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A “BACK-TO-BASICS” educational movement started in the late 1920s by Teachers College Columbia University professor WILLIAM C. BAGLEY in response to growing neglect of traditional fields of study in public elementary and secondary schools. Formalized in 1938 by the Essentialist Committee for the Advancement of American Education, the essentialist doctrine called for restoration of strict classroom discipline, high achievement standards and a required core curriculum of basic skills. These included reading, writing, spelling and calculating, along with thorough command of grammar, arithmetic, mathematics, algebra, geometry, the natural sciences, history, geography, fine arts and hygiene. “It is true that the world of today is a different world from the world of 1913 and from the world of 1929,” Bagley wrote in 1934, “but this does not mean that everything has changed. . . . The winds that blow still follow the law of storms; Huckleberry Finn and Treasure Island still delight youth; and the Sistine Madonna is just as beautiful as of yore.”
Bagley and the essentialists he led were reacting to an educational trend fostered by overenthusiastic followers of JOHN DEWEY, who had misinterpreted his theories of progressive education. Dewey had urged the use of play as an instructional tool in a highly disciplined setting, but some teachers had started using play as the key element of children’s education. As one Los Angeles school superintendent wrote: “The principal business of the child is to play and to grow—not to read, write, spell, and cipher. These are incidental in importance. If they can be made a part of this play, it is well to use them; if not, they should be handled sparingly.”
Bagley and his associates countered by ridiculing the progressivists and calling for restoration of traditional methods of mental discipline such as memorization and drill. He called on teachers to take the initiative in the classroom, leaving nothing to students. “The freedom of the immature child to choose what he or she will or will not learn,” Bagley wrote, “is utterly insignificant in comparison with . . . a type of freedom which is won only by a system and effortful mastery of the lessons that man has learned as he has traversed his rough road upward from the savage and the brute.” He and his colleagues Michael J. Demiashkevich and Isaac L. Kandel called the traditional curriculum “the tried and tested heritage of skills, facts, and laws of knowledge that have come down to us through civilization.”
Essentialist influence grew throughout the 1940s, ebbed during the 1950s, all but disappeared during the two decades that followed, but revived strongly during the 1980s and 1990s as an updated “back-to-basics” movement.
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