Chapter Five: Perennialism

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Perennial means "everlasting," like a perennial flower that comes up year after year. Believing that ideas that have lasted over centuries are as relevant today as when they were first conceived, perennialism argues that these ideas should be the focus of education. According to perennialists, when students are immersed in the study of those profound and enduring ideas, they will appreciate learning for its own sake and become true intellectuals.

The roots of perennialism spring from the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, as well as that of St. Thomas Aquinas, the thirteenth-century Italian whose ideas continue to shape the nature of Catholic schools throughout the world. Perennialists are generally divided into two groups: those who espouse the religious approach to education adopted by Aquinas, and those who follow the secular approach formulated in twentieth-century America by such individuals as Robert Hutchins and Mortimer Adler.

While adherents regard perennialism as a badly needed alternative to essentialism, the two philosophies in fact have many similarities. Both aim to develop the students' intellectual powers, first, and moral qualities, second. Also, they both advocate classrooms centered around teachers in order to accomplish these goals. The teachers do not allow the students' interests or experiences to substantially dictate what they teach. They apply whatever creative techniques and other tried and true methods are believed to be most conducive to disciplining the students' minds.

Perennialists seek to help students discover those ideas which they consider to be most insightful and timeless in understanding the human condition. The study of philosophy is therefore an important part of the perennialist curriculum.

In addition, perennialists recommend that students learn directly from reading and analyzing what they refer to as the Great Books. These are the creative works by history's finest thinkers and writers, which perennialists believe are as profound, beautiful, and meaningful as when they were written.

How Does Perennialism Fit Into A Christian Worldview?

You may have recognized this educational philosophy as what we commonly refer to as a "Classical Education". There are many Christian homeschools and private schools who are taking the classical approach. Like all educational philosophies it has its pros and cons.

When Solomon said that there was nothing new under the sun, he was making a statement very much in line with the perennialist point of view. As Christians we understand the value of studying profound and enduring ideas. We also know that it enriches our children to expose them to history's finest thinkers and writers.

Perennialists believe that our children should be taught using what they refer to as "the great books". As Christians, we need to be careful of what we consider to be "great". Just because someone very intelligent wrote a book and it's still in print hundreds or even a thousand years later this is not the litmus test of greatness.

Perennialism seeks to develop the intellect first then the morals. Because of the high value it places upon intellectualism it's easy for even Christians to get drawn into that same frame of mind. Many Christians have chosen the perennialist philosophy for their children's education. It can be done with careful consideration of Biblical principles.