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Perennialism And Perennialist Authors Analysis Education Essay


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This study reviews the philosophy of education known as Perennialism. The principles of Perennialism are discussed with respect to nature of reality, goals of education, knowledge acquisition processes, recommended curricula, and social implications. An overview of principal Perennialist authors is provided. Consideration is given to the contemporary revival of interest in Perennialism. Finally, opportunities for further exploration of the topic are identified.

Principles of Perennialism

Perennialism is a philosophy of education that follows Aristotle's belief in the rational nature of human beings and sees the universe as a supreme intellectual and spiritual entity. According to Perennialism, individuals achieve their full potential by developing their reasoning abilities to the extent possible. By doing so, human beings are able to acquire knowledge of those universal truths and values that transcend individual cultures and contingent situations. A key belief of Perennialism is that mankind has a common set of experiences and core values, and that all men and women use symbolic patterns, such as language and numbers, to express their ethical principles and aesthetic beliefs. The emphasis on the universality and rationality of human experience distinguishes Perennialism from other educational philosophies, such as Naturalism, Pragmatism, and Existentialism, which tend to focus on individual rights and on the emotional aspects of human nature.

As man is first and foremost a rational creature, the purpose of education, according to Perennialism, is to assist in developing and nurturing the learners' intellectual potential, with the ultimate objective of facilitating discovery of the truth. As the truth is universal and constant, the ideal academic curriculum should comprise a common nucleus of subjects and cognitive challenges for all. Liberal arts, such as language, mathematics, history, logic, and sciences, have the effect of disciplining the mind, strengthening human character, and developing moral, aesthetic and spiritual appreciation. Being exposed to the appropriate mix of knowledge sources, individuals acquire a tool set that enables them to make effective and ethical decisions, and to address with confidence the problems that life presents. It is a common belief of Perennialist philosophers that the great works of the past are excellent aids in the quest for universal knowledge. By reading and analyzing the classics, eternal truths and values are handed down from generation to generation. Like a perennial plant, Perennialist education ensures that what is permanent and unchangeable continues to be passed down from generation to generation. A limitation of this school of thought is that it implicitly excludes that modern works may become classics - or that new permanent objects of learning, such as computer applications - may be become staples of educational curricula. It should be noted, however, that Perennialism is more concerned with highlighting a hierarchy of educational needs, with intellectual and spiritual pursuits at the top, rather than discussing the merits of subject matter that, like technology, would fall in the professional or vocational realm. In other words, Perennialists believe that one must build a foundation of knowledge through the critical study of liberal arts before one can be concerned with the acquisition of specialized subject matter. The two, however, are not incompatible, just learned in sequential order. As Gutek (1997) points out, trendy ideas which fail to meet the test of time find no place in a genuine Perennialist curriculum.

Perennialist Authors

Robert Maynard Hutchins is considered one of the most influential members of secular Perennialism. In his book The University of Utopia (1953), Hutchins states that "The object of the educational system, taken as a whole, is not to produce hands for industry or to teach the young how to make a living. It is to produce responsible citizens". In The University of Utopia, Hutchins describes a country that has evolved to become the perfect society. Utopia's educational system has the well-defined purpose of promoting the intellectual development of the people. Hutchins also laments some of the improper directions that educational institutions have taken in the United States. He argues that colleges are becoming nothing more than trade schools, and poor trade schools at that. Hutchins claims that universities should focus on teaching intellectual content, specifically intellectual content related to the individual occupation, but that employers should take responsibility for training their employees. Hutchins also warns that education has shifted its center of attention from being educational to custodial. He charges that many schools have become no more than baby-sitting services for adolescents, sheltering them from the turbulent world of youth. He cites courses in home economics and driver's education as designed to meet a utilitarian societal need rather than an educational goal. Hutchins also berates education for the path it has taken regarding specialization. According to Hutchins, the specialization of American education has robbed students of the ability to communicate with other students outside of their field. Because of the intense emphasis on specialized fields, a student of biology cannot converse meaningfully with a student of mathematics because they share no common educational experience. In The University of Utopia, Hutchins outlines the educational experience of young Utopians, where the first ten years of instruction prepare students for the learning experiences to come. Communication is the primary skill developed. Students learn to read, write, and discuss issues in preparation for their future lifetime of learning. Science and mathematics create a solid foundation for future learning. Literature, history and geography are also studied to create the framework for even deeper learning later in life. Finally, art and music are included in the curriculum because these are considered necessary to make society great. An educational staple in Utopia is the reading and analysis of the so-called Great Books, those books that shaped Western thought, which are discussed in class using the Socratic method. Named for Socrates, this approach entails the teacher's keeping the discussion on topic and guiding it away from errors of logic. When a discussion is conducted in accordance with Socratic principles, unexamined opinions are put to the test, and only reason itself is the final judge. Conclusions reached in this type of discussion belong to the individual himself, while the class or the teacher may not necessarily agree. The Great Books are a natural choice, since they are considered to be exemplary, timeless, and ever relevant to society. Despite his appreciation of the classic and his belief that education should first focus on higher-level intellectual pursuits, Hutchins does not discount the value of empirical research and of the laboratory world. He believes, however, that such things are best learned through discovery once a student has achieved a solid educational foundation and has been released from school and into the outside world. Once in college, the focus of Utopia's students shifts from learning the techniques of communication to exploring the principal ideas that have propelled mankind. After college, students face a rigorous exam before an outside board to demonstrate that they have achieved the level of education that a free person should have. This rigorous exam is similar to those taken throughout a student's education but is more comprehensive. When the student passes this exam, he or she is awarded a Bachelor of Arts degree. The degree is conferred based on the mastery of this information, not on the number of classes taken, credits earned, or hours spent in class. Once departing from formal education, a lifetime of learning awaits the citizens of Utopia, who can visit centers of learning to explore and discuss ideas and analyze great works. In addition to Hutchins's belief that school should pursue intellectual ideas rather than practical, he also believed that schools should not teach a specific set of values. "It is not the object of a college to make its students good, because the college cannot do it; if it tries to do it, it will fail; it will weaken the agencies that should be discharging this responsibility, and it will not discharge its own responsibility." Schools should not be in the business of teaching students what is right and just; they should be in the business of helping students make their own determinations. With his vivid description of Utopia's school system, Hutchins presents us with a detailed portrait of what our educational world would look like if secular Perennialists took over our schools.

Jacques Maritain was a French Catholic philosopher who authored more than 60 books, helping to revive the belief system of St. Thomas Aquinas for modern times. Maritain believed that philosophy was the queen of all sciences. Maritain was a strong defender of natural law ethics. He viewed ethical norms as being rooted in human nature. For Maritain the natural law is known, primarily, not through philosophical argument and demonstration, but rather through "Connaturality". Connatural knowledge is knowledge by acquaintance. We know the natural law through our direct acquaintance with it in our human experience. Of central importance, is Maritain's argument that natural rights are rooted in the natural law. This was key to his involvement in the drafting of the United Nations' Universal declaration of Human Rights. Jacques Maritain wrote one book and several essays on education. He considered education to be an art because its object, when perfected, was the most beautiful of all the earthly realities. According to Maritain, education prepares our given faculties and abilities to do what they were made or created to do. Maritain held that the teacher is indeed a cause in the education of youth, but not the principal cause of education, which is the student. He thought everyone could and should be educated in the important things. He did not want anyone to be forced to study theology in non-denominational schools, but he thought anyone without knowledge of theology simply would not understand the actual human nature, which is spiritual as well as rational. Maritain affirms that college education should be given to all, so as to complete the preparation of young people before they enter adulthood. Maritain's elaborate program for all levels of education attempted to spell out the various stages of teaching according to the age and maturity of the student.

Another famous Perennialist author is Mortimer J. Adler, who believed that philosophy should become part of the mainstream public school curriculum. In his Paideia Proposal (1982), which sets out his vision for the American public schools, Adler maintained that education should be basically the same for everyone, because children share a fundamental sameness as human beings. Adler states that children must acquire three different types of knowledge: organized knowledge, intellectual skills, and understanding of ideas and values.  He advocates a different teaching style for each of these types of knowledge. For example, he believes that factual knowledge is best taught through lectures, while intellectual skills are to be nurtured through coaching and ethical discussion is to be conducted through the Socratic method of questioning. According to Adler, education serves three primary purposes:  to teach people how to effectively use their personal time, how to support themselves ethically, and how to be responsible citizens in a democracy.  He believes that each individual has the innate ability to achieve these three objectives, and that education should be a lifelong pursuit. Adler's educational vision extends to every level of the American school system. He believes that every child should study mathematics, science, history, geography, and other liberal arts in the lower grades. His vision for secondary school and college, instead, centers on the belief that students should acquire an understanding of their own minds as well as the minds of others. This can be achieved through the exposure to poetry, drama, and art. Philosophy and art, therefore, should be the prerogative of everyone. I essence, Adler envisions that every student should gain an understanding of truth by applying the filter provided by Western philosophy. Interestingly enough, Although Mortimer Adler has written a plan for all public schools in the United States, his ideas have had the most impact at the college level.  During the 1920s and 1930s, Adler's belief in the importance of Classical education led a significant number of American colleges and universities to adopt "Great Books" programs -- cores of required classes that focus on key works of Western philosophy and literature.  Columbia University, Adler's alma mater, adopted a form of this program that endures today:  all undergraduates are required to take one year-long class in "Masterpieces of Western Literature" and one more year-long class in "Masterpieces of Contemporary Civilization".  In addition, students must take one semester in "Masterpieces of Western Art" and one semester in "Masterpieces of Western Music".  Many other colleges use some form of the Great Books program, inspired by Adler's ideas.

 In primary and secondary education, Adler's ideas about great books of Western Philosophy seem to have influenced the education of prior generations more than the education of today's children.  Any literature curriculum that involved reading great works of Western literature and/or philosophy can be said to be influenced somewhat by Adler's type of ideas.

  Adler would later go on to be a vocal champion for the value of classics based education. And for the idea of integrating science, literature, and philosophy, especially through drawing forth the centuries long dialogue of ideas on and between these disciplines within the great books. Thus current scientific theories and assumptions are shown to be not dry truths handed whose existence is inevitable, but rather part of a larger and very lively dialogue of evolving perspectives and understandings. And finally, Adler advocated for immersing young people into this environment of debate, hypothesis, and enquiry by evolving them in active discussion groups. Rather than simply memorize facts, they were asked to seek genuine understanding of the material under study.

As Adler's advocacy of this educational approach

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