Educational perennialism

From Academic Kids

Perennialists believe that one should teach the things of everlasting importance to all people everywhere. They believe that the most important topics develop a person. Since details of fact change constantly, these cannot be the most important. Therefore, one should teach principles, not facts. Since people are human, one should teach first about humans, not machines or techniques. Since people are people first, and workers second if at all, one should teach liberal topics first, not vocational topics.

A particular strategy with modern perennialists is to teach scientific reasoning, not facts. They may illustrate the reasoning with original accounts of famous experiments. This gives the students a human side to the science, and shows the reasoning in action. Most importantly, it shows the uncertainty and false steps of real science.

Although perennialism may seem similar to essentialism, perennialism focuses first on personal development, while essentialism focuses first on essential skills. Essentialist curricula thus tend to be much more vocational and fact-based, and far less liberal and principle-based.

Perennialism has two major divisions: secular, and religious, and their goals and methods differ somewhat.

Secular perennialism

Secular perennialism is a relatively new philosophy dating from only the mid-19th century. It has been supported by Mortimer Adler and Robert Hutchins.

Secular perennialists emphasize the importance of learning to reason. They argue that accurate, independent reasoning is the greatest difference between a developed mind and an undeveloped mind. Thus, it should be a major goal of education.

They advocate teaching reasoning by means of a directed reading list of great books ( of the Western canon, supplemented with minimally-directed discussions using the socratic method.

The great books normally include those that originally advocated the major ideas of western civilization.

In this doctrine, a skilled teacher would keep discussions on topic, without classical reasoning errors, but the class, not the teacher, would come to a conclusion. In particular, the teacher would not direct or lead the class to a conclusion. The teacher's role may include accurately formulating the problem pointed out by some great book's reading.

Secular perennialists also advocate the use of original works, perhaps translated, rather than textbooks. Their basic argument is that the original work is the work of genius. Since we need not settle for less, why should we?

The standard argument for a modern text is to make the information relevant to modern society. Perennialists argue that the topics of the great books describe any society, at any time, and thus the great books already suit our society and our time.

They freely acknowledge that any selection of great books ( will disagree about many topics, but see this as an advantage. They believe that the student must learn to recognize such disagreements, which often reflect real disagreements between persons. Then, hardest of all, the student must actually think about the disagreements and reach a reasoned, defensible conclusion. This is a major goal of the socratic discussions. They do not advocate teaching a settled scholarly interpretation of the great books, because this cheats the student of an opportunity to learn rational criticism and to know his own mind. Also, possibly it cheats humanity of brilliant insights brought by new minds.

Religious perennialism

Religious perennialism is the original form, developed first by Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century in his work De Magistro (, (The Teacher). It is also focused on the personal development of the student, because Christianity is concerned with love (not sex, but a perfected ideal of love).

Aquinas was a Christian philosopher and theologian. He argued that God loves us, and therefore wants us to be all we can be. In particular, "You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free." (Matthew 5:48), and "Love the Lord...with all your mind..." (Luke 10:27). Thus human development glorifies God, and is a worthy project.

He argued against two fallacies. First he argued that all learning could not come from within, because it always had to be provided as sensed signs that the student must perceive. He also argued that education is not mere manipulation of a mind from outside, but that rather some essential spark (from God) remade the knowledge in the student's mind.

He advocated a middle path, between these two extremes (in line with Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics). That is, the teacher could guide the student to the great truths. This would save the student much trial and error, and permit greater development at a younger age.

Aquinas clearly considered Christian ethics, salvation and doctrine to be items of first importance, because they concerned human access to the universal God and eternal life. He considered reasoning and philosophy to be important, but of clearly secondary importance.

An interesting teaching was that he considered God to be the great, perhaps only Teacher, because only God could form ideas directly in men's minds from mere senses.

For a discussion of other educational philosophies, see educational philosophies and education reform. For more information about the great books, see Mortimer Adler or

Colleges exemplifying this philosophy

Some colleges in the United States use "a Great Books curriculum" and represent a fairly pure application of this educational philosophy:

  • St. John's College, U. S. is a well-known secular liberal-arts college with an undergraduate program described as "an all-required course of study based on the great books of the Western tradition."
  • Thomas Aquinas College ( in Santa Paula, California is a Catholic Christian college with a Great Books curriculum.
  • Gutenberg College ( in Eugene, Oregon provides "a broad-based liberal arts education in a Protestant Christian environment", with a "great books" curriculum emphasizing "the development of basic learning skills (reading, writing, mathematics, and critical thinking) and the application of these skills to profound writings of the past"
  • Shimer College in Waukegan, Illinois grants a Bachelor of Arts to students who complete a program composed of humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, integrative studies and a capstone senior thesis.

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