Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.

On a recent Monday morning, 15 bleary-eyed high school seniors in Phoenix, Arizona, shuffled into English class, sat at tables that were arranged in a circle, put away their enormous water bottles, and settled down for the day’s lesson. Their teacher, a young man in a brown corduroy blazer, dispensed with housekeeping—the readings to do, the papers to write—and then he closed the tome in front of him, a paperback edition of the Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. “Who is more honest,” he asked the class, “Miusov or Fyodor?”

There was silence while the students leafed through their books. One girl ventured that it was probably the wealthy patriarch Fyodor. Reading aloud a few lines, she said they showed that his cousin, another wealthy landowner named Miusov, who loathes Fyodor, withheld his own opinions about the monastery they were visiting— which wasn’t very honest in her opinion. A boy on the other side of the room didn’t agree. At the end of Chapter 1, Miusov says he’s only keeping his mouth shut because he knows that if he loses his temper he’ll say things he doesn’t mean. “So I think that he’s more honest,” he said, “because he’s aware of the fact that what he’s saying is not actually what he believes—he’s just not very good at controlling it when he’s angry.” Fyodor, on the other hand, was just more direct.

For the next half hour, the students eagerly debated, using evidence from the text to support their points. I was struck by how genuinely interested they seemed to be in wringing some broader lessons from the 19th century masterpiece. No one covertly texted or slouched in the time-honored hoping-to-disappear adolescent posture. But maybe even more remarkably, no one was earnestly copying notes from a blackboard or asking how much the next paper would affect their final grade.

The senior year capstone class that I was observing was called Humane Letters—a two-hour-long seminar offered to high school students at Great Hearts North Phoenix, a K-12 public charter school whose mission is: “To cultivate the minds and hearts of students through the pursuit of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.” To accomplish this goal, the school feeds students a steady diet of classic literature even before they are able to read. Kindergartners start off listening to Mr. Popper’s Penguins and The Velveteen Rabbit; by third grade, they’re reading The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe on their own; by sixth grade, they’ve read most of the Narnia series and moved on to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Hobbit. From fourth grade on, all students study Latin, which comes in handy both for acquiring English vocabulary and delving deeper into philosophical texts in high school.

“To cultivate the minds and hearts of students through the pursuit of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.”

North Phoenix is one of 42 Great Hearts classical charter academies spread across several states, mostly in Arizona and Texas. Though individual lesson plans vary, all of them follow the same humanities-rich curriculum, emphasizing European and American history, Latin, and great books of the Western canon. There’s a certain nostalgic, almost anachronistic, formality to the schools: Uniforms (red tartan jumpers or kilts for girls, polos and khakis for boys at North Phoenix); desks in rows; children addressing adults as “ma’am” and “sir.” In music class, the students sing standards like “The Water is Wide;” in the early grades; students, in unison, recite phonics and math facts after their teacher. 

This style of schooling, with roots in ancient Greece, flourished for 2,500 years, through the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the Industrial Revolution. Most Baby Boomers experienced some version of a classical education. Only after the political turmoil of the 1960s— and the postmodernist movement that rocked colleges in the 1970s and challenged the Enlightenment approach to knowledge and learning—did public schools begin to branch out. By the 1980s, American schoolchildren were learning in new ways—desks in rows gave way to group projects, memorization was out, and questioning authority was in. Classical education became rare in the United States, except in a handful of small colleges with erudite and eccentric reputations, such as St. John’s, with campuses in Annapolis and Santa Fe.

But, over the past several years, this ancient style of education has had a revival. The group largely responsible for its resurrection? Conservatives fed up with what they see as the excesses of educational progressivism: the prioritizing of anti-racist and LGBTQ-inclusive curricula over the rigors of academic learning in public schools. Those same culture warriors offer their version of K-12 classical education as a back-to-basics alternative. And it’s thriving: According to the school market research firm Arcadia Education, since 2019, enrollment in classical schools has grown at a yearly rate of nearly 5 percent. In the 2022-2023 school year, more than 677,000 students were enrolled in about 1,550 classical schools nationwide. Of those, 219 were public charter schools; the rest were private or religious schools.

Arcadia predicts that over the next decade, new classical charter schools will grow at a yearly rate of 5-7 percent, and by 2035, 1.4 million students—2.4 percent of school-aged children—will be enrolled in public and private classical schools. The classical education movement now has its own SAT alternative, as well as a peer-reviewed academic journal, called Principia; recent article titles include “How to Think Like Shakespeare: Lessons from a Renaissance Education” and “Teaching Students to Feel Pleasure and Pain at the Wrong Thing: The History of Grades and Grading.” Since 2006, classical schools have received $75 million in federal charter school grants, according to a 2023 report by the public schools advocacy group Network for Public Education.  

Jon Valant, an education policy scholar and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a nonpartisan think tank, has observed the momentum behind the classical schools’ movement over the past few years. While there is nothing inherently conservative about classical education, he said, the political right has appeared to latch on to it as a way to “operationalize those views in a particular school model.” Today, the energy behind classical education comes from “conservatives who have a vision partly of what they want schools to look like, but really of what they don’t want schools to look like.”

With more than 25,000 students from diverse communities enrolled, Great Hearts is the largest of several classical charter chains. Perhaps the most controversial is the Barney Charter School Initiative with dozens of schools nationwide run by the ultra-conservative, Christian Hillsdale College. Other classical charter chains include Founders, with 23 schools in Texas and Arkansas, Classical Academies, with seven schools in California, and Valor, with five schools in Texas.

Part of the appeal of classical academies is how their academic rigor leads to high-achieving graduates. Great Hearts is no exception: In 2022, the school network reports, its average student scored 129 points above the national average on the SAT, and 78 percent of the 729 graduates earned college scholarships. The fact that 96 percent of the graduates go to college is, to the administrators, a nice perk, but not the ultimate goal, explained Brandon Crowe, a former Great Hearts history teacher who is now the superintendent for the network’s Arizona schools. “We want people to be full human beings,” he told me. The point of a class discussion like the one about the Brothers Karamazov is not to acquire vocabulary that might show up on the SAT, but to develop critical thinking skills so students will be able to unlock broader lessons about morality and an individual’s purpose in the world. “You go back to Shakespeare, and you see the heroes and the villains,” Maria Baier, Great Hearts’ vice president of external affairs and the parent of two of the school’s graduates, told me. “You learn that you’re really going to become a stronger better person if you do what is right.” Given that human beings will always have questions about their purpose in the world, timeless classics can offer timeless answers.

Yet in the midst of this vast curriculum of Western civilization, there are gaps. Here’s what students at classical academies don’t typically learn: much of anything about the experiences of people in other parts of the world. Though 40 percent of Great Hearts students are non-white, the schools’ reading lists do not include a single text from places that are not the United States and Europe. The only Black authors included are on the high school list: Martin Luther King, Jr., W.E.B. DuBois, Frederick Douglass, and Booker T. Washington. Hillsdale’s classical charter schools’ reading lists also include almost exclusively white authors.

The most generous critics of classical schools accuse them of cultural myopia. The most strident see in them something more sinister: a covert goal of using the ever-more-permissive laws around charter schools to advance an agenda of conservative politics and Christian nationalism. The Network for Public Education report found that nearly half of the existing classical charter schools opened during the Trump administration. “The burgeoning crop of classical charter schools is often fueled by efforts to shape students to the school founders’ Christian nationalist worldview,” the authors wrote. This is not a completely paranoid construct—many classical schools do give off a certain whiff of churchiness. (Is that lion in the school crest of Tulsa Classical Academy supposed to be Aslan, C.S. Lewis’ Christ figure in The Chronicles of Narnia?) Some of the chains, including Great Hearts and Hillsdale, have strong connections to religious institutions, though spokespeople at both networks emphasized to me that their schools are strictly secular.

Educational policy has long been freighted by competing political agendas, but the classical education movement has become unusually charged. Some of the marketing materials seem designed to set themselves apart from the public schools they see as chaotic hotbeds of liberal indoctrination. Colorado’s Ascent classical schools promise “instruction in the principles of moral character and civic virtue in an orderly and disciplined environment.” Every day after the Pledge of Allegiance, North Carolina’s Roger Bacon Classical Academies’ students recite an oath to avoid “the stains of falsehood from the fascination with experts” and “over-reliance on rational argument.” Hillsdale’s president Larry P. Arnn said at a 2022 event that public school teachers come from the “dumbest parts of dumbest colleges.” In 2021, Kathleen O’Toole, Hillsdale’s assistant provost for K-12 education boasted that its history curriculum “was created by teachers and professors—not activists, not journalists, not bureaucrats.” In an email to Mother Jones, Hillsdale spokesperson Emily Davis clarified, “Dr. Arnn’s criticism was directed at many of the undergraduate and graduate programs that train teachers—not at the excellent teachers who are being done a disservice by these programs.”

Administrators at Great Hearts emphatically denies political bias. For example, the chief academic officer Jake Tawney said that the schools do not teach current events. “It’s something we have chosen not to do so that we can leave that divisiveness out of the classroom,” he told me, “and focus on that common experience that we’re trying to give them.” But that very avoidance of “divisiveness” in itself becomes a political statement. Great Hearts administrators once fired a teacher who wore a “Black Lives Matter” mask. Great Hearts’ Baier explained that the mask violated the dress code, which forbids teachers from wearing clothing with slogans. The schools do not allow student-led clubs, a policy many felt was an attempt to exclude clubs that would affirm LGBTQ identity. Until 2018, students were required to use the pronouns and bathroom associated with the gender to which they were assigned at birth.

About halfway through the discussion of the Brothers Karamazov that I observed, the class at Great Hearts still seemed divided on the question of the day. “Perhaps we should come up with a working definition of honesty,” the teacher said, pointing to a display on the wall that listed the Great Hearts virtues, of which honesty was number four. “It could be honest to withhold things that are unsavory,” he said. “But if you are thinking one thing and acting differently, then that would be dishonest.”

One of the first things that I noticed on my visit to Great Hearts was that for a public school, it seemed to have an awful lot of paintings of Jesus on the walls. Here, outside of a classroom, is Jesus with two cherubs; there he is in the hallway on his mother Mary’s lap; near a stairwell, he appears again, with St. John the Baptist and St. Peter. When I asked Crowe about this, he explained that these works were on display not because of their religious messages, but because they were great works of art by Raphael, William-Adolphe Bouguereau, and Albrecht Altdorfer. Indeed, the school also hung secular works—for example, Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, Trumbull’s Declaration of Independence, and Van Gogh’s Starry Night.

Those paintings are an example of one of classical education’s core values: It’s not enough to teach students how to learn, you also must teach them what to learn. This idea comes largely from the work of nonagenarian literary critic E.D. Hirsch. In his profoundly influential 1987 book, Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, Hirsch argued that the achievement gap in education is actually a knowledge gap—low-income kids fall behind because they are missing key cultural references. If we teach children from poor families, say, who Sophocles was or how to rattle off a Robert Frost poem from memory, they’ll be on a more level playing field with children from wealthier families who, presumably, absorb this material through a kind of cultural osmosis.

Today, at 98, Hirsch still serves on the board of the nonprofit he founded in 1986, the Core Knowledge Foundation. The group produces a curriculum designed to equip children with that common reservoir of content that Hirsch believes is essential for success. Some 2.7 million students in 38,000 classrooms—including the students of Great Hearts—engage with parts of its curriculum (although that’s likely an undercount because one version is available as a free download). The group doesn’t track its users by style of schooling, Linda Bevilacqua, the group’s president, told me, but classical schools particularly appreciate the program “because there are poems by Keats, and Shakespeare—things that classical people that are focused on.”

Some of the group’s most popular materials are adaptations of literary classics—Shakespeare, Homer, Don Quixote, Gulliver’s Travels—aimed at elementary and middle school children. Through early familiarity with the characters, themes, and famous scenes from the books that they consider foundational for literate citizens, Bevilacqua explained, the children will be equipped to understand the allusions to these works when they encounter them in the broader world. The goal, she told me, is “making sure all individuals are able to communicate with others—not just other people in your neighborhood. If you travel to New York or Florida, you should be able to talk to all people.” For Great Hearts, Christianity is part of that lingua franca: Even if students are not part of that faith community, given its dominance in American culture, fluency in its stories and symbols is necessary for basic, in the words of Hirsch, cultural literacy.

Yet Great Hearts’ connections to Christianity appear to go beyond simply promoting a passing familiarity with religious texts or showcasing masterpieces with religious iconography. Many current faculty members have graduated from Christian colleges; some current and past teachers and administrators have held positions in the local Catholic church and affiliated organizations. Last year, Great Hearts opened two new private Christian schools that promise to prepare students for “a lifetime of service to the Lord, the Church, our neighbors, and society.” While the Great Hearts charter schools say they are committed “to Socrates’ assertion that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living,’” the Great Hearts private schools, called Christos, hold that “Our knowledge of who we are is ultimately revealed in Christ.” While Christos schools charge about $10,000 in annual tuition, the schools encourage prospective families to use state vouchers to pay for most of the cost. “Through Arizona Empowerment Scholarships and/or tuition-tax credits, attendance at Great Hearts Christos will be within the reach of all families,” the website says.

In fact, when Great Hearts was created it was not supposed to be a public-school network at all. A 2012 video honoring one of the founders, John “Jack” Evans, describes how in the mid-1990s, Evans and his wife “began to dream of establishing a private, Catholic school in the classical liberal arts tradition.” Evans met the other men who would become the schools’ founders through their involvement with the Catholic student organization at Arizona State University.  Several members of the group, including Evans, were involved in a charismatic Catholic community called City of the Lord, the western offshoot of the Midwestern People of Praise movement that gained notoriety when one of its adherents, Amy Coney Barrett, was appointed to the US Supreme Court by President Donald Trump. People of Praise had founded a network of Catholic schools that focused on Western civilization, and the Arizona group aimed to open a school based on that model.

But as the discussions evolved, Evans and his cofounders abandoned the idea of a private religious school. Instead, they decided to take advantage of the new charter school laws in the state that would allow them to run their school with public funding. To do that, says Robert Jackson, a former chief academic officer at Great Hearts, they had to “strip it of any kind of catechesis or any kind of Christian dimension and just focus on the core liberal arts offering.” In 1996, they founded Tempe Prep. Although no longer affiliated with Great Hearts, it was the model for the rest of the schools. Veritas Preparatory Academy, the first Great Hearts school, opened in a Phoenix church in 2003.

As the school grew, it forged strong ties with some prominent Arizona Republicans. Great Hearts co-founder and current board chair Jay Heiler was chief of staff to former Arizona governor Fife Symington; he went on to serve on the Arizona Board of Regents from 2012 to 2020 and as chairman of the Arizona Charter Schools Association around the same time. Erik Twist, who served as Great Hearts’ president from 2016-2022, is the brother of J.P. Twist, who was a policy adviser to Arizona’s Republican former governor, Doug Doucey. Steve Twist, Erik’s father, sits on the executive committee of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce. Tucker Quayle, son of former US Vice President Dan Quayle, serves on Great Hearts’ board. Alan Sears, the CEO of the Arizona-based Christian legal group Alliance Defending Freedom—whose lawyers drafted the Mississippi abortion law that led to the 2022 overturning of Roe v. Wade—donates to Great Hearts.

No mention of the schools’ origin story and their overwhelmingly conservative Republican infrastructure appears on the Great Hearts website or marketing materials—so many prospective parents are unaware of it. Robert Chevaleau, a former Great Hearts parent who now lives in Northern California, liked what he saw when he toured Great Hearts North Phoenix in 2012, the year before his daughter was to enter kindergarten. Compared to the local public school Great Hearts struck Chevaleau as appealingly serious. “It had a really nice and nerdy quality to me,” he recalled. “Aristotle and Socrates and all that sort of thing.” The kids looked happy and orderly. His family applied for one of the slots and got onto the waitlist; when a spot opened up midway through their daughter’s kindergarten year, they pulled her from the local public school and enrolled her at Great Hearts.

“It had a really nice and nerdy quality to me. Aristotle and Socrates and all that sort of thing.”

Chevaleau’s daughter thrived for the next two years, and the family was looking forward to signing up their younger daughter. But then, in 2016, the school passed a policy that required trans students to identify with the gender they had been assigned at birth. This was a problem for the Chevaleaus: Their younger daughter, assigned male at birth, had come out to them as trans when she was three-and-a-half years old. The family had embraced her as a daughter ever since. Chevaleau couldn’t imagine her attending a school that required concealing her identity, so he asked the administrators if they might consider changing the policy. He recalls a school official telling him that Great Hearts wouldn’t do that until forced to by the US Supreme Court. Baier said Great Hearts “is unaware of who is said to have made such a statement.”

That level of rigidity didn’t comport with the values that Chevaleau thought Great Hearts espoused. How could a school committed to “the pursuit of truth” ask his daughter to lie about who she was? “I had bought into the marketing,” he told me. “If they were unwilling to change, even uninterested to listen, then I said, ‘Well, why is that?’” Chevaleau pulled his older daughter out of the school and enrolled both girls at the local public school, where the teachers and faculty affirmed his younger daughter’s identity. Great Hearts repealed its transgender policy in 2018 after significant public backlash; today, says Baier, the schools provide gender-neutral bathrooms and “work with families regarding how to address and care for their students.”

Aderet Parrino, a 2022 graduate from Great Hearts Arete Prep in Gilbert, Arizona, also experienced the school as unaccepting of LGBTQ students. Parrino recalls that although the uniform policy was strict, “everyone knew” who the queer students were. Now a second-year student at the University of San Francisco, Parrino is transmasculine and uses they/them pronouns, but in high school identified as a bisexual girl. “‘You look so gay’—that was just constantly what I heard in the halls,” they recalled, “so people would avoid me.”

When Parrino broached the idea of forming a club for LGBTQ students halfway through sophomore year, in early 2020, an administrator said the idea was “too controversial.” With the help of a former Great Hearts assistant principal named Melanie Young, who had quit in 2016 over the school’s transgender policy, Parrino worked on a presentation to bring to the school’s board of directors. In it, they argued that it was their right to form the club under the 1984 federal Equal Access Act, which protects public school students’ right to form extracurricular clubs. “The really ironic thing is that they taught me so well how to use rhetoric—that’s what ended up winning them over,” Parrino recalls. The board of directors approved the club. (Baier said current Great Hearts administrators were not aware of this incident.)

But before the first meeting, the school closed for the pandemic. The summer before junior year, Parrino received word from the school that all nonacademic clubs had been canceled. Instead, the school offered queer students sessions with the school therapist. Parrino held meetings anyway—over Zoom, and not during school hours. Now, Parrino advocates for queer students as a member of the University of San Francisco’s Senate Executive Board. The fight over the club at Great Hearts, they told me, “prepared me to do this work in a really meaningful way. And also, simultaneously, it was super shitty that I had to go through all of that to get to this place.” 

William Shakespeare seated at a high school student's desk.
Mother Jones; Getty

Not everyone agrees with Hirsch that filling brains with a reservoir of classics is the key to lifting children out of poverty. In his 1999 book The Disciplined Mind, Howard Gardner, a Harvard developmental psychologist who studies learning, called Hirsch’s educational philosophy “at best superficial and at worst anti-intellectual.” In 2015, Henry A. Giroux, a Canadian professor of English, told the New York Times he considered Hirsch’s educational philosophy “very deadly for what it means for students to learn and think creatively and critically.” What’s more, Hirsch’s list of essential knowledge all but ignores the fact that ours is a nation of immigrants who shape culture. 

Responding to these criticisms, over the years, Core Knowledge Foundation has integrated into its curriculum books that represent diverse voices—students read Native American folktales and history, for example; fourth graders read Jacqueline Woodson’s memoir Brown Girl Dreaming. Core Knowledge president Bevilacqua told me that initially, Hirsch expressed skepticism about some of the more contemporary additions. “When I talked to Dr. Hirsch, I said, ‘You need to think about the books that we’re picking now. These are going to be the classics, 20 years from now I’m convinced of it.’ And that seemed to be good logic as far as he was concerned.” The group doesn’t track which of these additions schools actually use. “Maybe they’re shaking their heads and saying, ‘What’s this Brown Girl Dreaming stuff?’ We can’t control for that.”

In February, I attended a virtual information session for Northwest Classical Academy, a Hillsdale school outside Atlanta. I popped a question into the chat: How does the school incorporate literature and history from non-Western cultures into the curriculum? The moderator informed me that the school prioritizes diversity—more than 40 percent of its students are non-white. “We do read books about Frederick Douglass or—I’m forgetting all the others,” she said. “That’s terrible. I’m spacing out. Well, even To Kill a Mockingbird and stuff.”

“Maybe they’re shaking their heads and saying, ‘What’s this Brown Girl Dreaming stuff?’ We can’t control for that.”

At Great Hearts, the bar is high for a new book to be added to the curriculum. A committee of faculty and administrators must determine that it not only has strong literary merit but also adds something to the reading list that no existing book does. Recently, administrators debated adding Gabriel García Márquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude to the 12th grade curriculum. “I adore this book—I think it should be held in esteem among the best that’s been written,” Tawney, the chief academic officer, told me. But he didn’t consider it to be ag- appropriate. “And that was the thing we just had a hard time getting over.” Two young adult books that recently passed muster were Esperanza Rising, a historical fiction story written in 2000 and set in Depression-era Mexico and California, and Watership Down, a British 1972 adventure fantasy about a society of rabbits. Great Hearts spokesperson Maria Baier noted that in addition to the texts on the reading lists, students also read “works of Mexican origin, African folk tales, and significant works from Russian literature, which is neither European nor American in origin.”

Melanie Young, a former assistant principal at Great Hearts North Phoenix, told me the story of how in 2017, her daughter, then a Great Hearts seventh grader, tried to form an extracurricular book club focusing on works that weren’t in the curriculum—especially those by women and people of color. Young recalled school administrators telling her that if they allowed this club, what was to stop a student from forming a white supremacist club? Eventually, Young’s daughter prevailed, but only after she invoked the same piece of legislation, the Equal Access Act, that Parrino had when proposing a club for LGBTQ students before the pandemic.

Like Great Hearts, Hillsdale strongly denies its reading lists or curriculum contain any political agenda, but one of its recent initiatives suggests otherwise. In 2021, Hillsdale College launched a series of K-12 American history lessons called the 1776 Curriculum. The Hillsdale administrators who designed the program formally deny that it is a conservative alternative to the New York Times1619 Project, which explores the legacy of slavery through American history. However, the curriculum directs students to read President Trump’s 1776 Commission Report, which calls the 1619 Project “distorted history.” Hillsdale’s Arnn was the chair of the 1776 Commission.

Hillsdale’s charter schools use the curriculum, and so can anyone else—the lessons are available as free downloads. Kathleen O’Toole, assistant provost for K-12 Education at Hillsdale College, said in a press conference about the curriculum. “It comes from years of studying America, its history, and its founding principles, not some slap-dash journalistic scheme to achieve a partisan political end through students.”

The 1776 Curriculum warns teachers that “a focus on questions of contemporary partisanship and political activism is not appropriate for a K-12 classroom.” Yet its 2,400 pages do seem to suggest some conservative bias. The stars are the Founding Fathers, whose vision is described with a reverence that borders on the religious. Even on the topic of slavery, we are reminded of their righteousness: “Many leading Founders, including those who held slaves, believed that the profitability of slavery was gradually but decisively waning, and that slavery would die out on its own in a relatively short period of time.”

Teachers are instructed to emphasize that the environmental movement is characterized by its “placement of environmental concerns always and absolutely above human concerns and the willingness to use government force to carry out such priorities.” Students are told to commit to memory a quote from Donald Trump’s address at Mt. Rushmore in 2020: “Against every law of society and nature, our children are taught in school to hate their own country, and to believe that the men and women who built it were not heroes, but that [they] were villains. The radical view of American history is a web of lies—all perspective is removed, every virtue is obscured, every motive is twisted, every fact is distorted, and every flaw is magnified until the history is purged and the record is disfigured beyond all recognition.”

Roosevelt Montás, a senior lecturer in American studies at Columbia University, is dismayed by the notion of classical schools advancing a political or religious agenda. He sees the value of liberal arts education not as an “instrument of conversion to any particular place, but as a way of empowering the student to reach their own conclusions and to develop and grow and explore.”

Which, as it happens, is exactly what happened to him. As a teenager growing up in a poor Dominican family in Queens, New York, Montás fished a book of Plato’s dialogues out of a trash can. This discovery changed the trajectory of his life. Intrigued by the ideas in the text, he threw himself into his studies in high school and secured a scholarship to attend Columbia University. There, great books of the Western tradition are part of the required core curriculum. He went on to earn his PhD in English and Comparative Literature at Columbia, where he teaches today. 

Montás has many things in common with the leaders of Great Hearts and the other classical academies. Like them, he believes deeply in the transformational power of great books. Most importantly, he believes that everyone, regardless of race, class, and political affiliation, can and should have meaningful encounters with these texts, preferably in a classroom with a teacher trained in the Socratic method. To this end, Montás founded a summer program that brings New York City high school students from low-income families to Columbia for an intensive seminar on foundational texts.

The curriculum that Montás’ instructors use for the summer program—Socrates, Aristotle, Hobbes, the Founding Fathers— inevitably overlap with those of Great Hearts and Hillsdale. But in addition to those, there are others. An 1885 letter from a Chinese immigrant on the hypocrisy of the construction of the Statue of Liberty, for example, and civil rights activist Ella Baker’s seminal 1960 text on sit-ins. He wants students to understand, “Aristotle has one view, and Plato has a different one. And Marx has a different one. And Gandhi has a different one. And they are all in some way compelling and in some way illuminating.” In the 15 years since the program’s inception, nearly all of the graduates have gone on to graduate from college, with nearly half majoring in humanities.

“Aristotle has one view, and Plato has a different one. And Marx has a different one. And Gandhi has a different one. And they are all in some way compelling and in some way illuminating.”

A book, no matter how great, Montás says, “doesn’t tell you how to live.” Rather, “One of the big lessons of liberal education is that the character of the human good is fundamentally contestable.” The Brothers Karamazov does not hold the answers on how to live your life, he says, but how to search for meaning in life. This is not, he cautioned, the same as the postmodernist argument that there is no such thing as truth so it’s pointless to look for it. Rather, we can spend a lifetime trying to get closer to truth, and in the process, that very act of pursuit enriches us.

Montás’ approach seemed to me to be meaningfully different from that of Great Hearts. Down the hall from the class that I observed puzzling over honesty, another section wrestled with a different question about The Brothers Karamazov: Was the character Alyosha a realist or merely religious?

At first, the class seemed to be reaching a consensus that Alyosha, the protagonist of the story and the youngest of the brothers, was the latter but not the former. Several students pointed out, that the text said he believed in miracles. He also seemed given to literal interpretations of mystical religious stories, like one about an elder with healing powers, or a coffin that kept flying out of a church. “I feel like a realist wouldn’t necessarily have faith in those types of stories,” one girl said. “When I think realist, I think data—like they believe in what they can see.”

“I feel like you’re confusing the word ‘realist’ with ‘skeptic,’” another girl replied. It was possible, she said, to be both a realist and religious.

Maybe, someone suggested, the class should take a vote.

“Before we do that, I wanted to maybe rephrase something,” the teacher, a recent graduate of St. John’s College, said. If Alyosha sees that a holy man heals someone, and they’re healed, then “Is that not for him an objective fact?”

The students began to nod in agreement. “If you’re wholeheartedly in a religion, and you completely believe all the stories, then how is that different from his definition of realism?” a student asked.

“That’s the thing,” another student said. “I don’t think it is. I think it’s a both/and—together.”

The answer that the students were now arriving at seemed to be that for someone like Alyosha, for whom faith is the pillar around which the rest of life is constructed, religion informs absolutely everything. It is impossible to separate it from reality—and maybe even transgressive to try.

Despite Great Hearts’ leaders’ warnings against bringing current events into the discussion of great books, I found that I could not help but apply this discussion of The Brothers Karamazov to Great Hearts itself, and the new guard of classical charter schools more broadly. For many in the movement, Christian faith and conservative politics are not privately held beliefs or matters of opinion. Rather, they are objective truths. And failing to state these truths? Well, that would be like Miusov at the monastery: dishonest because of what he didn’t say.

“We believe that truth exists, and we must seek it relentlessly by disciplined study and good-willed conversation,” Great Hearts says in its mission statement. What it doesn’t specify is that many of its leaders have a very clear idea of what the truth is—and that their version leaves little room for those who may not share it.


We have about a $200,000 funding gap and less than a week to go in our hugely important First $500,000 fundraising campaign. We urgently need your help, and a lot of help, this week so we can pay for the one-of-a-kind journalism you get from us.

Learn more in “Less Dreading, More Doing,” where we lay out this wild moment and how we can keep charging hard for you. And please help if you can: $5, $50, or $500—every gift from every person truly matters right now.

payment methods


We have about a $200,000 funding gap and less than a week to go in our hugely important First $500,000 fundraising campaign. We urgently need your help, and a lot of help, this week so we can pay for the one-of-a-kind journalism you get from us.

Learn more in “Less Dreading, More Doing,” where we lay out this wild moment and how we can keep charging hard for you. And please help if you can: $5, $50, or $500—every gift from every person truly matters right now.

payment methods

We Recommend


Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.


Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.