries. It appeared the seventeenth century in a school of educational theory the adherents of which styled themselves the “Progressives.” It was explicit in reforms proposed by Rousseau, Pestalozzi, Froebel ‘and Herbart. It was reflected in the work of on Alcott, Horace Mann, and later of E. A. D and Francis W. Parker; while the present outstanding leader, John Dewey, first came into prominence during the 1890s in an effort to re solve the dualism in his classic essay, now called “Interest and Effort in Education.”

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The upward expansion of mass education first to the secondary and now to the college-level has been an outcome not alone of a pervasive faith in education, but also of economic factors. Power-driven machinery, while reducing occupations on routine levels, opened new opportunities in work for which general and technical training was essential. That young people should seek extended education has been in evitable. In opening high schools and colleges to ever-increasing numbers, it was just as inevitable that scholastic standards should be reduced. Theories that emphasized freedom, immediate needs, personal interest, and which in so doing tended to discredit their opposites—effort, discipline, and remote goals—naturally made a powerful appeal. Let us consider, in a few examples, these differences in emphasis.

1. Effort against Interest—Progressives have given the primary emphasis to interest, and have maintained that interest in solving a problem or in realizing a purpose generates effort. The Essentialists would recognize clearly enough the motivating force of interest, but would maintain that many interests, and practically all the higher and more nearly permanent interests grow out of efforts to learn that are not at the outset interesting or appealing in themselves. If higher interests can grow out of initial interests that are intrinsically pleasing and attractive, well and good; but if this is not the case, the Essentialists provide a solution for the problem (at least, with some learners) by their recognition of discipline and duty—two concepts which the Progressives are disposed to reject unless discipline is self-discipline and duty self-recognized duty.

2. Teacher against Learner Initiative—Progressive theory tends to regard teacher- initiative as at best a necessary evil. The Essentialist holds that adult responsibility for the guidance and direction of the immature is inherent in human nature—that it is, indeed, the real meaning of the prolonged period of necessary dependence upon the part of the human offspring for adult care and support. It is the biological condition of human progress, as John Fiske so clearly pointed out in his essay, “The Meaning of Infancy.” The Essentialists would have the teachers responsible for a systematic program of studies and activities to develop the recognized essentials. Informal learning through experiences initiated by the learners is important, and abundant opportunities for such experiences should be provided; but informal learning should be regarded as supplementary rather than central.

3. Race against Individual Experience—It is this plastic period of necessary dependence that has furnished the opportunities for inducting each generation into its heritage of culture. The cultures of primitive people are relatively simple and can be transmitted by imitation or by coming-of-age ceremonies. More highly organized systems of education, however, become necessary with the development of more complicated cultures. The need of a firmer control of the young came with this development. Primitive peoples pamper and indulge their offspring. They do not sense a responsibility to provide for their own future, much less for the future of their children. This responsibility, with its correlative duty of discipline, is distinctly a product of civilization. The Progressives imply that the “child-freedom” they advocate is new, whereas in a real sense it is a return to the conditions of primitive social life.

4. Subjects against Activities—The Essentialists have always emphasized the prime significance of race-experience and especially of organized experience or culture—in common parlance, subject matter. They have recognized, of course, the importance of individual or personal experience as an indispensable basis for interpreting organized race-experience, but the former is a means to an end rather than an educational end in itself. The Progressives, on the other hand, have tended to set the “living present” against what they often call the “dead past.” There has been an element of value in this position of the Progressives, as in many other of their teachings. Throughout the centuries they have been Protestants against formalism, and especially against the verbalism into which bookish instruction is so likely to degenerate. Present day Essentialists clearly recognize these dangers.

5. Logical against Psychological Organization— The Essentialists recognize, too, that the organization of experience in the form of subjects involves the use of large-scale concepts and meanings, and that a certain proportion of the members of each generation are unable to master these abstract concepts. For immature learners and for those who never grow up mentally, a relatively simple educational program limited in the earliest years of childhood to the most simple and concrete problems must suffice. This the Essentialists (who do not quarrel with facts) readily admit. The tendency throughout the long history of Progressivism, however, has been to discredit formal, organized, and abstract learnings in toto, thus in effect throwing the baby out with the bath, and in effect discouraging even competent learners from attempting studies that are “exact and exacting.”

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The Essentialists recognize that failure in school is unpleasant and that repetition of a grade is costly and often not effective. On the other hand, lack of a stimulus that will keep the learner to his task is a serious injustice to him and to the democratic group, which has a stake in his education. Too severe a stigma has undoubtedly been placed upon school failure by implying that it is symptomatic of permanent weakness. By no means is this al ways the case. No less a genius than Pasteur did so poorly in his efforts to enter the Higher Normal School of Paris that he had to go home for further preparation. One of the outstanding scientists of the present century had a hard time in meeting the requirements of the secondary school, failing in elementary work of the field in which he later became world-famous.


There can be little question as to the essentials. It is no accident that the arts of recording, computing, and measuring have been among the first concerns of organized education. Every civilized society has been founded upon these arts, and when they have been lost, civilization has invariably collapsed. Nor is it accidental that a knowledge of the world that lies beyond one’s immediate experience has been among the recognized essentials of universal education, and that at least a speaking acquaintance with man’s past and especially with the story of one’s country was early provided for in the program of the universal school. Investigation, invention, and creative art have added to our heritage. Health instruction is a basic phase of the work of the lower schools. The elements of natural science have their place. Neither the fine arts nor the industrial arts should be neglected.


The Essentialists are sure that if our democratic y is to meet the conflict with totalitarian states, there must be a discipline that will give strength to the democratic purpose and ideal. If the theory of democracy finds no place for discipline, then before long the theory will have only historical significance. The Essentialists stand for a literate electorate. That such an electorate is in dispensable to its survival is demonstrated by the fate that overtook every unschooled democracy founded as a result of the war that was “to make the world safe for democracy.” And literacy means the development and expansion of ideas; it means the basis for the collective thought and judgment, which are the essence of democratic institutions. These needs are so fundamental that it would be folly to leave them to the whim or caprice of either learner or teacher.

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To summarize briefly the principal tenets of the present-day Essentialists:

1. Gripping and enduring interests frequently, and in respect of the higher interests almost always, grow out of initial learning efforts that are not intrinsically appealing or attractive. Man is the only animal that can sustain effort in the face of immediate desire. To deny to the young the benefits that may be theirs by the exercise of this unique human prerogative would be a gross injustice.

2. The control, direction, and guidance of the immature by the mature is inherent in the prolonged period of infancy or necessary dependence peculiar to the human species.

3. While the capacity for self-discipline should be the goal, imposed discipline is a necessary means to this end. Among individuals, as among nations, true freedom is always a conquest, never a gift.

4. The freedom of the immature learner to choose what he shall learn is not at all to be corn pared with his later freedom from want, fraud, fear, superstition, error, and oppression—and the price of this latter freedom is the effortful and systematic mastery of what has been winnowed and refined through the long struggle of man kind upward from the savage—and a mastery that, for most learners, must be under guidance of competent and sympathetic but firm and exacting teachers.

5. Essentialism provides a strong theory of education; its competing school offers a weak theory. If there has been a question in the past as to the kind of educational theory that the few remaining democracies of the world need, there can be no question today.

William C. Bagley was Professor of Education, Teachers College, Columbia University.
From Today’s Education: Journal of the National Education Association 30, no. 7 (October 1941): 201-202. Used by permission of the publisher.


1. What is the current “status” of the essentialist orientation to the curriculum? How widespread is this approach to curriculum planning at the elementary, middle, secondary, and higher education levels?

2. What are the strengths and weaknesses of an essentialist curriculum?

3. How might Bagley respond to critics who charge that a tradition-bound essentialist curriculum indoctrinates students and makes it more difficult to bring about desired changes in society?

4. Bagley states that “There can be little question as to the essentials. It is no accident that the arts of recording, computing, and measuring have been among the first concerns of organized education.” Do you agree with his view? What “basics” might be overlooked in an essentialist curriculum?

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The Case for Progressivism in Education


ABSTRACT. Often called “the father of progressive education, “Kilpatrick believed that the curriculum should be based on “actual living. “In this article, Kilpatrick sets forth the key tenets of a progressive curriculum: (1) the curriculum, which begins with children ‘s natural interests, gradually prepares them to assume more socially responsible roles; (2) learning is most effective f it addresses students ‘purposes and concerns; (3) students learn to become worthy members of society by actively participating in socially useful work; (4) the curriculum should teach students to think intelligently and independently; (5) the curriculum should be planned jointly by teachers and students; and (6) students learn best what they practice and live.
The title of this article is the editor’s. The writer himself questions whether labels as applied to a living and growing outlook may not do more harm than good. Still, for certain purposes, a name is desirable. In what follows the writer tries to state his own position in a way to seem fair and true to that growing number who approve the same general outlook.

1. The center and nub of what is here advocated is that we start with the child as a growing and developing person and help him live and grow best; live now as a child, live richly, live well; and thus living, to increase his effective participation in surrounding social life so as to grow steadily into an ever more adequate member of the social whole.
Among the signs that this desirable living and consequent growth are being achieved, two seem especially significant. One is child happiness—for best work is interested work, and to be zestfully interested and reasonably successful is to be happy. The other, less obvious, but highly desirable is that what is done now shall of itself continually sprout more of life, deeper insights bringing new suggestions with new desires to pursue them.

2. The second main point has to do with learning and how this best goes on so as most surely to come back helpfully into life. For the test of learning is whether it so builds mind and character as to enhance life.
     Two types of learning must here be opposed, differing so much in degree as to amount to a difference in kind. In one the learner faces a situation of his own, such that he himself feels inwardly called upon to face it; his own interests are inherently at stake. And his response thereto is also his own; it comes out of his own mind and heart, out of his own very self. He may, to be sure, have had help from teacher or book, but the response when it comes is his.
     With the other kind of learning, the situation is set by the school in examination or recitation demands. This accordingly seems to the typical learner as more or less artificial and arbitrary; it does not arise out of his own felt needs. Except for the school demands there would be no situation to him. His response to this hardly felt situation is itself hardly felt, coming mainly out of words and ideas furnished by the textbook or, with older students, by the professor’s lectures.
     This second, the formal school kind of learning, we all know. Most of us were brought up on it. Except for those more capable in abstract ideas, the learning thus got tends to be wordy and shallow. It does little for mind or heart, and possibly even less for character, for it hardly gets into life.
     The first kind has great possibilities. We may call it life’s kind. It furnishes the foundation for the type of school herein advocated. Since what is learned is the pupil’s own response to a situation felt to be his own, it is at once both heartfelt and mind-created. It is learned as it is lived; in fact, it is learned because it is lived. And the more one’s heart is in what he does, the more important (short of too painful solicitude) it is to him, the more impelling will be the situation he faces; and the stronger accordingly will be his response and in consequence the stronger the learning. Such learning comes from deeper down in the soul and carries with it a wider range of connection both in its backward and in its forward look.

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If we take the verb “to live” in a full enough sense, we may then say that, by definition, learning has taken place when any part or phase of experience, once it has been lived, stays on with one to affect pertinently his further experience. And we assert that we learn what we live and in the degree that we live it.

     A further word about the school use of this life-kind of learning may help. Suppose a class is studying Whittier’s “Barefoot Boy.” I as teacher cannot hand over appreciation to John, nor tell it to him, nor can I compel him to get it. He must in his own mind and heart see something in the poem that calls out in him approval and appreciation. He must first respond that way before he can learn appreciation. Learning here is, in fact, the felt appreciation so staying with John as to get into his mind and character and thence come out appropriately into his subsequent life.
     It is the same way with any genuinely moral response attitude. I cannot compel it. John must first feel that way in his own heart and accept it as his way of responding. Such an acceptance on John’s part fixes what is thus learned in his character there to stay till the right occasion shall bring it forth again in his life. As it is accepted, so is it learned.
     It is the same with ideas. These can be learned only as they are first lived. I cannot simply give John an idea, no matter how skillful I am with words. He may read and I may talk, but he has to respond out of his own mind with the appropriate idea as his own personal insight. He has to see it himself something has to click inside him; the idea has to come from within, with a certain degree of personal creative insight, as his response to the problematic situation. Otherwise he hasn’t it even though he may fool himself and us by using the appropriate words. I as teacher may help John to see better than otherwise he would, and his fellow pupils and I may help him make up his own mind and heart more surely to the good, but he learns only and exactly his own response as he himself accepts this as his way of behaving.

We may sum all this up in the following words: I learn my responses, only my responses, and all my responses, each as I accept it to act on. I learn each response in the degree that I feel it or count it important, and also in the degree that it interrelates itself with what I already know. All that I thus learn I build at once into character.

     The foregoing discussion makes plain once more how the presence of interest or purpose constitutes a favorable condition for learning. Interest and felt purpose mean that the learner faces a situation in which he is concerned. The purpose as aim guides his thought and effort. Because of his interest and concern he gets more whole heartedly into action; he puts forth more effort; what he learns has accordingly more importance to him and probably more meaningful connections. From both counts it is better learned.

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3. Each learner should grow up to be a worthy member of the social whole. Thus to grow up means to enter more fully and responsibly into the society of which one is a member and in so doing to acquire ever more adequately the culture in terms of which the group lives.
     The school exists primarily to foster both these aspects of growing up. The older type school, holding itself relatively secluded within its own four walls, shut its pupils off from significant con tact with actual surrounding life and instead had them learn words about life and about the actual culture. The newer school aims explicitly to have its pupils engage actively in life, especially in socially useful work within the community, thus learning to manage life by participation in life, and acquiring the culture in life’s varied settings where alone the culture is actually at work.

4. The world in which we live is changing at so rapid a rate that past-founded knowledge no longer suffices. Intelligent thinking and not mere habit must henceforth rule. Youth must learn better to think for themselves. They must understand the why of our institutions, of our system of legal rights, of moral right and wrong—because only then can they use these essential things adequately or change them intelligently. The newer school thus adds to its learning by living the further fact of pervasive change and undertakes to upbuild its pupils to the kind of thoughtful character and citizenship necessary for adequate living in such a changing social world. The older school cared little either for living or for change. Stressing book study and formal information and minimizing present-day problems, it failed to build the mind or character needed in modern life.

5. The curriculum, where pupil and teacher meet, is of necessity the vital focus of all educational theory.
     The older curriculum was made in advance and given to the teacher who in turn assigned it as lessons to the pupils. It was a bookish content divided into separate subjects, in result remote from life. The pupils in their turn “learned” the lessons thus assigned and gave them back to the teacher in recitation or examination, the test being (in the main) whether what was given back was the same as what had been given out. Even the few who “succeeded” on this basis tended to get at best a pedantic learning. The many suffered, being denied the favorable opportunity for living sketched above. The lowest third suffered worst; such a curriculum clearly did not fit them, as becomes now more obvious with each advance of school leaving age.
     The newer curriculum here advocated is first of all actual living—all the living of the child for which the school accepts responsibility. As we saw earlier, the child learns what he actually lives and this he builds at once into character. The quality of this living becomes then of supreme importance. The school, as we say, exists precisely to foster good living in the children, the kind of living fit to be built into character. The teacher’s work is to help develop and steer this desirable living. This kind of curriculum, being real child living, cannot be made in advance and handed down either to teachers or to pupils. Living at the external command of another ceases by that much to be living for the person himself and so fails to meet desirable learning conditions.
     The curriculum here sought is, then, built jointly by pupils and teacher, the teacher remaining in charge, but the pupils doing as much as they can. For these learn by their thinking and their decisions. The teacher helps at each stage to steer the process so as to get as rich living and, in the long run, as all-round living as possible. The richness of living sought includes specifically as much of meaning as the children can, with help from teacher and books, put into their living, meanings as distinctions made, knowledge used, considerations for others sensed, responsibilities accepted. The all-roundedness refers to all sides and aspects of life, immediately practical, social- moral, vocational, esthetic, intellectual. To base a curriculum on a scheme of set subjects is for most children to feed them on husks; the plan here advocated is devised to bring life to our youth and bring it more abundantly.

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6. Are we losing anything in this new type school?
a. Do the children learn? Yes. Read the scientific studies (Wrightstone’s, for example, and Aikin’s report on the Thirty Schools) and see that the evidence is overwhelming. The “tool subjects” are learned at least as well, while the others depending on initiative and creative thinking are learned better. Honesty is much better built.
b. Does the new plan mean pupils will not use books? Exactly no; they do now show far more actual use of books. Textbooks as such will decrease perhaps to nothing, but the use of other books will appreciably increase, as experience already well shows.
c. Will children be “spoiled” by such a regime? Exactly no. For character building, this kind of school far surpasses the old sit-quietly-at-your- desk type of school. Modern psychology is well agreed that one cannot learn what one does not practice or live. The school here advocated offers abundant opportunity to associate on living terms with others and to consider them as persons. The schoolroom of the older school, in the degree that it succeeded with its rules, allowed no communication or other association except through the teacher. Accordingly, except for a kind of negative morality, it gave next to no chance to practice regard for others. The discipline of the school here advocated is positive and inclusive, consciously provided by the school, steered by the teacher, and lived by the pupils. Prejudiced journalists have caricatured the liberty as license; intelligent observation of any reasonably well-run school shows exactly the contrary. This discipline is emphatically the constructive kind.

William Heard Kilpatrick was Professor of Education, Teachers College, Columbia University.
From Today’s Education: Journal of the National Education Association 30, no. 8 (November 1941): 231—232. Used by permission of the publisher.


1. What is the current “status” of the progressive orientation to the curriculum? How widespread is this approach to curriculum planning at the elementary, middle, secondary, and higher education levels?
2. What are the strengths and weaknesses of a progressive curriculum?
3. What does Kilpatrick mean when he says, “we learn what we live and in the r’. degree that we live it”? What learning experiences from your own life support Kilpatrick’s view?
4. What is Kilpatrick’s view of discipline as reflected in the following: “The discipline of the school here advocated is positive and inclusive, consciously provided by the school, steered by the teacher, and lived by the pupils”? How does this view differ from that usually associated with the term discipline?

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