Reconstructionism and Perennialism

The curriculum theories of reconstructionism and perennialism are polar opposites. Reconstructionism focuses on society. They believe that the curriculum should be a method of change and social reform for society. Furthermore, they see the schools as the solution to different social crisis. On the other hand, perennialists believe that the curriculum should focus on the intellect by teaching the classical subjects. In addition, both theories have different views about the roles of the teacher, what subjects should be emphasized, and what knowledge should be imparted to students.
Theodore Brameld is considered to be the creator of the term reconstructivism in 1950. He stated that, ” reconstructionism is a crisis philosophy, appropriate for a society in crisis, which is the essence of our society and international society today.” This theory gained popularity during the progressive educational movement because people became unhappy with what our society was becoming and began calling for reform.
There are five goals for education in the reconstructionist philosophy: (1) to examine both the cultural heritage of the society and the rest of civilization, (2) confront controversial issues and discuss them, (3) dedicated to bringing about change within the society, (4) examine the future and the possible future realities, (5) participation of both the students and the teachers in interculturalism. While these goals are good they are also unrealistic. Reconstructionists are often seen as idealistic since their theory is based on a utopian society (Ornstein & Hunkins, 2004, Ch. 4). Students spend the majority of their day with their parents and therefore the impact that a teacher can have in one year of their life is minimal. Even all of their teachers could not completely erase a parent’s influence. These goals could only be accomplished if the parents were a part of the effort. Unfortunately, this is not always the case.
In order to accomplish their goals reconstructionists believe that the focus of the curriculum should be on the social sciences(Ornstein & Hunkins, 2004). These courses examine culture in economic, political and social aspects. These types of classes would allow for opportunities to discussion on societal issues. However, the sacrifice of other courses could be detrimental to our society. While teaching tolerance and understanding is important, it is equally important to learn math and science. Without having students that focus in these areas we would have a shortage of people that would choose to work in those professions that require a mastery level knowledge in the maths and sciences. I feel that perhaps the reconstructionists have good ideas but need to find a balance in their curricular ideas.
Reconstructionist programs include a new movement in teacher education towards multicultural education. Teacher programs are incorporating courses to address issues such as mutli-culturism, socioeconic status, and societal issues. Reconstructionists hope that by equipping teachers with the tools to discuss these topics productively they will have the opportunity to influence change in their students (MacNamera, 1996).
The implication that Reconstructionism has for teachers is that teachers must be prepared to tackle diverse classrooms. The classroom today is made up of a wide range of social backgrounds and even languages. Teachers are expected to promote cultural tolerance and teach students the social skills they need to get along with one another. All of this is expected without sacrificing the academic curriculum. Therefore teachers must get creative and educate themselves so that they can be prepared.
Perennialism appears to be gaining popularity within the educational realm, as seen in the wide variety of programs currently existing in secondary institutions. Perennialism is an educational philosophy that believes in teaching topics that are of “everlasting” importance. These topics are considered to be universal knowledge that people through out time have been familiar with (Ornstein, A.C. & Hunkins, F.P., 2004, Ch. 4). This is transferable to secondary curriculum by choosing to teach the subjects that have withstood the test of time, such as: mathematics, science, English, History, etc. These subjects have been around in schools from the beginning and therefore these are the subjects that should be taught today. If we have come as far in our society from the first schools in Greece then obliviously we have been doing something right. These subjects are taught as principles because principles don’t change, even though procedures and methods do. The weakness in this philosophy is that it doesn’t focus on society enough. The education system does need to produce citizens that can function within our society and in order to do that some level of understanding and tolerance needs to be taught.
Perennialism seems to have surfaced in America during the colonial and postcolonial times. Schools stressed the three Rs in elementary school and in Secondary Education it placed emphasis on Latin, Greek, grammar, rhetoric, logic and geometry. Perennialists claim that human nature has been constant through time and human nature is the ability to reason and to understand universal truths. Therefore, as applied to education, Perennialists believe that students should be developed into rational beings and they should have the ability to uncover universal truths in nature. According to Perennialists the teacher should stimulate discussion within the classroom and draw upon the use of rational thought to guide their students to each universal truth (Ornstein, A.C. & Hunkins, F.P., 2004, Ch. 4).
Over time educational philosophy deviated from this concept as Progressivism, Essentialism and many other philosophies were drawn to the forefront of secondary education. However, in recent years Perennialism has begun to make a strong comeback as the central philosophy of Secondary Education. The comeback began with Robert Hutchins and Mortimer Adler creating a list of “Great Books” for Encyclopedia Britanica.
These two men began the movement centered on the return to the “classics” in literature classes. This latter became known as the Great Books program. This program emphasizes studying the texts that have withstood the test of time. The books that had been around for at least forty years at the time the first list was published and had contemporary significance, reread ability, extensive relevance to the universal truths, and indispensability to anyone’s education. Based on this criterion the list of books is selected that has continued to be revised and perfected for students to read today. Instruction is done through Socratic discussion, which is a guided group discussion lead by a teacher that allows the students to discover the universal truths in the novels (Carmack, 2002). Furthermore the program emphasizes the books that stress the great ideas of the past and have survived over the course of time (Ediger, 2002).
The International Baccalaureate Program is another Perennialist idea that has come to the forefront of education in recent years. According to the report written by California State Postsecondary Education Commission (1999), the program was established in the 1960s through recognizing the needs of geographically mobile students and educational differences between nations. Since then it has continued to grow in popularity. There were over 800 schools in 100 countries that were authorized to offer the program in 1999 and the numbers have continued to grow. The IB program, as it is commonly referred to, is comprised of a two year program that offers courses in six core academic areas: language, literature, individuals and societies, experimental sciences, mathematics and arts. It is offered within a school. In other words, students within a school can apply for the program or can attend the regular classes offered by the same school. It is to be done during the junior and senior year in high school. The subject choices of the program clearly reflect the ideas of the Perennialists. The subjects that the IB Program uses are those that have withstood time and focus on rational thinking and uncovering of ideas.
The Advanced Placement program is similar to the IB Program and also stems from perennial philosophy. In either program you can earn college credit and they are geared toward encouraging rational thought and concepts instead of simply emphasizing the facts. However, the Advanced Placement program is not a curriculum, it is a set of courses that students can choose from to potentially earn college credit. Furthermore, it is based in the United States and Canada, not internationally. According to Wikipedia (2006) the program was created in May of 1951 by a group of educators from three elite secondary institutions and three of the most prestigious universities. From that point, the idea was further developed until the College Board began running the program in 1955 (20060.
Paideia Schools are the development of Mortimer Adler and the Institute for Philosophical Research. These schools focus on high achievement for all students regardless of their background. Furthermore, they emphasize the acquiring of basic knowledge, developing intellectual skills and an enlarged understanding of universal truths (McChesney, 1998). Adler did not agree with this idea (Ornstein, A.C. & Hunkins, F.P., 2004, Ch. 4). Thus, the schools were developed out of a necessity. Paideia schools use many Perennialist concepts in their teaching methods. They utilize cooperative learning, didactic instruction and teachers as facilitators. This goes back to the discussion and rational thinking in the Perennialist philosophy.
Another Perennialist idea that is evident in Secondary education is the increase in core units for high school graduation. TOPS is increasing their core mathematics or science units from four to five. The clear emphasis that this is placing on those subjects that emphasize universal truth can plainly be seen. Furthermore, many colleges are adding this extra requirement to their admissions standards. High schools across the state of Louisiana have begun to up their own graduation requirements to reflect this increase. This is clearly another idea that stems from Perennialist thought because we are emphasizing rational thought and the importance of those subjects that contain universal truths.
Perrenialism’s greatest affect on teachers is expecting a high level of mastery in their content area. It is not good enough to be a good teacher. In addition, instructional methods have changed. Teaching is no longer solely made up of lecturing. Socratic discussion and group learning activities have to be incorporated into the curriculum.
Perennialism and Reconstructionism are two valuable curricular theories that are currently shaping the field of education. While they are vastly different, they tend to balance one another out. Too much of any one thing is not in the best interest of the students. Too much of a focus on academics would create a society that wouldn’t be able to function as a group or work together. Focusing too much on societal issues and tolerance would create a group of people that could work well together but would create a lack of workforce in the classical subjects. In conclusion, both theories are virally important to the continuing advancement of curriculum and instruction.

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