Saturday, February 08, 2014

Educational Philosophies - Part Three: Essentialism, Existentialism, and Postmodernism

Essentialism: a second reaction to pragmatism/experimentalism/progressivism, essentialism found common ground with the perennialist view of progressive educational practices attempting to be a painless endeavor.[1]  Both idealism and realism inform the essentialist, many of whom feel that schools have declined and stricter discipline and returning to the basics are called for.  Essentialism is a conservative position which is more interested in teaching established facts and truth rather than innovating and providing educational frills.[2]

Students are viewed as a receptacle to be filled by the essentialist teacher preferably using lecture to deliver the tried and true essentials of education.  History, in this view, has validated this approach and teachers rarely experiment with other philosophical views.[3] Though essentialists have much in common with perennialists, they do differ in a number of ways, notably in that essentialists are more willing to absorb the perceived positive contributions of progressivism.  Another key difference is that perennialism has traditionally been focused on higher education while essentialism is concerned more with elementary and secondary education.[4]  

Existentialism: Anthony and Benson differ somewhat on the history of existentialism from Knight.  Interestingly, Knight describes existentialism as “nearly all a twentieth-century product”[5] where Anthony and Benson describe origins in the eighteenth century though they do mention a new birth with most existential philosophers being prominent twentieth-century thinkers.[6]  Defining existentialism is difficult as their prominent voices differ on so much.  They do not seek ultimate meaning or purpose in the world believing each person must make such decisions on their own. 

Existential teachers do not believe in a particular type or form of curriculum as they prefer students to discover individual meaning.  These teachers despise traditional instruction viewing it as being coercive though they do understand the need for basic content.  Additionally, vocational training is frowned upon since any career can be used to discover truth and reality.  This philosophy is incompatible with the Christian worldview as it denies absolutes of any kind leaving the individual to determine truth for themselves. 

Postmodernism: Noddings states that postmodernism is more a mood than a movement.[7]  The best way to understand postmodernism may be as a reaction to modernism.  The modernist views the world as a reasonable place that cannot only be understood but a place where there are fixed laws which underpin reality and human thought.[8] The postmodernist rejects such thoughts stating that there is no foundation upon which to rest such beliefs.  Pragmatism, existentialism, and Marxism are the undergirding for postmodern thought.

In the classroom, postmodernism does not believe that a single curriculum is suitable for all students and does not believe teaching the seven liberal arts of the Enlightenment.  Postmodern teachers focus on the social impact of their classroom content and creating an awareness of how a dominate culture has used its position to control a powerless culture.[9]  Postmodernism seeks to broaden the horizons of students and encourage them to give equal weight to other worldviews as their own.  Truth is determined by the individual and as such is incompatible with a Christian worldview. 



[1] Knight, 119.
[2] Ibid, 120.
[3] Anthony and Benson 394-95.
[4] Knight, 125.
[5] Knight, 75.
[6] Anthony and Benson, 402.
[7] Noddings, Nel. Philosophy of Education, 3rd ed. (Philadelphia, PA: Westview Press, 2012), 77.
[8] Knight, 89.
[9] Anthony and Benson, 405.

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