Daniel Scoggin is a co-founder of Great Hearts Academies and has served initially as the organization’s CEO when it launched and grew in Arizona and now as its director of national growth as the mission expands to other states. Headquartered in Phoenix, Arizona, the Great Hearts network includes 28 schools in Arizona and Texas, serving over 15,000 students. It is without challenge the most successful organization of charter schools in the country. Quite remarkably, the Great Hearts mission is classical.
Cana Academy’s president, Andrew Zwerneman, recently had the opportunity to engage Dan Scoggin in an interview for Open City. Full disclosure: In 1998, as headmaster of Tempe Preparatory Academy in Tempe, Arizona, Andrew hired Dan to serve on the faculty. Dan was fresh out of graduate school at Claremont University, where he had earned his PhD with a dissertation on the Victorian novel. Halfway through Dan’s first year, Andrew accepted a new post, Dan got the nod to be his successor, and just a few years later he launched Great Hearts.
AZ: Dan, Great Hearts is one of the most encouraging success stories on the recent American education scene. Congratulations. Now, we all want to know: how did you do it? What are the key elements to your wonderful success?
DS: Thanks, Andrew. When we first decided we wanted to grow beyond one campus there were plenty of naysayers. Folks said there would not be a market for classical education, that it was a fringe or boutique offering; they also said we would not be able to find the ranks of classically-minded teachers to staff such a network of academies. Both objections have proved untrue. To the first point, we have found that many families in 21st-century America are hungry for classical education because they want to offer their children a well-rounded education rich in moral and human purpose. To the second point, there are many prospective teachers from around the country who long to work in a school culture committed to the great conversation of the Western Tradition and to forming hearts and minds of this rising generation for truth, goodness, and beauty.
AZ: Has it been surprising to you that a classical mission could take off in the current American culture?
DS: I think the more the modern education systems and offerings point to test scores and simplistic utilitarian thinking, the more wise families sense they are being sold a lesser reality. We are realizing that the best hedge against the vicissitudes of fortune will always be the permanent: clear thinking, wisdom, and character, which a classical education is ideally structured to inculcate as a foundation for life-long learning. Indeed, we can’t know what and where jobs will be a few years from now, but history and human nature tell us that thoughtful leadership will be required. In every age of uncertainty, we should double down on the enduring ends of a classical education—the ability to deliberate carefully, see multiple sides of an issue, and exercise sound and decisive judgment. We sometimes call this critical thinking, but the ancients called it wisdom.
AZ: At one point GH pitched its mission as building a more philosophical society. Do you still think that way?
DS: Absolutely. Every generation faces essential questions—and they skip them at their own peril. What does it mean to be a human being? How does a specific idea, pursuit, or product relate to human happiness? What is justice? What is my duty to myself and others? How does one balance freedom with responsibility? These are not coffee shop queries, but first order questions that are more important than ever in the 21st century. And a mind and soul well trained to pursue and answer them—and use this training practically in the workplace—will be ready to innovate and effect change for the greater good.
AZ: Are you seeing yet how Great Hearts alumni are impacting society?
DS: Yes, our graduates are going on to lead in their professions, as doctors, attorneys, college professors. There are three alumni pathways I am most proud of. First, our graduates who are serving as officers in the military. They are bringing their classical and character-forming experience to forming the young men under their leadership. Second, I am proud of the many, many alumni who have come back to teach at our academies and give back what they themselves received. Above all, I am so pleased to see our alumni now raising their own great-hearted children.
AZ: Great Hearts has been up and running for over a decade now. Our national culture has changed significantly in that time. Does that shape how you continue to drive the mission?
DS: We need to make sure we are offering a classical education for the 21st century. Much of classical education is timeless and we need to reinforce its relevance to today’s fast-paced culture: the ability to think clearly and listen well. This is especially true today in our bifurcated political culture. I’d also say that any classical education needs to respond well to the digital revolution, to find ways to properly integrate technology to support sound pedagogy.
AZ: Can you share with us some part of your vision for developing academies in new areas?
DS: We seek to grow Great Hearts into new communities across the country. We are not growing for growth’s sake but because we believe we have a moral imperative to serve more families. The main considerations for our growth into a new state or city are: First, will the laws and regulatory environment allow us to implement our classical model with fidelity? Second, can we hire a classically trained and minded faculty without undue burdens of teacher licensure? Third, is there philanthropic support that will allow us to get our schools off the ground? And, fourth, is there a committed group of founding families that we can work with to enroll the first school?
AZ: Thanks, Dan. Keep up the great work. We are all very encouraged and inspired by what you have accomplished and by your vision for building the best culture for more American students.
Andrew J. Zwerneman is president of Cana Academy. Dan Scoggin is co-founder and chief advancement officer of Great Hearts Academies.