Essentialism refers to the "traditional" or "Back to the Basics" approach to education. It is so named because it strives to instill students with the "essentials" of academic knowledge and character development. The term essentialism as an educational philosophy was originally popularized in the 1930s by the American educator William Bagley (1874 -1946). The philosophy itself, however, had been the dominant approach to education in America from the beginnings of American history. Early in the twentieth century, essentialism was criticized as being too rigid to prepare students adequately for adult life. But with the launching of Sputnik in 1957, interest in essentialism revived. Among modern supporters of this position are members of the President's Commission on Excellence in Education. Their 1983 report, A Nation at Risk, mirrors essentialist concerns today.
Essentialists urge that the most essential or basic academic skills and knowledge be taught to all students. Traditional disciplines such as math, natural science, history, foreign language, and literature form the foundation of the essentialist curriculum. Essentialists frown upon vocational, lift-adjustment, or other courses with "watered down" academic content.
Essentialist programs are academically rigorous, for both slow and fast learners.