Term Paper: Educational Philosophy Comparison: John Dewey

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Introduction to William Bagley's philosophy of Essentialism in education

Surely, if Bagley were alive today (he died in 1946), he would dislike Dewey's characterizing of the conservative approach to teacher as "static aims and materials." For Bagley believed that educators using the essentialist approach were merely giving students the "essentials" of academic and character development, which is what many educators believed students needed. According to research conducted by California State University in Bakersfield (CSUBAK), American essentialism - made popular in the 1930s by Bagley - has its roots "in a conservative philosophy that upholds the social, political, and economic structure of American society."

In order to help mold model citizens, Bagley preached, teachers and school administrators should not try to change society, but rather, teachers should transplant "traditional American values." Those values - one can almost hear the echo of a debate in 2003 between Democrats (progressives) and Republicans (essentialists) in this comparison - include "respect for authority, perseverance, loyalty to duty, consideration of others, and practicality," according to CSUBAK's research materials.

John Dewey on emphasizing "experience" as part of public education

The principle of continuity of experience - Dewey's second chief principle for interpreting an experience - means that "every experience both takes up something from those which have gone before, and modifies in some way the quality of those which come after," in education. Something is carried over from earlier experience to the present experience. It was Dewey's vision to eschew the "autocratic" and "harsh" policies of schools, and instead, instill a "humane" approach to teaching. Growth - growing intellectually and morally, Dewey wrote, and not just "growth" but the "direction of growth" - is what matters in education.

William Bagley's essentialism: practical things should be taught

Bagley and his essentialist followers emphasized the "central importance of the physical world" and therefore "instruction in natural science rather than non-scientific disciplines such as philosophy or comparative religion," according to a research paper done in the Teacher Education department of San Diego State University (SDSU) (Shaw, 2002). Essentialists urge today that elementary school students should receive instruction in basic skills such as reading, writing, measurements, and computers. In the 1983 report, A Nation at Risk, during the Reagan Administration (President's Commission on Excellence in Education), numerous essentialist ideas were employed as prominent suggestions for improving U.S. education. For example, the report called for a longer school day, a longer academic year, more challenging textbooks and academically rigorous programs "for both slow and fast learners," the SDSU paper points out.

John Dewey's vision for schools: democracy in action

Dewey dislikes the idea of "using the present simply to get ready for the future," because it "omits, and even shuts out," the very conditions by which a person can be prepared for the future." And teaching in an autocratic way, with stiff rules and dry, static facts, is like living under autocratic rule, and giving up "individual freedom" (or giving up democracy). Hence, the progressive movement in education is more democratic because it encourages individual thought, expression, and growth - rather than encouraging obedience and loyalty alone. "Sheer obedience to the will of an adult" in school, as Dewey put it, has applications to anti-democratic thinking in the greater democratic world we live in.


In the Ornstein's text (page 6), in Table 1.1 ("Overview of Educational Philosophies"), the "Role of Teacher" component gives a fully clear distinction between essentialism and progressivism, and hence, points out the dramatic differences between these two men. Under progressivism, a "Teacher is a guide for problem solving and scientific inquiry." And under essentialism, a "Teacher is an authority in his or her field; explicit teaching of traditional values." And as to whether today's schools need "guides" or "authorities" to teach our children, the debate will likely rage on for another century or more.


California State University at Bakersfield (2003). William Chandler Bagley Essentialist

1874-1946. Retrieved September 25 at http://www.csubak.edu/~jlaughner/EDSE412/bagley.ppt.

Columbia Encyclopedia (2003). Dewey, John, & Bagley, William Chandler. Retrieved September 24, 2003, at http://www.slider.com.

Dewey, John (1938). Experience and Education. New York: The MacMillan Company.

Ornstein, Allan C.; Behar-Horenstein; & Pajak, Edward F. (2003). Contemporary Issues

In Curriculum. Boston: Pearson Education, Inc.

Shaw, Larry L. (2002). Teacher Education 954 - Humanistic and Social Aspects of Teaching: Five Educational Philosophies. Retrieved September 26, 2003, at http://edweb.sdsu.edu/LShaw/f95syll/philos/phessent.html. [END OF PREVIEW]

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