In a Time of Distraction, an Education Focused on Timeless Ideas

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What does it mean to truly be educated? Great Hearts Academies, a series of charter schools in Texas and Arizona, is focused on a classical curriculum. “We are trying to provide a form of education where our students’ loves are tapped into. They begin to learn to love what is true. They are drawn to what is beautiful. They recognize that goodness is desirable and they want it for themselves,” says Robert Jackson, the chief academic officer of Great Hearts Academies. Read the lightly edited interview, posted below, or listen on the podcast:

Katrina Trinko: Joining us from The Heritage Foundation’s President’s Club meeting is Robert Jackson, the chief academic officer of Great Hearts Academies, which has 28 charter schools in Texas and Arizona. Thank you for joining us.

Robert Jackson: Thanks for having me, Kate.

Trinko: To start off, could you tell us about Great Hearts Academies?

Jackson: I’d be happy to, and not to be priggish, but we have 30 academies, so I’ve got to update—

Trinko: You need to update your website.

Jackson: Right? It’s all just happening live right here.

Trinko: That’s great.

Jackson: So, yeah, so Great Hearts began as a variant on a private school model that was very popular, is very popular, I should say, the Trinity schools. There are three of those in existence and they’ve been at it for nearly 30 years.

This private school model was of great interest to a group of families and professors in Tempe, the area where Arizona State is located, back in the mid-90s. They were going to try to bring a Trinity school to Tempe, to Phoenix. Turned out they couldn’t figure out the financial model and so coincidentally and rather auspiciously, charter laws had just been passed.

They figured that if they could take the private model and strip it of any catechesis or any sort of religious instruction, they could offer the academic model to students as a prep school charter option and thus was born the school known as Tempe Preparatory Academy. Still in existence today from that humble origin.

The leadership of Great Hearts was essentially formed. Many of them were trained at that school, kind of learned the ropes, understood the craft of teaching and leadership really of schools.

And in 2003, a second school was launched, which became the founding school of Great Hearts Academies. Veritas Prep was formed in 2003 with 120 students in three grades. So if you can imagine roughly three cohorts of 40 a piece and then each year they would add a grade so that eventually you had a full prep school, grades 7 to 12, again, this was the model that they had adapted, right? Under charter laws.

And with that private school, the prep school model was premised on Latin grammar study, language study, heavy language study throughout. And then of course the full compliment, math and science and fine arts.

But the signature course of these schools was what is referred to as humane letters. And in a humane letters course—which is offered two hours a day from 9 to 12 grades—[grades] 9 to 12, they will read great books and conduct seminars where they’re discussing the text.

So essentially you have to come to class prepared because you have to have read “Billy Budd,” right? Before you enter that ninth grade classroom and have a conversation about the drama that’s unfolding in the pages of Melville’s novel.

And [the] Socratic seminars, it’s often referred to, that seminar exchange, is really the heart of what we do. Because when students take a text apart to understand its inner workings and really gather what’s happening there and when they have the conversation together, they glean a lot more than if they skim either through the CliffNotes, right? Or the SparkNotes, I guess, or just get through, “What’s the main idea?”

They’re not going to be allowed to just get the main idea. They are going to dig in and understand that work of literature or philosophy of history and own it for themselves because they’re in a conversation with their peers guided by a teacher who’s not going to allow them to sort of free range. There’s going to be a focus on trying to get what’s in there out and own it.

But I have to say that humane letters course is at the heart of what we do because it’s a very philosophical understanding of reading, right? That we read in order to become larger. Enlarged intellectually, morally. I mean, we’re encountering great minds and they rub off on us.

Trinko: So, besides “Billy Budd,” what are some of the great books that students read?

Jackson: OK, so in the American experience, Twain and Melville and Hawthorne, sort of the usual suspects. The American experience, by the way, begins with the declaration, the Constitution, the Federalist Papers. Then they read Tocqueville, right? They get a chance to reflect on the early republic with our French interlocutor and then they’re there studying the arc of American history, as well.

Even as they’re studying those great books, they will in their 10th-grade year move chronologically in reverse, so they begin to study through the modern European experience. So philosophers like Locke and Rousseau, alongside of literature, and again, here we would have Dickens and other volumes or novels of the modern experience, but the focus is really going to be on that historical and philosophical frame of modern European experience.

Their 11th-grade year, they fall all the way back into antiquity, and it’s there that they read Plato and Aristotle for the first time.

They will be exploring the tragedians, the Greek tragedians. They will read Virgil, Sorry, correction, Virgil’s in the 12th-grade year and I’ll explain. The 12th-grade year then are great books, but it’s more of an arc of the whole.

If they went in reverse chronology, grades 9, 10, and 11, by the time they get to the their senior year, they’re then having a kind of overview from the Greek, the Hellenistic, the Roman experience leading with the founding myth of Rome, Virgil, and moving all the way across through Augustan and Aquinas on law finishing up in their final semester and quarter reading “The Brothers Karamazov,” Dostoyevsky.

Trinko: So I think the stereotypical view of generation Z is that they’re all glued to their phones. They have no attention spans. How in practice do these classes actually work out? Do students show [engagement or does] it sometimes spiral off into nonsense? How does it go?

Jackson: No, they do engage. And in fact, I would have to say perhaps more than you would expect from a generation that has been raised on digital feed. And it’s not that our kids don’t own cellphones. Of course they do, right? And yes, they’ve got as many screens perhaps as their counterparts, but not in the school. And not for those seven sacred hours.

Trinko: So you don’t allow cellphones in the school?

Jackson: No, no, yeah. In fact, … they’ll be nabbed if they pull them out. So after hours and before school, make sure you get your communication into friends and family and what have you, but then you unplug for that period of time. Because it’s important for us … to sort of tell them that they have to unplug, but perhaps more in developing habits, right?

We are very Aristotelian in this. Aristotle told us that habits are everything. I mean, essentially, they are our destiny. We want to teach them some habits of mind and habits of discourse—the conversation I mentioned in the seminar and habits of attentiveness. Which are all but disappearing … in our society and in this age because of Zuckerberg’s influence.

That’s cheap shot at [Facebook founder and CEO] Mark [Zuckerberg.] But I do fear the social media frenzy. Just the constant, again, I’ve got to, the FOMO syndrome, right? Fear of missing out. I got to be there. I got to see the action. I got to be where it’s at.

We’re taking them to distant shores, right? Realms of gold, as the poets put it, that are absolutely engaging, but they have to develop a habit of appreciation for that, a recognition that it’s going to take a little more energy than just the swipe on my phone.

So we do get them engaged. I mean, it’s pretty remarkable what you will hear 16-, 17-, 18-year-olds say in our schools.

Trinko: What are some examples of conversations that strike you?

Jackson: … For example, they’ll read Aristotle, as I told you, that “Nicomachean Ethics” in 11th grade, and you’ll have them really trying to parse his understanding of what it means to be happy in Aristotelian terms or if this is fullness or flourishing or human excellence. What is virtue and how do we find or understand this mean?

I’m sure, I’m confident at more than 50 years of age that most of this goes over their heads. The depth of Aristotle, the depth psychology, if you will, of Aristotle is something that you probably have to be 40 or 50 and have some life experience to really process. However, they’re wrestling with it at 17 because they do want to understand what it means to be happy, right? They want to know what it means to have true friendship. And Aristotle’s got some pretty good starting points for that.

Trinko: And I will say as someone who read Aristotle in high school, [at] the time I was very confident I understood it, I now have some depths on that.

Jackson: You can go back to it, right?

Trinko: Well, but that would require my own phone addiction ending. But to switch gears a little bit, you advertise that you’re tuition-free. I assume that’s because you’re charter schools. How does that work as the government funding it and is there government control that you then have to deal with?

Jackson: So, charter schools are by definition a public offering. It’s an arrangement with the state. And I think the vast majority of our states now have charter laws that make this possible.

An organization, families, and others will come forward and say, “We want to contract for the state. To provide education for the children.” We will have to meet whatever minimum requirements, standards the state sets for schools. But beyond that we are given the autonomy to deliver a form of education that we think is suitable, right? And beneficial to our students.

So, the contract with the state requires, again, an acceptance of certain limits, but with it per pupil funding. So the funding that would otherwise go to any other district school down the street is a portion, by the way, at a discount rate. We don’t even get the full amount.

Nonetheless, in rather austere environment like Arizona, we might get $6,500 per pupil. And when possible, families do step forward and actually make additional donations because they love what their children are receiving at our schools.

So it is publicly funded in that respect. In the same way that any Arizona or Texas school receives per pupil funding, but again, it’s in a slightly different track and we don’t have to go into all the details there, but a charter school being a public entity receives public state funds to support it.

Trinko: OK. So your website states that you form hearts and minds, and I was curious about the claim that you form hearts. How would you say you go about that and why is that important?

Jackson: Yeah, well, it is crucial because I think we live in an age, and it’s been this way for some time, where we think of the intellect or the mind as somehow distinct from what we’re calling the heart. It’s just the most easily accessible English word.

As you probably know, since I understand your pedigree, the Greeks had this notion of spirit, … we’re trying to give shape to the spirit. We’ll call it the heart for today because it’s from there the sort of seat of emotions that the intellect will make a determination as to what it will pursue is a sense in which we want to form hearts or spirits because we know that’s the real engine, kind of the main spring if you will, that drives us to do things.

You know the things we love. We don’t have any trouble getting up and reading extensively the manual on the motorcycle if we want to fix it so that we can go take it for a spin, right? If you love it, you’re motivated, your spirit is driven to pursue it.

We are trying to provide a form of education where our students’ loves are tapped into. They begin to learn to love what is true. They are drawn to what is beautiful. They recognize that goodness is desirable and they want it for themselves. And to have a mere intellectual conversation about knowledge or knowledge domains or content, something’s missing in the long run.

If you’re just reading a text or just studying a subject in order to pass the exam, regurgitate what you need to know for the examination, and then move on, it won’t stick, right? We’re actually trying to give shape to their affections. What in times past was referred to as sentiment.

So, we want to bring intellect and sentiment together once again. Again, I know … intellect, we use that word, sentiment, we don’t use that so much these days.

We think you sentimental, again, I’m talking about the things … think of the soccer match, right? In Europe. If you ever watch soccer in the big leagues, the spirit of the crowd, right? The way they go wild when their team is winning. We are trying to tap into that kind of love that the fan has for their ball club.

We’re trying to give or create or cultivate that kind of love for good and noble things, which we find in great books, which we find in great works of art, which we find really in the communities that we’re trying to form around the humility and friendship of receiving this tradition.

Trinko: So what to you is a graduate you’re proud of? I mean, in the abstract, what makes someone [that] you think they’ve gotten a great education and it shows?

Jackson: Yeah. I just used the word humility and I’m confident that that’s a part of it. In our very tradition from the Greeks, going back to Socrates and even pre-Socratic texts, we realize that you can produce a cohort of intellectuals who absolutely are devoted to self-aggrandizement. All they care about is knowing what they know so they can manipulate the system, make more bucks, dominate others. …

The point is I fear that Great Hearts Academy or one of these other classical schools could produce very intelligent, articulate, thoughtful men and women who think that knowledge is simply a means to selfish ends and if they come out on that end—I’m trying to show you the anti-form before I promote what a really a great graduate would be—if they come out as [devoted to self-aggrandizement], then we’ve failed. And that’s a real possibility.

It’s happened throughout our tradition, throughout history. A success story within our academies, and I think within classical schools generally, is a humble, thoughtful, well-versed, holistic person who understands that these things fit together, that the science and the math and the art and the literature actually are speaking about the human experience in various and sundry ways and that it coheres.

There’s a way of seeing the world with that kind of depth and they will be humbled because they know they’ve only begun to scratch the surface. If they’ve been with us for 13 years, even if we had them from K to 12, they are still novices. They’re better off than their peers, yes, but they’re still beginners in this long-standing great conversation, as it’s called by many.

And so, they would be humble, but they would also recognize, “I’ve received this and I’m now responsible for propagating it. Literally I will give this to others and will share what I have learned and what I have received.”

Because in the classical vein, if we just sort of talk about generally 2,500 years of this form of education, there was always a philosophical element of consideration, contemplation, reflection. And there was an oratorical element where those who had been so educated had to step forward, articulate a vision for the future of their society, of their particular society, their moment, their place, their time, and say, “We could do better.”

So, classically educated young people should in fact become most of them in one way or another, should become leaders in their time and in their place because they’ve been given something that’s designed by definition to encompass or to offer, as I said, a vision of a better society.

Their powers of persuasion, their capacity to understand or to know is to be used in service to the society. If our graduates end up doing that, and they have, we have about 2,200 alumni now and you see them going into careers in the military, into the professions, medicine, law, politics, you see them starting families.

Trinko: I don’t know if they’re going to politics, are you sure they’re not [devoted to self-aggrandizement]?

Jackson: Yeah, you got to be careful.

Trinko: Well, I saw in your bio that you’ve done a lot of research on fights in the education system in America in the early 1900s and I was interested in that. If you could maybe tell us what that fight was about and how it ended and how it still affects education today for most Americans.

Jackson: Yeah, it certainly does affect most Americans. These classical schools are very much a minority, and if we were to roll the clock back 200 years, 150 years even, we would see at a normal school preparing teachers something very much akin to what I’m describing of the classical form because teachers would have understood that’s what you do, the so-called three R’s or Latin grammar instruction, right? Geography and math and science and literature. That was status quo.

One hundred and fifty years ago it was the turn of the century under figures like John Dewey, [and] there was a host of others that are involved here. I think of Edward Thorndike in particular as having incredible influence with the introduction of IQ testing and kind of the measurement apparatus.

The 20th century became, I mean, it’s sort of the century of measurement as it relates to education. And so today when we see the ubiquitous standardized test, whether it’s at the state level to measure state standards or the achievement of English language arts or mathematics, numeracy and literacy, or whether it’s … for some sort of … imagined aptitude for college entrance.

I mean, those things got their birth in the 20th century, SAT, 1925-26, something like that. I mentioned it because Thorndike, Dewey, and others were really launching a science of education.

Now that sounds all well and good, except that education is not a science. That is to say it’s not the formation of the human mind and soul or spirit, as we were talking about earlier, is not subject to laboratory experimentation the way a chemical, the way of physical or material reaction is going to be replicable in a laboratory.

Human beings, the process of learning, given everything we can learn from cognitive science and psychology, it’s still a very messy business, still saturated in language. It’s still essentially mimetic, by which I mean imitative, right? We learn the arts of language and the arts of mathematics and even the skills or the techniques of a particular science by apprenticing to someone who’s done it and who knows what they’re talking about.

Students learn by that imitation of a teacher or even as I mentioned in the seminar imitation of the teacher who gives guidance to a conversation around a text, which we are imitating.

We’re sort of learning how to conduct an argument by reading Madison or Hamilton in the Federalist Papers, right? To see how an argument is unpacked. That art of education, those arts, if you will, the liberal arts, are so at odds with the science that was attempting to kind of perfectly measure and quantify and then really identify the individuals capacities so that they can place them in a proper vocational track.

So that we can find out, and again, I’m sympathetic to what they were attempting. You’ve got waves of immigrants, you’ve got this explosion of the inner cities. These kids are probably running a mock, so they’re trying to put them in schools and give them something to do. It’s a social service effectively.

Trinko: Well, and also it’s a struggle we still have today. How can we be sure schools are effective if there’s not one test?

Jackson: That’s right. That’s right. And we’re so deeply … in that vein. In other words, we can’t even stop and question it. Occasionally we do.

But I’m suggesting that at the beginning of the 20th century, the move toward this efficiency is kind of social political improvement that’s actually there in what we often refer to as the progressive mode that schools are going to actually bring about the reform of society and we will institute certain features of the schools to improve on society.

And so, really, at the low point of this work or one of the low points, hygiene, and think of all types of activities, life skills they were referred to in the 1950s are the result of this trying to turn education into a smorgasbord of skills given to students through the institutions of schools as opposed to thinking very closely and carefully about the arts of language and mathematics and the sciences, the liberal arts, as the fundamental or the essential thing that schools were to give to students.

So, I would say what most Americans are living with. These liberal arts, K-12 schools are pretty rare, but [what] most Americans are living with is some version of the progeny, the intellectual, or institutional progeny, of a progressive turn where education is fundamentally about a science, measured for the purposes of social reform, so as to equip the next generation with skills. And I’m not talking about language skills per se. Just sort of give them what they have to do to get the job.

I mean, how often have we heard college- and career-ready? I mean, that’s just a mantra and I’m thinking to myself, what do you mean by that? Or creative thinking, right? Or communications, right? What do you mean by that? If you’ve ever tried to dig down on some of the kind of more popular catch phrases in education, there’s not much there.

And if I were to say, “Let’s go ahead and talk about what it means to think and respond critically to a particular proposition. Let’s talk about logic. Let’s talk about fallacies.” At that point, most of my colleagues in this more progressive van are saying, “What?” Just critical thinking, critical thinking, right? Be creative, learn to communicate. All of that is, again, desirable, but it’s done by this process, this artful process, of imitation to masters.

Trinko: So lastly, I know that you guys stop at 12th [grade] but I’d say the college admissions scandal has shaken a lot of people and it’s made them question what is the state of education in the U.S. today? These universities that were seen as the top universities, apparently students were able to, whether knowingly or not, cheat and yet pass their classes—cheat to get in that is. Do you think that has a larger message about the state of education in the United States and if so, how do we fix this?

Jackson: I said to you that a successful graduate that I would be proud of—I think that anyone in our schools would be proud of—would be humble. I should’ve said honest. Let me add that to the list.

Trinko: Not cheating on tests. OK.

Jackson: That’s right. I did say virtuous, right? I did say virtuous and [there’s] no virtue in that. Just as soon as we’re at the place where students think it’s just about passing the exam or getting the admissions or checking the next academic box so that I can pave my way, I’m back to the idea of an education that is purely for the utility. Just get me what I want. This is just, again, it’s a mile marker that I have to pass to get to the place where I want to be, which is comfortable with a good-paying job.

Everyone wants a good-paying job. I’m not in any way speaking ill of that. In fact, here at [The Heritage Foundation], I’m excited at the prospect of what I think liberal education has to offer to the entrepreneurial position that we want to encourage in our society. People who think, as we say, outside the box, who are just creative and driven to think of solutions that haven’t yet been considered. And that might well be the new new thing, right?

… I think Google and Microsoft and others are now saying this, they’re hiring liberally educated young people. Imagine if we educated in that fashion from kindergarten, not when they turn 18 and go off to college.

But to the scandal, I mean, there’s no integrity. … How do these people look [at] themselves in the mirror knowing that they rigged it and had their parents help them? Their parents were in on it, too. There’s no integrity.

Now, I’m not going to sit here like a scold and wag my finger. I get it. That’s sort of, that’s the way of the world, if you will, today. But if these schools continued to grow and thrive, these classical schools, I know that they will produce a generation that knows the difference between the utility, because our students are getting SAT, average SAT like 1260, average.

… Again, keep in mind we have 19,000 students we serve and anyone who knows statistics knows that the mean is drawn to the extreme. So even in our extreme, that is to say, if you look at our whole population, look at that bell curve, 1260, not a bad SAT.

I think that our students should come out on the far end of a Great Hearts education with an understanding that the utility’s there, because I’m studying language, I’m learning arguments, and I know my math. And I’ve studied math for seven years in a prep school. My sciences, I’ve studied those deeply. All of that is going to equip me to enter college, but the fact is I have to enter college on my own merits and there’s more to college and the experience of engaging with my professors and my peers than just checking that next box.

I hope that our graduates will be truly reflective in their college years and that they would know that if they were to cheat to make entrance and to somehow succeed at the college level, they would only be cheating themselves, right? That true integrity of mind and heart would require them to be honest and to use whatever talents they have for the benefit of others.

Trinko: OK. Robert Jackson, again, chief academic officer of Great Hearts Academies, which has 30 charter schools now across Arizona and Texas, thanks so much for joining us.

Jackson: Thank you for having me.