Academic rationalism is a centuries-old approach to school curriculum that values traditional content and classical Western conceptions of the role of curriculum. Academic rationalists propose that the purpose of education is inherently tied to sustaining and perpetuating the cultural heritage of a given society – its myths, histories, ethics, and valued knowledge. This kind of knowledge, often referred to as the liberal arts or a liberal education, is often represented by a canon (i.e. the literary canon or the Western canon). The curriculum serves as a vehicle of cultural transmission, one that moves from one generation to the next, preserving and handing down the wisdom, eternal truths, and cultural heritage of past generations to the young and uneducated members of society. Academic rationalists value intellectual, intuitive, and deductive reasoning as ways of knowing. Epistemologically, the approach contrasts with empiricism as a way of knowing; whereas empiricists rely on the senses, evidence, and inquiry to develop and justify knowledge, academic rationalists prioritise close reading and textual interpretations built from scholarly precedent.

The origins of academic rationalism might be traced to Plato and Aristotle – classical Greco-Roman conceptions of learning and knowledge. PlatO’s ‘Allegory of the Cave’ suggests the value of a universal truth or singular form of cultural literacy; in other words, a fixed body of knowledge that is critical for members of a society to acquire and pass down through generations. Academic rationalism guided intellectual thought during the Renaissance, the Age of Reason, and was prevalent among educators in the 19th-century United States. The National Education Association’s Committee of Ten Report in 1892 recommended a high school curriculum that privileged a liberal education for all students, regardless of their background or future, focusing on English, history, mathematics, science, and language study. However, it is critical to note that the Committee of Ten did not envision all children and youth receiving this curriculum and instead accepted the contemporary limited enrolment of less than 8 per cent of adolescents for high school.

Educators in the 20th century continued to promote an academic rationalist approach. For example, Mortimer Adler developed the ‘Great Books of the Western World’, a 54-volume set of books on drama, economics, ethics, fiction, history, poetry, national science, mathematics, philosophy, politics, and religion. These books were criticised for their Eurocentric focus and exclusion of female and non-Western authors. Philosophy professor Allan Bloom’s 1987 book, The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students, sounded alarm bells in the United States over what Bloom perceived to be an abandonment of liberal education – primarily the humanities – by institutions of higher education. Another example is E.D. Hirsch’s ‘cultural literacy’ approach that identified lists of people, places, and events that everyone should know. Like Adler’s programme, Hirsch’s approach has been criticised for its lack of diversity and for conceiving of knowledge as a fixed set of items to be read and memorised.

Throughout the 20th century, educators challenged the academic rationalist approach, criticising it for being elitist, relevant for only select (i.e. college-bound) students, too Eurocentric, and too limited in defining valuable knowledge. John Dewey and other progressive educators promoted alternative educational philosophies that emphasised the importance of knowledge that had relevance, meaning, and interest to children’s lives rather than promoting a single, fixed, body of knowledge for all students. As one result, US high school curriculum expanded to include vocational education. Other scholars have questioned the approach for its emphasis on a stable, fixed body of knowledge rather than viewing knowledge as an ever-changing and fluid product of social construction.

In contemporary schooling, the academic rationalist approach tends to prevail. Defenders of the approach emphasise the value of social cohesion and a shared understanding of values and knowledge. They argue that all children, regardless of their background or future, should be able to acquire universal truths and knowledge. However, there are alternative approaches that view knowledge as more fluid, changing, and socially constructed, and these approaches have expanded the body of knowledge to include more diverse peoples and voices.