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Perennialism and the Great Books of the Western World:

Its Role and Significance in the Early Twentieth Century
Rizal Afandy Mokhtar
Wawasan Open University

This paper will explain the significance of perennialism, the great books of the
western world and its significance in the early twentieth century. The resources used
to support this paper are based on Master’s and Doctoral thesis as well as books
extracted from University of Malaya’s extensive e-library database. The paper is
divided into six segments. In the first segment, the paper will attempt to define the
educational philosophy of perennialism. The second segment will describe the role of
the school, teacher, curriculum and student based on perennialism. The third segment
will compare and contrast perennialism with the other “isms” and explain why
perennialism is the dominant “isms”. The fourth segment will describe the great
books of the western world and introduce two well known perennialists, Hutchins and
Alder. The fifth segment will establish the correlation between education and teaching
in the early twentieth century and the great books of the western world. Throughout
this segment, the ideologies and opinions of Hutchins and Adler will also be used.
The sixth and final segment will conclude the paper and speculate whether
perennialism will survive beyond the twentieth first century.

Definition of Perennialism
The educational philosophy of perennialism advocates men and women to
appreciate the everlasting ideas and principles of great philosophers of Western
Civilisation such as Plato, Aristotle and Socrates. The surviving literature classics
written by these philosophers have the potential to assist men and women to solve
problems and to seek the truth in any period of time. These everlasting ideas and
principles have withstood the test of time and are relevant today as the day it was
conceived centuries ago (Gutek, 1996, p. 280).
An Educational Institution Based on Perennialism
Schools are solely designed as an educational institution to cultivate students’
intelligence and growth. It’s imperative that schools should not be used for other
multi-purpose functions such as conducting vocational training, political and
economic activities (Sellars, 1994, p. 35).
The teachers play a pivotal role in perennialism. Teachers themselves must
have extensive knowledge of the literature classics as well as the passion to teach.
They are the intellectual and disciplinarian figure in the classroom. Teachers will
continually probe into the minds of students by making sure they think deeply and
analytically. This is done by asking students intellectual questions rather than telling,
which will lead to productive class discussions (Sellars, 1994, p. 188). Teachers will
keep class discussions aligned and correct any mistakes made by students as well as to
eliminate bad habits that are detrimental to perennialism such as constant
daydreaming and disruptive behaviour.
The curriculum in schools should consist of subjects related to liberal arts such
as history, language, mathematics, logic, literature, humanities and science. This will
enable students to embrace all areas of knowledge that will prepare them to think
carefully and act intelligently (Gutek, 1996, p. 283). Facts and information that will
soon be outdated or found to be incorrect because of new scientific discoveries have
no place in perennialism. Also, excessive focus on a specific subject or specialisation
is prohibited in perennialism. The curriculum should derive from literature classics of
the great philosophers of Western Civilisation, which will enable students to learn
about concepts, principles and reasoning, thus developing the genuine love of

Students in their elementary years are taught to read and write, which are the
fundamental tools needed for their lifelong quest for learning and the search for truth.
During the secondary and post-secondary levels, students will explore various topics
in history, literature and philosophy written by great philosophers. Students will
gradually begin to understand and appreciate their works, thus becoming intellectuals
(Sellars, 1994, p. 35). Throughout their education, students are expected to maintain
high academic and civil standards as well as actively participate in class. Although,
their education will end when they graduate, the learning process for students will
never end.
Comparing and Contrasting Perennialism against other “isms”
In this subsection, the paper will compare and contrast key elements of
perennialism with essentialism, reconstructionism and progressivism.
There are similarities between perennialism and essentialism. In essentialism,
the curriculum is based on liberal arts subjects such as mathematics, history, literature
and philosophy. However, students are expected to learn these subjects and pass a
series of examinations before they can proceed to the next level. Thus, students’
achievements are based on their scholastic results.
Reconstructionism and perennialism are total opposites. Reconstructionism
focuses on society rather than subjects. In perennialism, education and learning will
enable students to become intellectuals, but in reconstructionism, education is used to
teach students about cultural heritage of society in order to modify current and future
In progressivism, students learn through actions by being involved in hands-on
learning in schools. Students will only learn what they considered most relevant to
their lives, thus progressivism focuses on individuality. Unlike perennialism, the
curriculum of progressivism welcomes flexibility due to changes of data and new
scientific discoveries.
Which of the above “isms” is the dominant one? Based on the following two
factors, the paper will demonstrate that perennialism is the dominant “isms”.
Firstly, the surviving works of great philosophers are relevant as it is today.
The facts and data do not change, thus perennialism will never be obsolete.

Secondly, perennialism will enable men and women to become intellectuals,

discipline and appreciate learning. Thus, men and women will continue to learn even
after the graduating from school.
The Great Books of the Western World
There were numerous great philosophers of Western Civilisation that
articulated their ideas and principles on religion, philosophy, literature and history.
Their surviving works can be found in the Great Books of the Western World, which
consisted of 54 volumes and published in the United States by Encyclopaedia
Britannica in 1952. The Great Books were developed by two noted academic figures
associated with perennialism in the mid twentieth century, Robert Maynard Hutchins
and Mortimer Jerome Adler (Harden, 1987, p. 162).
Hutchins had a distinguished career as an academician and administrator. He
began his academic career in 1925 where he taught law at Yale University and
subsequently became the Dean of the Law School in 1927. Two years later in 1929
and at the age of 30 years old, Hutchins was appointed President of the University of
Chicago. In 1945, he relinquished this position to become the university’s Chancellor,
a position he held until 1951.
Adler began his academic career as a Professor of Psychology at Columbia
University, New York in 1920. He left Columbia University in 1930 after he received
an invitation from Hutchins to become a Professor of Philosophy of Law at the
University of Chicago, where he would remain until 1952. When Hutchins assumed
the leadership at the University of Chicago in 1929, one of his first executive
decisions was to hire Adler (Chang, 1988, p. 24), who he admired and befriended
three years earlier.
Throughout the early 1930’s in Chicago, Hutchins and Adler began having
discussions about their dissatisfaction of the current education system in the United
States. They were convinced for education to be effective, the curriculum had to
revert to a liberal education based on the study of literature classics of great
philosophers. It was during one of the discussions that the idea of compiling and
publishing surviving works of great philosophers into the Great Books of the Western
World was conceived. (Harden, 1987, p. 174).

After years of discussions and meticulous planning, The Great Books of the
Western World was officially launched in 15 April 1952 at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel
in New York City. According to Hutchins, he did not suggest that all people will
become great philosophers, historians, scientists or artists by reading the Great Books.
He wanted them to appreciate the will to read and write (Chang, 1988, p. 120). As for
Adler, the Great Books must be read again and again, each time with a different
specific question in mind (Lacy, 2006, p. 166).
Education and Teaching in the early Twentieth Century
In this subsection, the paper will explain the correlation between the Great
Books of the Western World and its impact in the early twentieth century, more
specifically the early twentieth century in the United States. The ideologies of
Hutchins and Adler, who were instrumental in the development of the Great Books
will be mentioned throughout this subsection.
The study of great philosophers and other literature classics were once the
foundation of universities and colleges in the United States until the late nineteenth
century, when it gave way to progressivism and a revised curriculum based on
specialisation (Casement, 2003, p. 38). There is no definite answer to explain this
transition, but it’s likely the advancement of science and technology were the
motivating factors (Rule, 2009, p. 1).
According to Hutchins, academicians are partly responsible for this
phenomenon. Academicians focused excessively on research that has driven this
specialization. Universities have become a place for professors to converge and the
only thing they have in common is their title, not the substance of the subject they
study and teach. He claimed research was nothing more than compiling information,
thus eliminating the process of learning.
Furthermore, students in the early twentieth century lack sound judgement.
They were unable to manage themselves without some form of external interference.
Students has not been taught on how, when and why to exercise independent
judgement, nor has it supplied them with the proper education curriculum and
surroundings for critical thought (Etro, 1983, p. 89).
These sentiments were shared by Adler who criticised the educational
philosophy of progressivism (Cimpean, 2008, p. 81).

He argued that the sole driver of progressivism is science which deals with the
constant change of the world, thus data and information varies as the years go by.
Unlike progressivism, the educational philosophy of perennialism deals with human
experiences and works of great thinkers that are always the same or in other words,
the data never change.
According to Adler, progressivism has created too many teachers per student,
which destroys the special relationship that must exist between them. With this
relationship, progressivism has made students to become uncommitted and
undedicated (Harden, 1986, p. 96). In perennialism, teachers are expected to teach
various subjects related to liberal arts. This daily interaction with students will
develop a relationship based on mutual respect between the teacher and the student.
Hutchins and Adler remained committed to their belief that men and women
needed a liberal education based on the traditions of Western Culture. Thus, it will
provide them with the necessary intellectual foundation to become disciplined and
intelligent men and women of society. Their displeasure of the current educational
philosophy led both intellectuals to reform the educational curriculum by developing
the Great Books of Western World.
The Great Books movement started out as an intellectual discussion in the
1930’s and went on to become a national phenomenon. It would rejuvenate
perennialism and integrate the literature classics of great philosophers into the
educational curriculum of the United States throughout the twentieth century (Lacy,
2006, p. 87).
Since the 1950’s, the United States national priorities have changed as the
world becomes smaller and the social pressures in the sixties and seventies increased,
the educational curriculum have been altered numerous times (Sellars, 1994, p. 45).
With the advent of technology and Distance Learning, how long will perennialism
and the significance of the Great Books of the Western World last beyond the
twentieth first century? Only time will tell.

Casement, William (2002). Whither the Great Books? Academic Questions, 15
(4), p. 36-51.
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Hutchins (Doctoral dissertation). The University of Texas, Austin, TX.
Cimpean, Claudiu. (2008). John Dewey and Mortimer Adler on Curriculum,
Teaching, and the Purpose of Schooling: How Their Views Can be
Incorporated Within a Christian Philosophy of Education (Doctoral
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