Classical schools enjoy, at this moment, a greater ascendancy than ever in our nation’s history. Their particular strengths have made this so: chief among these is the commitment to infusing the transcendentals of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty into every aspect of academy life. They understand that school culture matters and proudly pronounce it as their distinguishing mark.
Their leaders therefore fixate valiantly on those elements they consider foundational to a strong school culture: curricula, pedagogy, reading lists, uniforms, and the like. They also exhort faculty and staff to focus on the nobility, value, and purpose of their schools’ work. They do so because they believe fervently that a fruitful culture springs almost entirely from a faculty’s commitment to a shared vision—a vision of the ultimate good they are seeking and of the academic program they employ in seeking it.
The problem is, they’re wrong. Not entirely, but mostly.
We all know Drucker’s famous aphorism, “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” A good plan falters in the hands of a bad culture. Yet many school leaders misunderstand the basis of culture, seeing it as something produced more by a shared vision than by shared behavior. In other words, they emphasize the ends while giving insufficient attention to the means.
In the classical sphere, many leaders commit this error because they are more comfortable in the world of ideas than in the world of people. People are messy and complicated and require structures and disciplines. They require organizing principles and accountability. To lead and manage them is difficult work that often feels removed from the transcendental beauty classical education is meant to seek.
Classical school leaders therefore tend to employ a near-exclusive emphasis on vision-casting, often as an excuse to indulge their own ambivalence toward planning, their disregard for disciplined operations, or their reluctance around intentional colleague engagement. I have known many men and women who, though unflinchingly committed to the ideals of classical education, were severely limited in advancing it as a cause. They could defend the classical ideal eloquently. But they struggled to execute toward it in a consistent and sustainable way. Their great strength—a passion for the Western intellectual tradition—loomed so large that it led them to ignore the need to implement the requisite supporting structures.
Indeed, without a shared vision of the good, no school can truly thrive. What we believe to be the goal of education matters. School leaders should be clear about these things and talk about them often. But to achieve the good requires more than a shared vision of that good. A healthy culture, a strong culture, is sparked by vision, but fueled by behavior. It is the consequence of a long series of little acts. It is in the art of living together—in the granular and intentional technique of our working relationships—where the real and consequential ethos of an academy is formed.
This art of living together is neither sentimental nor abstract. It isn’t guaranteed by an ideological consensus or an intellectual harmony. It springs from forming real bonds of trust, where vulnerability is possible, where mistakes can be made, wrong ideas put forward, balls dropped, and bad days endured. Where real and professional conflicts can arise. Where perspectives are openly shared, heard, and wrestled with. Where decisions are made and committed to as a team. Where the team members have each other’s backs, don’t gossip about or undermine decisions, and where progress is tracked carefully and transparently. Where things are written down. Where expectations are made clear, with resources to meet them. Where progress is reviewed. Where accountability is seen as an extension of love. Where success is not siloed. Where no individual claims victory for themselves, their grade, their subject, their department, or their function while others are falling behind. Where results are a communal affair. Where the team loves its operations as much as it loves its mission. Where the leaders model a love and respect for their colleagues as proof that the educational ideal they passionately defend isn’t some academic exercise of the professorial class. That it is, rather, deeply humane, always relational, always grounded in praxis.
A true culture cannot be contrived. It cannot be formed by heartfelt devotion. If you want to know the real culture of an academy, look not at what they have printed on their pamphlets or preached at the back-to-school event. Look at how the adults treat one another, especially the leaders, day in and day out. It is there you will find the academy’s true commitments and the habits that passionate lectures too often obscure. There you will see whether the ideals of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty have turned into disciplines, whether they’ve been absorbed deep into the heart of the school’s relational life.
Should the still-young classical school movement wish to become truly sustainable, it will now have to set its sights on the hard work of operating well. It will have to grow or find leaders who are committed to clear communication, trust-building, healthy conflict, disciplined processes, project management, strategic and financial planning, thoughtful resourcing, and accountability as the logical extension of its love of the highest things.
Classical education has an opportunity to become the gold standard in K–12 education for the rising generation. But if its flag-bearers concentrate on form to the detriment of function, that won’t happen, and our country will be left the worse for it.
Erik Twist is the Principal Partner and President of Arcadia Education. He served as President of Great Hearts Arizona from 2017 to 2022.