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What should schools focus their curricula on? In this lesson, we’ll examine perennialism, the philosophy of education that proposes that schools should focus on the classics and evergreen ideas, and we’ll examine how teachers can design curricula based on this concept.


Sita is very excited. She’s a teacher, and her principal has just asked her to plan her school’s curriculum for next school year. It’s a great honor; it shows that her principal has faith that Sita knows what should be taught!But what, exactly, should Sita choose for the curriculum? Some people believe that the school should be teaching the classics, like Shakespeare and Darwin. Others think it’s important to look at newer, less classic figures and learn from them.

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Perennialism in education is the idea that school curricula should focus on what is everlasting. You can remember the word ‘perennialism’ by remembering that perennial means lasting for many years. Thus, perennialism is focused on things that have lasted for many years.Let’s look closer at perennialism and how Sita might use it in her curriculum planning.

Evergreen Ideas

One of the cornerstones of perennialism is the concept of evergreen ideas, or philosophies that last through many generations. Think of the old adage, ‘All’s fair in love and war.

‘ Whether you believe that it’s true or not, it’s been around a long time, and many people have explored it in different ways.To create a perennialist curriculum, Sita will want to focus on evergreen ideas and avoid fads and other new ideas. In other words, she’ll want to stick with what’s tried and true.

The way that an evergreen lasts all year round (and for many, many years), evergreen ideas last a long time and are applicable to many people through many generations.For example, in social studies, Sita might want to focus on big, evergreen ideas of democracy; that is, things like human rights, educating voters, and things like that. Voting machines and drones may be new issues faced by humans today, but they are tied to the same ideals that our grandparents and great-grandparents faced, things like national security versus privacy, or voting rights for all. So instead of talking about drones in social studies, Sita will want the school to look at how the founding fathers balanced personal rights with national security.Because perennialism is so focused on evergreen ideas, Sita should make the most of the curriculum about evergreen ideas. That way, students are learning what their grandparents learned.

The belief is that ideas that have stood the test of time have proven themselves to be worthy of study. Newfangled concepts might add something to the curriculum, but they may not. Why not just stick with what Sita knows will work because it’s worked for generations before?

The Great Conversation

As we’ve already said, perennialism is focused on teaching things that are applicable to many generations. It will probably come as no surprise, then, that the classics, or a canon of books written long ago, are a big part of a perennialist curriculum.

Instead of reading modern writers and philosophers, Sita will want to design her perennialist curriculum around classical writers, like Homer, Shakespeare, and Locke. She’ll want to avoid writers who have written in the last generation or two, and focus, instead, on those who wrote hundreds, or even thousands, of years ago.Why are the classics such a big part of perennialism? There are two main ideas about the classics in perennialism:

1. They have the potential to solve problems in any era.

Many, many people write and publish books and essays every year. Many of those books and essays are forgotten as time moves on. There are many reasons that a piece of writing may be forgotten, but those that stand the test of time tend to be able to answer questions and problems in many different eras.Take Shakespeare’s classic play Macbeth. The play is about a man who kills in order to gain power. As a result, though, he sets off a chain of events that lead to his downfall. The play explores themes of power, destiny, guilt, and honor.

These are themes that are still around today, and there are many CEOs, politicians, and other people who could learn a lesson or two from Macbeth!

2. They are engaged in a Great Conversation with each other.

Another key idea about the classics is that they are engaged in a Great Conversation, or discussions between authors over time. For example, Macbeth didn’t come out of nowhere: Shakespeare was writing it based on a history book that he read, and he was using that history book.And, after Shakespeare, many other writers have commented on Macbeth, using him in their own writing as examples.

It’s like the author of the history book, Shakespeare himself, and the authors that came after him are all talking to each other and sharing ideas. They are engaged in a great conversation.Because classics have proven themselves across generations, and because they are engaged in a deep discussion with other literary pieces, they are pieces of work for Sita to include in her perennialist curriculum.

Lesson Summary

Perennialism in education is the belief that schools should teach ideas that are everlasting.

Evergreen ideas, which have lasted through many generations, are a major focus of a perennialist curriculum. Further, the canon of books known as the classics form a key component of perennialist education, since they have the potential to solve problems in any era, and they are engaged in a Great Conversation with each other.

Learning Outcomes

Once you are done with this lesson you should be able to:

  • Define perennialism in education
  • Understand that perennialism is focused on teaching evergreen ideas in the classroom
  • Explain the two main justifications for studying the classics in perennialism

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