Changing America with Classical Education


Changing America with Classical Education

May 31, 2023 24 min read
Kevin D. Roberts, PhD


Heritage Trustee since 2023
Atstock Productions/Getty Images

In the last few decades, higher education has undergone a fundamental transformation. The monk-like scholars once responsible for the education of America’s young adults have been replaced, by and large, with woke, self-serving political activists.

Classical education, employed by colleges and charter schools across the nation, uses logical reasoning and the great texts of the Western world to educate their pupils and fight the woke mind-virus infecting public education.

Dr. Larry Arnn—the twelfth president of Hillsdale College—joins a special episode of The Kevin Roberts Show, filmed at the 50th Anniversary of The Heritage Foundation, for a candid discussion about the state of both education and the federal government.

Dr. Larry Arnn: The problems in education today start with the fact that we don’t know what it is. We think it’s something we’re doing to people. It’s not. It’s something they’re doing and it takes energy and focus. It’s hard. And if they don’t want to do it, they can’t do it. And so thank God by nature, they do want to do it.

Kevin Roberts: Welcome back to The Kevin Roberts Show. We have been doing the show for a year or so. Thanks for being part of it. If you’re not yet a subscriber, please do that. And remember, the one principle of socialism we subscribe to is if you’re going to give us a rating, and we hope that you do give us all five stars. I think you’re going to be ready to do that after you listen to this conversation with a friend of mine, a member, longtime member of the board at The Heritage Foundation. If you’re watching this and not listening to it, then you will notice the sets are little bit different because we’re recording this at our 50th anniversary celebration outside, just outside the swamp. But all of that to say this is going to be a wide ranging conversation between a native of Arkansas and a native of Louisiana. My Arkansas friend, Dr. Larry Arnn, President of Hillsdale. Thanks for joining me.

Arnn: Just a couple of cousins here.

Roberts: Actually, that’s probably more true than people not from Arkansas and Louisiana might realize. Thanks for being here.

Arnn: Good, thank you. Great.

Roberts:You are... and I don’t do the patronizing thing, especially to people from Arkansas. You are, I think the leader of the movement for common sense, conservatism, certainly the leader of classical liberal arts education. So we have a lot of ground to cover. But Larry, I mean when I say it that when I need really good advice about the state of things in the world, not necessarily heritage business or particular policies, but just the landscape. Sort of an injection of common sense you’re the first person I call. And I think our audience would benefit from your answer to this question, what’s the state of America right now?

Arnn: Let me repay your compliment. I’ve been slavishly devoted to The Heritage Foundation for 464 years now, and you’re the best. And there’s momentum and we’re so glad. I’m so glad that you’re running the thing. What’s the state of America? It’s 1858 right now. What that means is there are major forces, maybe even dominant forces, and they have reinterpreted the Declaration of Independence, which means they’ve adjusted the final cause of the nation and they have changed how we make our laws and how our governments operate. They’ve changed it in two main ways.

They’ve turned the structure of it upside down. Most of the power is at the center now, but it was not supposed to be that way and wasn’t for most of our history. And they make the laws now through experts and administrative agencies, which means the government is unaccountable, literally. Now they’re messing with elections, which is the final step because in our system, the only way the American people have to control the government is through elections. “It’s a purely representative form,” Madison writes in the 63rd Federalist.

So in other words, these are grim times. We could lose our freedom over this. And that’s why it’s important for us to understand that freedom, get to work and support The Heritage Foundation.

Roberts: Thank you for that. And I’ll add to that, Hillsdale College. We’ll get to education in Hillsdale in particular momentarily. But first let’s talk about what you and I and probably tens of millions of Americans would say is the greatest enemy, not opponent, enemy to self-governance. And that’s the administrative state. Is it from your perspective in the hinterland so to speak, as bad as it seems, that is the reach of the administrative state into the lives of Americans who live hundreds and thousands of miles away from DC?

Arnn: Well, it certainly is palpable now. I wrote a long article in the National Review a long time ago about motorcycle riding, which I do. And I noticed something, because it’s a very contemplative activity, motorcycle riding.

Roberts: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

Arnn: That’s right. And I just noticed that when you go into these little towns, just about all of them, there’s usually some building that’s outer character with the rest, more recent and it’s some kind of federal installation. And there was no place for that in America before. There’s a Faulkner novel, by the way about that, about how news from the federal government almost never arrived. And yet it was important. So the point is it’s everywhere now, it’s just that the structure is not complete yet. And that means there isn’t somebody everywhere ready to arrest you, which will come if it goes this way. And some judge appointed to be friendly to the arrest. In other words, there’s still latitude spread around the country. And that will go if we don’t win some battles.

Roberts: And we’ll talk about some of those battles, political policy battles, which of course the latter being the real lane for heritage. But one of the things that I’ve been trying to emphasize, and I think you and your faculty, your many alumni at Hillsdale, don’t just talk about, but you all exemplify, is the attitude the individual America needs to have toward the administrative state. In other words, it isn’t just enough. Let’s say heritage is perfectly implementing all of our policy priorities. And that’s an impossibility because we’re a human enterprise. Even if that’s happening, there needs to be, it seems to me a shift in attitude. Maybe one of skepticism at the very least by individual Americans. Is that right first of all? And secondly, if it is, and I guess if it isn’t, what advice do you have?

Arnn: Well, here’s an obvious political thing and political debate turns on this a lot now. If you listen to Democrats argue with Republicans, if they ever do, it’s a healthy thing to hold politicians in contempt. But they’re the only ones we can control. So they should do their jobs. That is to say they should pass laws. And if by the way the laws were made in the current Congress, there wouldn’t be so many of them because the Congress today passes about the same number of laws that in a year as it did in 1850. And that means that more laws would be local. But in this administrative state and see Congress is complicit in this, right? So here’s the breathtaking scale of the breakdown we’ve had.

Madison writes in what the 51st Federalists that “Politicians will protect their interests, and so the legislative branch will protect the legislative power against the executive branch. And that worked like a charm. The interest of the man and the duty of the place will be brought together” he says. But now what they figured out was we can give the legislative power to this bureaucracy and that will help us to avoid difficult things and we can control more of the society. And so they’ve finagled that and they’re guilty for it. But now they’re not as powerful as they used to be. It’s not clear that they could change it by themselves.

So one simple prescription is restore the legislative power to the Congress. Now, one of the world’s greatest experts on that is working for you now, and a student of mine, Paul Ray, and I never thought that boy would amount to anything but he-

Roberts: Tennessee boy. I mean there’s reason for that, right?

Arnn: Isn’t that weird? He’s a little English nerd. But he clicked on for Alito on the Supreme Court and he went to Harvard Law School because I made him, because he wanted to go to Duke because he wanted to go on the South. I said, what do you want to do, wear white suits and drink mint juleps? He was the regulatory czar and he’s working for you now. And he’s the one who knows the sensitive points in getting political control. Because remember, politics is a terrible word. It’s just the only way for free people to govern themselves. So we need to return to politics, to the argument among and before citizens, the question of what policy to adopt. And that’s wrong. And that’s why it’s so dangerous today.

Roberts: So with that cue to step into the policy world, let’s start among some discreet policy issues, we might cover with our shared passion, and that’s education. What’s the federal government’s role in education? What should it be?

Arnn: The federal government’s job, critical job is that every 200 years it has to elect Abraham Lincoln, President. And that he can explain to the American people what life is for. That’s its only function.

Roberts: I love that answer.

Arnn: And you know, it’s not doing that job anymore. Now it’s doing others. And I love to say this, in Article 1 Section 8 there are, if I remember correctly, 17 clauses. That’s the paragraphs. That is the clause that tells what the Congress can do. 17 things. By the way, the groupings are interesting. Because what they can do is national defense. That’s half of them. Then they can do a national system of commerce among the states. And then they can do control the territory on which the federal government operates. That’s where the military bases and the post offices are. And that’s it. Right?

So not education. And I love to say that that cannot have been an accident. They left it out for two reasons. One is the Northwest Ordinance. The law of the Congress under the confederation was passed in the summer that the Constitution was being written in the same city. And the second is the founders were not like so many politicians today. They actually had an education.

Roberts: That is one of our big problems facing American society.

Arnn: They knew stuff. And they’re full of the most beautiful quotes of learning. Learning is sublime. Only human beings do it. And it’s alongside worship. It’s the highest human activity. It’s all important. It was all important to them. It just was not an administrative subject for a central government. And I can tell you the reason for that. I’ve learned a lot working in a college and I’ve learned how it works. The learning is in the soul of each individual student. And teachers are there to help. Anybody far away, can’t be much help. And any regulation you pass, so let’s say my job is to... I’m a teacher, which means I can command some respect at Hillsdale College. But let’s say I regulate education. I’d be a dang fool if I did any serious thing except in close cooperation with the people who are actually going to do it. They know their discipline, but that’s not their real title. Their real title is they’re with the one in the room who’s trying to learn.

And that means to remove authority to a distant place is insanity. And just to show the model for good legislation is in American history. The greatest laws passed in human history are passed in America. And one of them is the Northwest Ordinance, which sets up resources for the public schools among other things. And it gives those resources to the states. And the only regulation, 16th section of each township across this vast territory to the west with nobody at the time they passed it, knew how big it was. It belonged to the federal government, the land was to be sold to get money to pay off the Revolutionary War debt, not to spend for the government.

And then later, by the way, the Homestead Act, then they started giving the land away. Didn’t sell it anymore. They had the debt paid. So the 16th section of each township is reserved for education in that township as an endowment to the States. And if they accept it, they’re obliged to, I can show you where the 16th section in Hills Town Township is. I haven’t done it. But if you track the deed all the way back, it’ll show that transaction. And that means that they wanted it to happen and it had to be localized. Because it happens in the soul of each one.

Roberts: There are so many aspects to that, and thank you for that explanation, which we need to amplify many, many times over the next several years. So many aspects to that question. But one of them, which is I think the most striking, perhaps the most important, is the remarkable commitment that American civil society has made to the equal opportunity to an education. This is something that is distinctive, if not unique in world history. And I think, I would hope that friends on the political left appreciate that about it. Of course, I spend my time thinking about how those of us on the political right straddling one leg in the policy world and one leg in the intellectual world, trying to fuse this together into something that’s a durable majority politically, how we should be talking about that commitment to education in spite of the fact that the model that we use for education is so deficient?

Arnn: The problems in education today start with the fact that we don’t know what it is. And-

Roberts: That’s a problem.

Arnn: It is. It’s very difficult to get good at the thing if you mistake what it is. And the mistake we make is characteristic of everything in the government. We think it’s something we’re doing to people. It’s not. It’s something they’re doing and it takes energy and focus. It’s hard. And if they don’t want to do it, they can’t do it. And so thank God by nature, they do want to do it. But that means the energy is in that one. And that means then that the great thing is attention to each one. Because they will tell you what they need.

I teach at the college and when I started, I didn’t know how to do it. I was a show pony. There’s some stuff I know a lot about, I spent 40 years learning it, and I could stand up and talk about that stuff all day and I would just make them yawn. It was devastating.

Roberts: Your ego couldn’t handle it.

Arnn: Oh man. There’s a daughter of a three-star general, Ron Burgess is his name. Regina Burgess is his daughter’s name. She’s a mother now and a grownup. And she’s salutatorian of her class. And early first month I worked at Hillsdale College, I told a beautiful story about Winston Churchill. It’s one of the best I know. And she yawned in the middle of it.

Roberts: How dare she?

Arnn: And I went home and Penny said, how’s class? And I said, Ooh. And she said, why? And I said, I tell them the most beautiful things I know. And they yawn.

Roberts: This is totally unacceptable.

Arnn: And she just said, “I think you should figure out how not to have that happen.” And I said, well, I did figure it out. Always ask them first and never tell them anything until you’ve asked them something. A great way to start a class is you walk in and say, what are we doing today? They’re supposed to know, at Hillsdale they do. And they say, and I say, okay, tell us about that. And then when they talk a bit, then you say to somebody else, do you agree with that? It breaks into a brawl and it takes three minutes and now we’re all doing it. And you’re not in control of the class anymore.

You have to learn to guide it the way you’d guide some big ship going down a fast river. You just have a little influence here and there.

Roberts: A lot of prayer, right?

Arnn: And that’s the joy. And I mean, just read the Socratic dialogues. Aren’t they awesome? And they’re one of the greatest intellectual achievements in human history. Because you know, your Plato, in the seventh letter, Plato wrote seven letters. And one of them seems to be true and partly they all are. In the seventh, he says... he’s an arrogant little guy. And he says... It’s a paraphrase, “No one could write what Socrates said. They were conversations. But if somebody could figure it out, I can.”

And he did. So anyway, in other words, and see that’s what we’re made to do. We talk, talking and thinking are the same thing, just one of them louder. And so you want to get that going in your class. And then they participate. And by the way, online learning is valuable. This is valuable. People learn something. And anyway, we’ll amuse them.

Roberts: We’re trying.

Arnn: But the sublime thing, it’s dinner conversation at home. There’s no higher human experience than a really great class. And it’s a product of everyone in it. And everyone should get a chance to have that experience. And it’ll change you. And it changes and everybody changes each other. So what’s good for me in my career, in my life is that I never... unlike you, I’ve lived a weird life. I’ve never applied for a job in my life. People don’t know. But we went and got Kevin Roberts. He was too lazy to volunteer.

Roberts: Louisiana.

Arnn: I get to see how people work right in front of me, and they’re very worthy people, and you just love them. And if you love them, they know it. And then you can do anything with them. Today at your conference, I talked about how often we beat the students. And I don’t mind them hearing that because I love them and they know it.

Roberts: And I was standing in the back of the room, several hundred people, maybe a thousand in the audience, and knowing several of the Hillsdale alumni there, and all of them that I know turn to one another. And they’re nodding knowingly. And I turned to one of them who’s a close colleague at Heritage. And I said, is that true? He said, “absolutely.”

Arnn: Yeah. Well, beating is not always a physical phenomenon.

Roberts: That’s correct. It can be an intellectual beating in a very subtle Socratic way. Right?

Arnn: Sure.

Roberts: And I guess one question maybe on behalf of the audience, especially for people who aren’t familiar with classical liberal arts education, is it, to use a business word scalable? In other words, what I hear often, and I heard it when I was starting my classical liberal arts school K-12. And then as you know, I led Wyoming Catholic College in many respects, modeled off of Hillsdale. That people didn’t know it. And it created a certain skepticism toward it, meaning that maybe it’s education just for the elites. You get that question a lot.

Arnn: Yeah. And that’s what you learn to do. I mean, first of all, Hillsdale College is cussedly expensive, and we spent way too much money on these worthless kids.

Roberts: What a marketing tag.

Arnn: Yeah, you know. But having said that, the work is in them. And it’s about things that everybody wants to know and needs to know for their entire lives. That’s the curriculum, you see. And so there’s more than one way to do it. At the elite level where you provide a residence and food and care about their behavior. That’s a pain. Nobody should do that. But it’s joyous too. So that’s what expensive. And then also, it doesn’t produce anything except love and wisdom. And-

Roberts: Hard to measure, right?

Arnn: That’s right. But here’s why it can be done. It just starts with the obvious fact that everyone by nature wants to understand things that always prevail. Everybody wants to know that. And especially the young, they actually don’t have an interest in much else. Because, you know, what do they care... I mean, the policy battles are so grim and so consequential now that everybody’s got to care about them, but also in their terms, they’re born stupid too.

Roberts: A lot of that.

Arnn: Yeah. And so on the other hand, sit down with a bunch of kids in the dining hall, my favorite sport. I’m the old guy who always sits with the young.

Roberts: Are you an elite athlete in that sport?

Arnn: Oh man, I’m telling you, torturing the young, I’m Olympic gold year after year. And so you sit down and they expect me. At first, I was afraid 23 years ago, but you sit down with them and they kind of roll their eyes and they have a verb report, they call it being armed. So I just listen. I just join the conversation. They’re just talking about anything. And they’re very alive to the fact that I’m sitting there. And then at some point, they’ll say they’re doing something and somebody will ask them why. And sometimes I will add a question or two, the why question. And you never have to ask that question more than three times, I’ve counted. And they will respond that it is a good thing. In some way of language or other why are you doing that? It’s always for the same reason. It’s always because it seems good.

And then you say, what is it for a thing to be good? And they didn’t see it coming. Just like in the Socratic dogma, they never see it coming. And then they roll their eyes and they’ve all memorized Aristotle’s answer to it. A good thing is the thing that is fully itself, its kind of thing. It has all its attributes. And they learn to say that, right? And it’s a good answer, but I always disagree with it. And then everybody’s, “Oh, now we’re going to figure this out.”

Well, that’s just natural human conversation. And it happens all the time, and everybody is interested in it. Nobody is bored. And so-

Roberts: It’s possible everywhere is what you’re implying.

Arnn: Anywhere. And see, here’s a good thing, because it can be achieved by anyone who’s not incompetent, only a few people are. That means it can be done without additional cost. The bad news is it’s kind of hard because you have to train, you have to think. And see the ed schools, they’re just a blight on the landscape and the money they spend and what they do with it, if you just took half of that, you turn out a limitless number of classical teachers.

Roberts: Schools of education aren’t just wasteful with resources, they’re harmful to society.

Arnn: Distorting. And see, sometimes I wonder... one of my favorite classicist person is the college professor. I was afraid of them, one of the reasons I never worked in a college. Reluctant to work in this one. I have figured out that if they’re good and ours are good, extremely worthy people.

Roberts: They are.

Arnn: They are used to being smartest people they know. They’re all like that. They’re just rocket scientists.

Roberts: That’s a universal attribute among-

Arnn: That’s it. And then if they wanted to go to law school or med school, they’d go to the best. Instead, they decide to take up some subject that will never make them rich, and they know they’ll never get to the top of it. So it’s a kind of a pilgrimage. Now, what destroyed that? Is that the progressives and the movements of philosophy in the last 200 years has persuaded them that they ought to become powerful. You have to control, you have to guide, you have to shape, see. And then added to that, they’re the only ones qualifying. So what we’ve done is we’ve taken a bunch of monks and we’ve turned them into a bunch of tyrants. And the ones that are still monks-

Roberts: Are wonderful.

Arnn: Well, I mean, I’ve got this... I could tell you stories about the faculty. First of all, I interviewed three faculty members for every job. And that means 23 years, more than 500 of them. I know a lot about them now. First I did it because I was curious. I’d never worked in a college before, I didn’t know how to do it. And then I found out, wow, this is cool. And it’s better and better as the years go on. And there’s one of my guys, he’s one of my favorites. I won’t say his name, you’ll know who he is, but he looks a little like Abe Lincoln, and he’s a wicked dancer, and he’s got a fabulous sense of humor. And he teaches theology. And what a weird guy.

Roberts: Hence he shall remain nameless.

Arnn: Yeah. Yeah. So what that means is it’s actually true that education is not something we need to do professionally. We need to all do it. Every parent needs to do it. And what a joy that you could see and see this idea of delegating to strangers, the informing and upbringing of your children. I think we’re seeing right now that it didn’t work out very well. So what it would take to restore classical education to its authority is just for us to all take it up again.

Roberts: Where should someone start? So say there’s a parent listening or watching this who has three children at home, not quite college age, and they’re inspired. What are the two or three things they need to start with?

Arnn: Well, the first thing is, you want to find out what a thing is, do it. Go read a good book. Make it a really good book. You’ll find it difficult. You’ll have to read it many times. Then you’ll start remembering it, and then you’ll digest it. And then one day, not very far from now, you’ll burst into tears over the beauty of it. Give yourself that experience and then give it to your children.

Roberts: Does Hillsdale have a list of those books there?

Arnn: Oh yeah.

Roberts: So

Arnn: Yeah. And another thing is schools are a natural phenomenon, and we need good schools. They’re not necessary, but they’re good. And so we are now advising 80 some charter schools, and we have a complete curriculum that we’ve developed, and it’s been tested in these schools. And what I think 12 years of effort has gone into it now. And it’s really good, by the way, it was just substantially adopted by the State of South Dakota.

Roberts: Congratulations.

Arnn: States are doing that now. And it’s very controversial when it happens. But the truth is, you can go see that on our website and start your way through it. And it’s awesome. And we do online courses and they don’t cost anything, and we don’t ask you for money. They’re very popular. I mean, three and a half million people, I think. But it’s why are they popular? Old people on a little bitty screen talking about complicated stuff, excellent. People like it. If you delegate all the responsibility in your life, including your children to specialists, there will be nothing left for you to do. And people are seeing that now.

Roberts: Well, we could continue this for hours, which we-

Arnn: Will. All the time.

Roberts: ... occasionally do. Yes, that’s right. But time for one last question, which I’ve been really looking forward to. It’s a question that is the customarily last question for every guest, and that is why they woke up optimistic this morning. But a pre-question, I’m not sure, you did wake up that optimistic this morning. You’re one of the great realists I know.

Arnn: Yeah. No, I studied Winston Churchill. Your outlook on the future is always the same. It’s going to be hell. And then we’re going to win. So I am optimistic. Yeah. And I’m like you. One thing people should know who don’t get to come to The Heritage Foundation is there’s a lot of splendid people working in. It’s a fine community of people.

Roberts: Every last one of them.

Arnn: And they should know that about it. And you get to run that thing now, and you’re making it better. Well, that’s a privilege, right? Well, I have possibly a more privileged job than you. And that’s because my job is to torture the young, and there’s nothing but pleasure and inspiration in that. And so how would you be pessimistic if that’s what you did often? So yeah, I’m optimistic, except I expect it to be held.

Roberts: So, the lesson for the audience, yes, times are challenging. And yes, there may be some additional challenges, but we will prevail.

Arnn: So, excuse me, so Winston Churchill said once in Canada in 1942 when the thing was not worn yet, he said, “We have not traveled all this way across the oceans, across the mountains, across the prairies, because we are made of sugar candy.”

Roberts: What a great way to conclude this conversation. Dr. Larry Arnn, thanks for being here. Thanks for what you do.

Arnn: Thank you.

Roberts: Thanks for joining this episode of The Kevin Roberts Show. As I promised, I know you like this conversation with Dr. Larry Arnn. If you’re not familiar with Hillsdale, I don’t know how you would be in that situation. Be sure to look them up at Most importantly, keep your chin up. We’re going to win. See you next time.

The Kevin Roberts Show is brought to you by more than half a million members of The Heritage Foundation. The producer is Philip Reynolds. Sound design by Lauren EvansMark Guiney, and Tim Kennedy