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How Classical Education Can Rescue America From Progressive Disaster

Battle for the American Mind book cover
Image CreditBrookside Books/Screenshot

In the book ‘Battle for the American Mind,’ Fox News host Pete Hegseth has joined forces with David Goodwin to explain how progressive education is ruining America — and how classical education can fix it.

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In “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” the Great Lion Aslan, with the help of the four Pevensie children, defeats the White Witch and saves the magical land of Narnia. One earth year later, in “Prince Caspian,” the children return to Narnia to find a thousand years have passed and Narnia is now ruled by a human race known as the Telmarines. Though Caspian is a good king, he is killed by his evil brother Miraz, who usurps the throne.

Not content merely to seize military and political power, Miraz erases from historical memory both Aslan and the earth children, and cancels the talking animals, walking trees, and living streams created by Aslan at the beginning. Having no heir, Miraz raises his brother’s son Caspian as his own, but he makes sure that the boy will never learn about Aslan or the children. The boy’s nurse, however, who is a secret follower of Aslan, tells Caspian stories of Narnia’s supernatural, heroic past. When the boy questions his uncle about that past, the usurper immediately shouts him down, warning him never to speak, or think, about such things again.

Like the progressives of today, Miraz knows that the best way to control the hearts and minds of the masses is to isolate them from their true past. For Miraz, that means disconnecting the Narnians from their faith in the divine Aslan and his father, the Great Emperor Beyond the Sea, denying the existence of talking animals and children from other worlds, and deconstructing all fixed notions of good and evil, especially as embodied by Aslan and the White Witch. For progressives, it means removing all traces of religion in general and Christianity in particular from the classroom, relegating the noble achievements of our Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian forebears to the trash heap of history, and relativizing the meaning of words like goodness, truth, beauty, and justice.

I have known for some time that progressive educators, politicians, and judges unleashed just such a program in America’s public schools over the course of the 1960s and ’70s. What I did not know until I read Pete Hegseth’s new book, “Battle for the American Mind: Uprooting a Century of Miseducation,” was that this program has been going on for over a century. It was not in the 1960s but the 1860s that the battle for American schools began. The progressive takeover did not start with the removal of the Bible and prayer from schools; their removal marked the successful culmination of that takeover.

The Western Christian Paideia

As Hegseth, co-host of “Fox & Friends” and author of “In the Arena,” “American Crusade,” and “Modern Warriors,” documents, the progressives of the 19th century knew that they could not remake America in their own image until they had radically reshaped the culture of the nation. They could secure themselves key positions in Washington, the media, the major industries, and even the universities, but if they could not find a way to seize the reins of education at the grade school level, they would never be able to accomplish their long-term agenda.

But to do that, to take control of K-12 education, they would first have to remove the one obstacle that could stop them: the Western Christian Paideia (WCP). Paideia, a Greek word that means both instruction and enculturation, was invented by the ancient Athenians who knew that they could not preserve their democracy without passing down their culture to morally self-regulating citizens who could think logically and act nobly. They accomplished that goal through an educational system steeped in tradition that shaped its pupils in accordance with universal standards of reason and virtue.

This paideia passed down, via Alexander the Great, from the Greek democracy to the Roman republic, and was later taken up by the church to form the WCP on which medieval Christendom was built, out of which the Renaissance and Reformation were born, and by which both Britain and America achieved their freedom and stability.

“Paideia, simply defined,” Hegseth explains, “represents the deeply seated affections, thinking, viewpoints, and virtues embedded in children at a young age, or, more simply, the rearing, molding, and education of a child.” On the basis of this paideia, the Western world established a “vision of ‘the good life’ [that] went virtually unchanged and unchallenged for centuries. It was tied to traditional families, church, communities, industriousness, and a virtuous population.” It was that vision, and the WCP on which it was founded and sustained, that the progressives systematically rooted out of American schools.

Because of that rooting out, writes Hegseth, “our modern vision of the good life has been nearly universally transformed into the freedom of personal choice, control of your identity, being accepted for who you are, finding adventure, and creating your own path in life.” Of course, the move from WCP to radical, relativistic, subjectivistic individualism did not happen overnight. Progressives moved more slowly and cautiously than that, replacing the WCP that built our country with something less threatening but no less secular humanistic.

What that something was is perhaps the greatest, and most disturbing, surprise of “The Battle for the American Mind”: “American exceptionalism, the pledge of allegiance, a strong affinity for the flag, and patriotism were the carriers they used early on to supplant the Western Christian Paideia.” As it turns out, the original pledge did not include the words “under God”; those words were added by Eisenhower during the Cold War to distinguish America from the (literally) godless communism of the Soviet Union. Today, flag, pledge, and patriotism are preserves of conservatives like Hegseth and myself, but that is only because the progressives were more than happy to give them over once they had rid the schools of the WCP.

Until the 1960s, the progressives were content to push what Hegseth dubs the American Progressive Paideia (APP). Increasingly since that time, however, they have indoctrinated American youth with a far more radical Marxist Cultural Paideia (MCP). How did they manage to do this? By successfully breaching “four of the WCP’s core battlements, or towers — strong points in our defense that protected America’s republic: Reason, Virtue, Wonder, and Beauty.” In the absence of those four battlements, students, parents, and good teachers were left helpless to resist what I would call systemic progressivism — the domination of progressive ideas through their monopolistic control of teaching colleges, accrediting agencies, teachers unions, and the federal Department of Education.

The last decade has seen the triumph of the progressive overthrow of reason, with logic being demonized as a relic of white supremacy and oppression, the SAT being redesigned to test memorizable content rather than deep-seated rational thinking, and free speech giving way to shouting matches that label (and libel) the principles of the WCP as racist.

As for virtue, the progressives have replaced it with a series of pseudo-virtues (tolerance, equity, multiculturalism, environmentalism) that they call values. What is the difference? “Values are just ‘things we believe.’ They’re like answers on a memorization test, and they’re self-defined. Virtue, properly understood, is rooted in the affections of a person as they align to God’s affections.”

Meanwhile, as progressivism ate away at the ability of children to think and behave properly — in accordance with divine, universal standards — it flattened their hearts and imaginations by ridiculing wonder and relativizing beauty. “Every child’s heart is tuned to pursue the ideal, and the infinite.” In place of that central goal of the WCP, the APP gave instead “pragmatism (if it works, it’s good) and progressivism (make your own way that works, don’t pursue outdated ideals), as well as ‘child-centered’ learning (unbounded wonder that leaves students hollow).”

Why did Christian churches and citizens not halt the growth of the APP, whose inevitable offspring was the MCP? First, they became enamored themselves of pragmatism, with its focus on vocational training over liberal-arts training. Second, they bought the lie that the past, especially the medieval past, was dark, ignorant, and superstitious and that technological advances would bring about a utopian future of peace and plenty. Third, they allowed themselves to be distracted by the economy and politics and so forgot about education. Fourth, they emphasized a simple, rigid, rule-based morality rather than the proper cultivation of virtue, ordering of desires, and training of the affections.

True, many Christian churches did offer a counter-offensive in the form of faith-based private schools, but that effort mostly failed for one simple reason. Rather than recover the WCP, the great majority of Protestant and Catholic schools maintained the full APP, merely adding to it a chapel service and rules of behavior grounded in moralism and duty instead of reason and virtue. “[T]hey relied upon progressive institutions to train their teachers, inform their curriculum, and earn accreditation. While God was at least in the schools, the pedagogy was still progressive.”

Replacing Delusion with Virtue

Hegseth paints a pretty dire picture, but he does not leave us without hope. About 40 years ago, concerned parents and educators across the nation re-discovered the WCP in the form of classical Christian schools. The schools they started returned education to its classical, liberal-arts roots in the reading of and wrestling with the Great Books, and in the instilling of reason and virtue. They brought back the foundational teaching of Latin, and replaced progressivist social studies with the real teaching of history. 

It should come as no surprise that Hegseth’s seminal game-changing book began with the spiritual and intellectual journey of his co-author, David Goodwin. Goodwin, concerned with the future of America, left his rising career in the tech industry to found the classical Christian Ambrose School in Boise, Idaho. After serving as headmaster from 2003-2014, Goodwin transitioned to being the president of the Association of Classical Christian Schools, the main accrediting agency for the classical Christian schools that Hegseth holds up as the main weapon for taking back not only our schools but the Western Christian Paideia.

As Hegseth explains, it was Goodwin who alerted him to the danger and on whose research he constructed “The Battle for the American Mind.” Indeed, to flesh out more fully the concerns raised in the book, Hegseth, with Goodwin as his main consultant, put together a five-part miniseries on Fox Nation titled “The Miseducation of America.” Both book and miniseries are essential resources for anyone who wants to understand the roots of the progressive takeover of our schools and culture, and how we can fight back.

I began this review by referencing C. S. Lewis’s “Prince Caspian.” I end with a quote from his “The Abolition of Man,” a prophetic book written in 1943 that saw the dangers of a progressive dismantling of the WCP long before Hegseth or Goodwin were born. In fact, in two parallel sentences from chapter three of that book, Lewis expresses succinctly the difference between the worldviews of the WCP and progressivism:

For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique.

Anyone who visits a classical Christian school will perceive at once that knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue lie at the core of the curriculum and are evidenced in student behavior. At most public schools, in contrast, the focus will not be on how children can learn to live in keeping with the world, the gifts, the limits, and the sexuality given them by their Creator, but on how they can alter reality to suit their own whims and desires.

The difference could not be starker. Which one we choose to support and nurture will determine our future as a nation and a people.