As a lifelong educator and student of American educational history, I was intrigued by the announcement that Pete Hegseth of Fox fame (along with David Goodwin) had penned Battle for the American Mind: Uprooting a Century of Miseducation. Even more intriguing was the fact that it made the Number One spot on the New York Times Best-Seller List in June and remains on the list as of this writing. Its popularity is a testimony to the importance Americans attach to schooling, but even more so, to the current intense dissatisfaction with the government (aka, “public”) schools. But a few pages into the work, my enthusiasm dampened and morphed into general disappointment.1 However, let me highlight the good material before launching into a negative slide.
The first shock is the statistic that the average American child, from kindergarten through twelfth grade, will have spent 16,000 hours in a classroom. That’s a lot of time – and a lot of undiluted teacher influence – probably more than most parents have with their children at home – a point to which we shall return. Hegseth correctly cites the COVID experience as an inflection point as heretofore uninvolved parents got “woke” to the ideology being spoon-fed to their children (e.g., the 1619 Project), let alone the immorality. While we have known about the toxic nature of much university education for a long time (regrettably, including most of Catholic higher education), many were ignorant of the problem at the elementary and secondary levels – but those are the “feeders” for the universities and colleges. Cardinal Newman, having failed with his university project, concentrated his efforts at the two lower levels with his founding of The Oratory School.
Hegseth sees the whole scenario as so irreparable that he believes the only solution is to close down the governmental educational monopoly. To be sure, teachers are not mere robot-like conveyors of “information” (although information is essential), however, we must be on guard lest “formation” devolve into “indoctrination”), as it surely has in the vast majority of American government schools. Hence, a long-held conviction of mine that the government has no place in education. That notion, however, is not a brand-new insight of mine or Hegseth; it has an impressive pedigree, from John Stuart Mill in On Liberty (1898), to Milton Friedman in Capitalism and Freedom (1972). The starkest expression of this understanding comes from Samuel Blumenfeld in Is Public Education Necessary? (1981): “. . . In a free society government has no more place in education than it has in religion.” Expressing thoughts like this forty years ago was tantamount to blasphemy; it is now conversation du jour.
The tenth chapter (“How Classical Christian Education Works”) is arguably the best of the book. The discussion on human nature – and its God-ordained immutability – is spot-on. Hegseth observes that the task of an educator is to teach a child how to think, not what to think. Further, that youth today are “distressed and fearful, and often aimless.” How could it be otherwise when they have no grounding or rootedness? He takes direct aim at the “compartmentalization” or “specialization” of the educational scene, resulting in a lack of integration and tunnel vision, with students unable to see the forest for the trees. Of course, the problem is that most teacher education programs are weak and “woke,” producing weak and woke teachers.2
Astutely, Hegseth drills down on bad textbooks;3 going even farther, he argues against textbooks in favor of exposing students to texts, that is, original sources. He also calls for restoring memorization to a place of honor in curricula, as well as Latin. He underscores the fundamental weakness and inadequacy of charter schools, namely, that they cannot truly go “ad fontes,” to the real sources of knowledge found in the Judaeo-Christian Tradition; after all, they are “public” schools, from which “God-talk” is banished (unless it’s negative God-talk).
Tackling the viewpoint that exposure to good out-of-school religious education programs and weekly church services can counter the negative influence of the “public” school, he asserts – confidently and accurately: “A few hours a week in church – Sunday school and Wednesday nights – don’t stand a chance against more than forty hours a week in progressive schools.” That message needs to be internalized by many priests and bishops who still, naively and even obstinately against all the data, believe that “good” CCD can not only teach religion as effectively as a Catholic school but can also effectively serve as an antidote to the poison of the government schools. Even more sadly, not a few clerics are not even aware of the damage being wrought in the so-called “public” schools.
What is the primary obstacle to educational reform? Hegseth hits the bull’s eye: It is the teacher union lobby. And what is the solution to effect reform? Just as sharply, he identifies school choice. He ends with an appeal to parents and grandparents to do everything in their power to extricate their youngsters from the grip of an educational system only capable of producing what Thomas Merton in his Seven Storey Mountain termed “a generation of hyenas.”
Now, to the task of pointing out the many inadequacies of the work – which it pains me to do because I believe Hegseth and his co-author were motivated by nothing but the highest intentions.
The first glaring lacuna is the failure to discuss Catholic schools in America. Indeed, it is not possible to talk about American education, absent reference to Catholic schools. In point of fact, the first school in what is now the United States was founded by Franciscan friars at St. Augustine in Florida in 1606. To the present day, American Catholic schools represent the largest non-governmental school system in the world. The word “Catholic” does not even appear in the Index and, according to my count, the word itself appears only three times in the entire book.4 Hegseth is a “born-again” Christian (having lived a rather immoral life for a long time), and that brand of Christianity has a hard time acknowledging anything good coming from the Catholic Church (and is also way too “preachy”). Thus, as he demonstrates the centrality of Christianity for western education, one would never know from his telling that it was monasticism that produced the first schools, followed by cathedral schools, which eventually gave birth to the universities. In other words, western education is inseparable from Catholicism.5
Secondly, the text is clearly the work of two hands, discernible in style and vocabulary,6 about which more momentarily.
The word “paideia” is used dozens, probably hundreds of times, throughout the book, but it is never really defined. It is a mode of education and, in modern times, was popularized by Mortimer Adler of the University of Chicago with his “Paideia Proposal,” eventually enunciated in a body of principles, which surely should have been quoted.7 Hegseth notes that Adler, a secularist for most of his life, eventually became “a Christian.” In point of fact, he became a Catholic Christian – another example of the silencing of the voice of Catholicism so prevalent here. We are told that Western Christian Paideia (WCP) was “created for a self-governing people.” That is false; it was created to make saints for Heaven. Even more stunningly, we are told that WCP “was intentionally developed and cultivated beginning with the Greeks.” How could pagan Greeks make a Christian form of education? The seeds of such an education, absolutely, but not the final product. Again, sloppy scholarship.
The text suffers from tedious and unnecessary repetition as though various chapters were originally individual talks or essays then joined together, without doing the required careful editing.
While the break-up of “the Kingdom of Christ” (or Christendom) and the loss of “Christian art and music in the creative marketplace” are bemoaned, intellectual honesty does not seem to compel the authors to lay those sad developments at the door of the Protestant Reformation.
Several statements are made rather apodictically but are manifestly wrong. Some samples:
“Belief in God’s revelation must precede knowing anything.” From time immemorial, the Church has taught that logoi spermatikoi (seeds of the Word) can be found even among pagans because natural reason (although weakened due to the sin of our first parents) can be a guide to truth; in the modern era, this teaching found magisterial expression with Dei Filius at the First Vatican Council and in St. John Paul II’s encyclical, Fides et Ratio. Revelation and faith complete the search for truth, but unaided human reason can lead to that fulfillment.
“Lies. . . can be virtuous.” Aristotle and Aquinas, call your offices! One can never perform an evil act to bring about a good end; nor can an evil act ever be good, period.
Right and wrong are described as “a divine ideal.” No, right and wrong follow from both the natural law and the Decalogue. “Ideals” are praiseworthy goals but not mandates: To worship God, to honor one’s parents, to refrain from murder and theft are not mere “ideals” or pious suggestions; they are divine commandments.
Most disturbing are the numerous gaffes in sentence structure, basic vocabulary, and grammar. To wit:
• “theologist” presumably for “theologian”;
• the objective case of the personal pronoun “who” (“whom”) is seemingly unknown to the authors as it never makes a debut when it should have on several occasions;
• “first proto-Christian” (“proto” means “first”);
• Poseidon was a Greek god, not a Roman god;
• “Anglos” used for “Angles”;
• “levitates life”: What does that mean?
• “Boy, is this a lesson!” How’s that for professional writing?
These gaffes should not be causes for wonderment because Hegseth admits: “I write like I speak” (“like” should be “as”!). He also acknowledges his very poor academic formation through thirteen years of government schooling, followed by studies (and degrees) from Princeton and Harvard. Yet he notes he has never read Homer, Virgil, Plato, or Aristotle – and knows not a word of Latin or Greek. Further, “I can’t properly diagram a single sentence, and couldn’t tell you the difference between a verb and an adverb.” While the honesty is commendable, one can still marvel at the hubris which would allow someone with such notable deficiencies to author a book on the abysmal state of American education.
To sum up: Good points are made here, but they are clouded over by inexcusable errors. If a second edition of the work is on the horizon, I would suggest having a truly competent educator go over the entire book with a fine tooth comb – or else, just extract the tenth chapter and publish it as a worthwhile pamphlet.
My overall reaction? As I said at the outset, general disappointment. Or, as Our Lord cited the proverb, “Physician, heal thyself.”
Battle for the American Mind: Uprooting a Century of Miseducation
By Pete Hegseth and David Goodwin
Broadside Books/HarperCollins, 2022
1Caveat emptor: Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students (1987), this is not.
2Addressing this serious issue, the Archdiocese of Boston this year actively recruited graduates of the Newman Society-approved colleges as teachers. Similarly, two years ago, I launched a graduate program in Catholic school administration through Pontifex University.
3In this regard, the Catholic Textbook Project is extremely important.
4Unlike Hegseth, Blumenfeld, whom we met earlier, gets it right: “The Catholics were aware enough to see what it would all lead to and bolted the public school rather than accept the destruction of their faith.”
5Praise is given for the insertion of “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, and rightly so. However, proper credit is not given for that development: It was a campaign of the Knights of Columbus in 1951 that led to the formal adoption of the phrase in 1954. Was this omission genuine ignorance or another deliberate damnatio memoriae?
6This phenomenon was also apparent in the first encyclical of the present pontificate, Lumen Fidei, which was largely the work of Benedict XVI and “touched up” by Francis. The “two-hand” effort was not seamless then; nor is it now with Hegseth and Goodwin.
that all children can learn;
that, therefore, they all deserve the same quality of schooling, not just the same quantity;
that the quality of schooling to which they are entitled is what the wisest parents would wish for their own children, the best education for the best being the best education for all;
that schooling at its best is preparation for becoming generally educated in the course of a whole lifetime, and that schools should be judged on how well they provide such preparation;
that the three callings for which schooling should prepare all Americans are, (a) to earn a decent livelihood, (b) to be a good citizen of the nation and the world, and (c) to make a good life for oneself;
that the primary cause of genuine learning is the activity of the learner’s own mind, sometimes with the help of a teacher functioning as a secondary and cooperative cause;
that the three types of teaching that should occur in our schools are didactic teaching of subject matter, coaching that produces the skills of learning, and Socratic questioning in seminar discussion;
that the results of these three types of teaching should be (a) the acquisition of organized knowledge, (b) the formation of habits of skill in the use of language and mathematics, and (c) the growth of the mind’s understanding of basic ideas and issues;
that each student’s achievement of these results should be evaluated in terms of that student’s competencies and not solely related to the achievements of other students;
that the principal of the school should never be a mere administrator, but always a leading teacher who should be cooperatively engaged with the school’s teaching staff in planning, reforming, and reorganizing the school as an educational community;
that the principal and faculty of a school should themselves be actively engaged in learning;
that the desire to continue their own learning should be the prime motivation of those who dedicate their lives to the profession of teaching.
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Fr. Stravinskas identifies a sample of “three “statements are made rather apodictically but are manifestly wrong. One of these: “’Lies. . . can be virtuous.’ Aristotle and Aquinas, call your offices! One can never perform an evil act to bring about a good end; nor can an evil act ever be good, period.”
“Virtuous” might or might not be the wrong word, but the response is also at least incomplete. In his “Apologia Pro Vita Sua,” some 30 pages (section 8) of the larger Appendix (entitled “Answer in Detail to Mr. Kingsley’s Accusations”), St. John Henry Cardinal Newman unpacks this issue with numerous citations from past theologians and many others.
The general point is that while lying is not a virtue in itself, it can be only a discrete untruth without being a sin or violation of virtue. Newman explains, in part:
“Now, in the case of one of those special and rare exigencies or emergencies, which constitute the just a causa of dissembling or misleading, whether it be extreme as the defense of life, or a duty as the custody of a secret, or of a personal nature as to repel an impertinent inquirer, or a matter too trivial to provoke question, as in dealing with children or madmen, there seem to be four courses [“to say the thing that is not, a play upon words, evasion, silence”]:
As in responding to an SS stormtrooper who has no right to the demanded information—the untruth that “No, goon of Mr. Hitler, there are no Jews in my attic.” In the Catechism (1994) we read:
“Charity and respect for truth should dictate the response to every REQUEST FOR INFORMATION OR COMMUNICATION [italics]. The good and safety of others, respect for privacy, and the common good are sufficient reason for being silent about what ought not be known or for making use of a discrete language. The duty to avoid scandal often commands strict discretion. No one is bound to reveal the truth to someone who does not have the right to know it” (n. 2489).
Fr Stravinkas is entirely correct to note that the gaffes noted are the biggest problem. Typos are one thing; a purported Christian conservative using “theologist” as if it were a real word is quite another. The rare error may be excusable, but a pattern of such errors suggests that Mr. Hegseth has only a superficial grasp of what he purports to defend.
Speaking of patterns, while Father is no doubt correct to connect the text’s flaws with its author’s low-church evangelical mentality, as described the text appears to be an especially egregious instance of a “conservative” establishment practice of celebrities pouncing on hot issues. Thus do the many thoughtful, worthwhile books written on the issue get overshadowed, and continue to languish in obscurity.
No wonder America is overrun by lunacy.
I am a high school graduate and have assisted with RCIA for 15 years. Pete Hegseth’s statement, and I quote from the article, “acknowledges his very poor academic formation through thirteen years of government schooling, followed by studies (and degrees) from Princeton and Harvard.” decries and installs him as the perfect model of the very real and shabby state of our educational system. It proves that the only thing he did learn is how to manipulate and misinform his peers. I’m curious how much money he actually wasted on those degrees to end up so utterly lame and incongruent.
I also “write like I speak” and have no problem with that concept. Many books are written in popular linguistic style. Not everyone thinks that a weakness. I have a Master’s Degree and feel that making your points with clarity overrides the nit-picking about the occasional word, point of grammar, or spelling. I love to read but the pedantic,”teacher in front of the room”, constipated style of writing loses me immediately when I pick up a book. I think its an unfair accusation regarding the scant mention of Catholic schools in Hegseth’s book. That is an enormous topic by itself which would require extensive background history and possibly its own book.His target was the damage being done in PUBLIC schools. And I think in that vein you are searching too hard for anti-Catholic discrimination where none is intended. I am of course aware of longstanding Protestant antipathy towards Catholics.I dont believe that is what you are seeing here. In the end, Hegseth is indeed a popular writer and was not doing a PHD dissertation. I think your expectations were off the mark.
I think basic literacy — not the style of Shakespeare or Newman necessarily — ought to be a minimum requirement for writing any book, let alone one on the educational crisis.
Father, if you think a book like this lacks “basic literacy”, you have led a very sheltered life. I, on the other hand, attended a well regarded public college in which far too many of the “open enrollment” students were LITERALLY illiterate and had no business being in a college at all. Maybe it has escaped your notice, but scholastic standards have slipped drastically the last few decades and that can be where some very good students have had knowledge fall through the cracks through no fault of their own.Too much class time spent on social engineering and re-writing history and not enough time learning basics. Not every tome is St. Augustine. Nor does it need to be. His point is that liberal political beliefs have invaded our schools to the detriment of our children. Schools are for learning, not social engineering.My last observation is that even very well educated, literate writers are customarily assigned an EDITOR. You need a fresh set of eyes to view your work and make corrections. That this was not done is the fault of the editor and/or publisher. Not Hegseth. I have lost track of the number of times I have written a post in places like this, reviewed it, and hit sent…only to see an error staring me in the face immediately after. I read books for content, not grammar.
I agree about basic literacy. An author ought to want that for his work so that readers don’t get distracted from the message by the shortcomings of the messenger. In fact, this is the purpose of a good human editor. Even beyond that, I’ve learned that any good work is made or broken in the editing room. If I record a half-hour podcast, I probably spend an hour or two or even three editing the thing so that people can actually listen to it without getting annoyed. I edit and polish the script before I record it and I edit and polish the recording afterward. A good craftsman takes that sort of pride in his work instead of making excuses why it couldn’t be better. From what Father Stravinskas relates, the book could have used a good editor.
Far better that we celebrate our commonality. We believe in the Holy Trinity, Christ being born of the Virgin Mary, The death and resurrection of the Lord, the forgiveness of sin, His return, not to mention Holy Scripture.
In these perplexing times, we must remember one another in prayer and fight for the highest good of the church.
Blessings as you write, for your words inspire!
We read: “What is the primary obstacle to educational reform? Hegseth hits the bull’s eye: It is the teacher union lobby.” Indeed. The federal Department of Education (a “department?”) was founded under President Carter in 1979 as a reward to the National Education Association for helping him get elected in 1976.
A few years back there was talk about trimming down or even eliminating the Department. Interviewed on prime time was a human face, behind whom (behind which? And the pronoun is now in question!) was the enormous filing-cabinet building that houses the Department…
Said the human face: “What would happen to the work that I do (?); I help administer grants to the states and local districts!” The cabinet Department of Education budget for 2021 was something like $260.45 Billion. Or, was it only $188.93 Billion? Hard to tell by reading the detailed budget proposals or even the summary figures–the beast is so sliced and diced that it’s like studying an anthill with a magnifying glass.
Whatever the total, it’s growing. There must be a lot of layered administrative job descriptions in there…And, as the maxim goes for all aspects of the Administrative State: “We feed the birds through the horses, and the horses don’t seem to mind.”
I am not entirely sure it is the teachers’ unions, but certainly they are a major player. I think the real issue may be the “teacher colleges”–those university programs that train teachers to be teachers. A lot of private schools (including diocesan and Jesuit schools) are similarly “woke,” but those teachers are not generally unionized.
Mandatory disclosure on the verso of the title page of the book of the identity of the editor and copy editor might reduce instances of this particular type of malfunction.
It is quite discouraging that a man can receive degrees from Princeton and Harvard while not knowing the difference between a verb and an adverb. This distinction was common knowledge among eighth graders in the 1960s., despite the meltdown of many other things then.
“Hegseth observes that the task of an educator is to teach a child how to think, not what to think. Further, that youth today are “distressed and fearful, and often aimless.””
So it doesn’t matter that a person believes that 2+2=5 as long as he knows how to add?
The first sentence in the quote directly contradicts the second. To deny the teaching of truth is to make a person uncertain about his aim (i.e. a human being’s final cause).
“[T]he task of an educator is to teach a child how to think, not what to think.”
I must confess I do not really understand that phrase. We all know how to think–if we did not, we would never be able to do anything, make any kind of decision (good or bad). Only the most severely cognitively disabled among us does not think.
But perhaps the phrase means to think clearly, rationally, logically, patiently, etc. Make inferences. Solve puzzles. Some folks tend to do that naturally, but I would assume we can all be taught and improve.
As for teaching “what to think”: Some folks think that mixing bleach and ammonia, two good cleaning agents, might make a very good cleaning agent. They would be wrong–and quite possibly dead. They should be taught to think otherwise, and choose one or the other, but not both at the same time.
If a person is taught with the emphasis on “how” to think, he or she would be given fundamental (developmental) lessons on genuine, basic facts, but in extension, how to use those facts. To cite your example of the deadly mixture of bleach and ammonia, it would be best to teach about chemicals and reactivity, especially with other chemicals and mixtures. Understanding that, students would think—hopefully—about the effects of any combination. Pertaining to faith, even in healthier environments, how many students are often taught only the “what” of sexuality, or what is a mortal or venial sin, but not how to view it in context of God’s creation, or how to reason its contradiction of natural law or Divine Will. This is critical in today’s world. Even in the absence of unintended pregnancy many a “smart” woman has later learned they were too focused on the physical “what” of intercourse. Even in politics, young students can be quite astute in learning how to read news articles without teachers overriding interpretations. A few neutral questions about language, content, and organization provide students with lifelong “filters” regardless of what is anyone’s opinion—often stated as fact by those in authority.