Great Hearts: Working to Restore American Education

"To cultivate the minds and hearts of students through the pursuit of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty” – this is the core purpose of Great Hearts, a nonprofit that manages 33 tuition-free K-12 charter schools throughout Arizona and Texas and is looking to open its eighth Texas campus next year. Co-founded by Daniel Scoggin and beginning as a single school in a rental facility with 120 students, GH currently enrolls approximately 19,000 students.

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According to Robert Jackson, the chief academic officer and director for the Institute for Classical Education, GH’s uniqueness lies in its belief in three principles: “the integration of intellectual and moral virtue, the use and close reading of primary sources, and a pedagogy of imitation, whereby masterful works become the standard to which students aspire.”

In 2006, Jackson developed an academic concentration based on these principles and aimed at revitalizing the 2,500-year tradition of classical education, in which teachers guide students through great works of philosophy, literature, and history by thinkers such as Plato, Erasmus, Shakespeare, and John Locke. 

Rather than offering a smorgasbord of classes from which students can pick and choose, Great Hearts mandates that all students take the same courses on languages, history, mathematics, literature, the sciences, and fine arts. By studying these essential subjects, students gain access to the same well-rounded education that great statesmen such as Winston Churchill and James Madison received.

GH’s classroom model is based on the Socratic approach, with teachers asking students a series of questions based on primary sources. Rather than slog through dry textbooks, students work together in a common pursuit to discuss foundational questions: What is justice? What is truth?

Jackson says that what makes this type of education distinctive is that it combines “intellectual achievement” with formation in moral excellence, without which “young minds” will “become egotistical and self-serving.” Intellectual abilities alone cannot tell a student what kind of life to lead or what goods to pursue.

In GH’s civic education courses, teachers carefully guide students through important Supreme Court cases, key founding texts such as The Federalist Papers, and landmark works such as Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. They trace how the Declaration of Independence’s promise of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” has extended to all Americans in the 244 years since our country’s birth. Teachers also emphasize the important role of rhetoric in promoting “the common good through persuasive speech that aims ever higher in pursuit of ‘a more perfect Union,’” Jackson says.

In a typical course, students begin by exploring the founding of the American republic and work backwards through the storied history of the “long-standing tradition of republics, democratic impulses, and common law” that Jackson says helped create the foundation for the American system. GH’s curriculum also focuses on the rhetoric necessary to sustain civil dialogue—a timely topic, given our often-explosive public discourse today.

Seeking faculty that have subject mastery, GH works to ensure that teachers have the proper training so that they are ready for the classroom on the first day. In particular, GH teachers “serve all students regardless of special needs, race, or family income.”

GH’s model has shown great success so far. Ninety-eight percent of its graduates attend college, with 44 percent going on to work in the STEM fields. Its alumni network is composed of nearly 1,000 undergraduate and graduate students, military personnel, and professionals. 

To expand upon these successes, Great Hearts Foundation was founded in 2017 under the leadership of Scoggin and Jackson. GHF’s goal is to help “increase national philanthropy” and “access resources to enhance the work and well-being of our students, families, and teachers.” Part of this outreach includes its flagship publication, Virtue, which brings the message of classical education to parents, teachers, and students throughout the United States.

Through a pedagogical model that has withstood the test of time, GH is working to restore American education, one student at a time.

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