The National Symposium for Classical Education

Phoenix, Arizona



Years ago, I was still playing rugby football, in Oxford England, and there were line-out calls, requiring the recognition of particular letters. If the captain called a word starting with the letter “t”, the ball went to the front of the line-out. But if he called a word stating with “s”, it went to the back of the line-out.  But on this occasion, the captain called “Tchaikovsky”. The resulting chaos, among the students of a great university, highlighted the need for a well-rounded, classical education, even for those who took their sport as seriously as their studies!

With 40 schools already, in several US states, some 30,000 students, and aiming to spread much more widely, I’m here to congratulate the Great Hearts Academies on your success in promoting an education based on the Western Canon, and the importance of inculcating in all young people the true, the beautiful and the good.

You’re absolutely not repeating the failings of most modern education: the near-disappearance of grounding in the New Testament, even though it’s at the heart of our culture; the absence of narrative history: our story from Abraham, Jacob, and Moses, our fathers in faith, through the ancient Greeks and Romans, to Alfred the Great, Magna Carta, the Provisions of Oxford, the reformation, the enlightenment, the Glorious Revolution, an American Revolution for the rights of Englishmen in the New World and a French one based on worthy abstractions that ultimately descended into tyranny, and onto our own times with the illusory ascendancy of market liberalism because man does not live by bread alone; and the eruption of critical theory that’s turned great literature and the triumphs of the human spirit into a fantasy of oppressors and oppressed.

No, the Great Hearts schools have resolved to teach by example rather than admonition, to be optimists not pessimists, and that’s just as well, as there’s still much to be grateful for.

In 1990, for instance, more than 30 per cent of the world’s population lacked access to safe drinking water; by 2020, that figure was under 10 per cent. Likewise, in 1990, more than 30 per cent of the world’s population lived in absolute poverty; that too, had declined to under 10 per cent by 2020. And in 2020, more wealth had been created, at least in dollar terms, over the previous 25 years than in the prior 2500.

Prior to the pandemic, the world-at-large was more free, more fair, more safe, and more rich, for more people than at any previous time in human history, largely thanks to the long Pax Americana, based on a preference for whatever makes societies freer, fairer and more prosperous under a rules based global order. 

But while the Western world has never been more materially rich, it’s rarely been more spiritually bereft. Relieved of the need to build its strength and assert its values against the old Soviet Union, like a retired sportsman, it’s become economically, militarily, and culturally flabby. 

The pandemic was a largely self-inflicted wound; the policies to deal with it were more destructive than the disease itself. For years, we will face the corrosive legacy of mental illness, other diseases that were comparatively neglected, economic dislocation, the surrender to authoritarian experts; and worst of all, two years of stopping living from fear of dying.

And now, there’s the ferocious assault on Ukraine; the renewed challenge of apocalyptic Islamism, especially against Israel; and Beijing’s push to be the world’s dominant power by mid-century; with all that means for free and democratic Taiwan, for the rest of East Asia and for the continued flourishing of the liberal order that’s produced the best times in history so far.

In the face of an intensifying military challenge from dictatorships on the march, militarist, Islamist and communist, it might seem trivial, almost escapist, to stress the life of the mind but, in the end, this is a battle of ideas: the power of the liberal humanist dream of men and women, created with inherently equal rights and responsibilities, free to make the most of themselves, individually and in community; versus various forms of might is right, based on national glory, death to the infidel, or the dictatorship of the proletariat. 

In most Western countries, people’s faith in democracy is shrinking. Mental illness, especially amongst the young, is a new epidemic. And while this may or may not be related to the waning of the Christian belief, in the God-given dignity and worth of each person, that incubated liberal democracy, and that armoured its adherents against pride and despair, it’s noteworthy that the Christianity that was professed by some 90 per cent of Australians when I was young, is now acknowledged to the census by well under half the population.

Politics, it’s often said, is downstream of culture, and culture is downstream of religion. It’s the coarsening of our culture, exacerbated by “the long march through the institutions”, that’s at least partly to blame for the feeble or embarrassing leadership from which we now suffer, and for the triumph of prudence over courage, and weakness over judgment, which has produced virtue signalling businesses, propaganda pretending to be learning, the elevation of every kind of diversity except intellectual diversity. The muddling of badging what’s mostly climate change policy as an inflation reduction act. Eruptions of anti-Semitism, out of control social spending and a drug culture in parts of Western cities which can only be the product of moral Anarchy.

In the long run, the antidote to this is to rediscover all that’s given meaning to most people in every previous generation: a knowledge of our history, an appreciation of our literature, and an acquaintance with the faith stories that might not inspire every individual but which have collectively moved mountains over millennia.

I was lucky enough to be schooled under Brigidine nuns, and then under Jesuit priests, and the lay teachers who took inspiration from them: fine, selfless people, who saw teaching as a calling more than a career, encouraging their charges at every turn to be their best selves. Their lives were about our fulfilment, not theirs, as reflected in the Jesuit injunction of those days, to be “a man for others”, because it’s only in giving that we truly receive.

Later, at Sydney University, and especially at Oxford, I had teachers who valued their students’ ability to assimilate the authorities and to create strong arguments for a distinctive position, rather than regurgitate lecture notes and conform to some expert. Indeed, this is the genius of Western Civilisation: a respect for the best of what is, combined with a restless curiosity for more; a constant willingness to learn, because no one has the last word in knowledge and wisdom.

The whole point of a good education is not to ‘unlearn’, as Sydney university has recently put it, but to assimilate all the disciplines intellectual and personal that make us truly free to have life and to have it unto the full.

The Oxford tutorial system, where twice a week you had to front-up to someone who was a genuine expert in his field, with an essay demonstrating familiarity with the main texts, and the main arguments on a particular topic, plus a considered position of your own, was the perfect preparation for any form of advocacy, particularly politics, where you always have to be ready to apply good values to hard facts.

These days, as a board member of the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation in Australia, I’m conscious of the many elements of the Western canon that I have, personally, largely missed, in over-focussing on politics, with only a smattering of philosophy and theology, from a brief pursuit of the priesthood; but am still immensely grateful for an intellectual, cultural and spiritual inheritance that I’ve now been drawing-down over 40 years of advocacy, journalism, and public life.

I have few claims to particular expertise, save in political decision-making, and certainly no claims to personal virtue because an inevitably imperfectly and incompletely practised Christianity doesn’t guarantee goodness – but it makes us better than we’d otherwise be, this constant spur to strive, to seek, to find and not to yield.

Example and experience are often the best teachers of all. A mother who welcomed everyone into our family home. A late father who urged me to look for the good that’s present in almost everyone. An inspirational teacher, the late Father Emmet Costello, who encouraged me to set no limits on what could be achieved. A boon friend, the late Father Paul Mankowski, my Oxford sparring partner, a kind of internal exile inside the Jesuit order, who showed that a celibate priest could also be a real man. And the luminous George Cardinal Pell, of blessed memory, who endured a modern martyrdom, a form of living crucifixion, and whose prison diaries deserve to become modern classics. One day, I hope again to enjoy the communion of these saints.

I was lucky to have a reasonably broad experience beyond the classroom and beyond the confines of public life. Coaching football teams was an early introduction into managing egos. Running a concrete batching plant was a great antidote to pure economic theory, and to corporate film-flam, and a goad to unconventional problem solving. Plus serving in a local volunteer fire brigade, for over two decades, has been a wonderful lesson in grass roots community service.

My Jesuit mentor, Father Costello, had a favourite phrase: “genus humanum vivit paucis”, which he translated “the human race lives by a few”.

Of course, there’s no discredit to being among the many, who largely follow, because no one can lead unless others fall-in behind. And whatever our individual role, large or small, public or private, sung or unsung, our calling is to be as good as we can be, because even small things, done well or badly, make a difference for better or for worse. Everyone’s duty, indeed, is to strive to leave the world that much better for our time here: our families, our neighbourhoods, our workplaces, our classrooms, our churches, everything we do, should be for the better, as best we can make it.

Still, some are called to more; more than worthily performing all the things that are expected of us. Leaders are those go beyond what might be expected; who don’t just fill the job, but expand it, even transcend it; who aren’t just competent but brilliant. To paraphrase the younger Kennedy, they don’t look at what is and ask why; but ponder what should be, and try to make that happen.  

In my time as prime minister, there were decisions to be made every day, expected and unexpected. Ultimately, the job of a national leader is to try to make sense of all the most difficult issues, and to offer people a better way forward. Inevitably, there’s much that has to be managed, as much as determined, because much is more-or-less intractable, at least in the short term. The challenge is to keep pushing in the right direction so that things are better, even though they may never be perfect or even especially satisfactory. No matter how many changes you make, and how much leadership you try to provide, economic reform, for instance, or indigenous well-being, for instance, is always going to be a work in progress.

There’s no doubt that leadership can be more or less effective, depending on the character, conviction, and courage of the relevant leader. This is the human factor in history, that’s so often decisive, such as when the British Conservative Party chose Churchill rather than Halifax to invigorate the war effort against Nazism. In the end leadership is not about being right or wrong so much as being able to make decisions and to get things done.

In providing leadership, what matters is the judgment and the set of values brought to decision-making, at least as much as technical knowledge. The same set of facts, for instance, namely the surrender of France and the evacuation from Dunkirk, would have produced different leadership from Halifax than from Churchill. It would hardly be fair to claim that Churchill’s education at Sandhurst was better than Halifax’s at Oxford. It was their character, disposition and judgment that differed.

Just as the respective characters and judgment of presidents Biden and Zelensky so sharply differed, when one offered an expedient escape from Kyiv, and the other contemptuously refused it. Still, there’s no doubt that education can help to shape character, and that judgment can be enhanced by the knowledge of history and the appreciation of the human condition that a good education should provide.

I’m sometimes asked by young people with an interest in politics what they should do to be more effective, and my answer is never to join a faction, to consult polling, or to seek any particular office. It’s to immerse yourself in the best that’s been thought and said, so that whatever you do will be better for familiarity with the wisdom of the ages.

In particular it’s to read and re-read the New Testament, the foundation document of our culture, that’s shaped our moral and mental universe, in ways we can hardly begin to grasp, and which speaks to the best instincts of human nature.

And to bury yourself in history, especially a history that’s alive to the difference individuals make, and to the importance of ideas, of which a riveting example is Churchill’s magnificent four volume History of the English-Speaking Peoples, that’s also pretty much a global history, given that so much of the modern world has been made in English. And which Andrew Roberts has subsequently brought more or less up to date with his History of the English-Speaking Peoples in the 20th century.

Then there’s the book – I don’t claim it’s the finest ever written – just the one that’s most colonised my own imaginings: Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings; an epic adventure in duty and service, with obvious Christological echoes, in which the dividing line between good and evil, wisdom and folly, honour and indulgence runs through nearly every heart, which I must have read at least a half dozen times, most recently to my adolescent children. Who, naturally enough, preferred the movie to my own story telling.

There’s a scene in the 1970 Western “Chisum” when John Wayne’s character is trying to dissuade Billy The Kid from want and murder. “But that’s all just words,” says the hot-headed youngster. “Yes,” replies John Wayne, “but words are what men live by—words that they say and mean.” Those were the days when Hollywood was indeed a moral teacher.

And as for movies, my favourites have been Saving Private Ryan and the Australian classic Gallipoli, whose protagonists were pitched into vast conflicts way beyond their control, while retaining the agency to make a difference, especially by not living in fear of dying. And by remembering that to whom much is given, much is expected. Plus the wonderful Life of Brian, that so satirises today’s decolonizing and gender follies that it could hardly be made, yet still manages to respect the greatest story ever told.

So Imagine, for a moment, having to tackle every aspect of life with only your own physical and mental resources. Or with only the learning and the capability of those with whom you were in close contact. Even with abundant goodwill, life would be a Hobbesian ordeal: poor, nasty, brutish and short.

But With education, there’s access to the accumulated wisdom of mankind. Our task is to have the wit and the decency to make the most of it. At its best, education gives us access not just to this generation’s wisdom and knowledge but to all the wisdom and knowledge that’s ever been. It adds to our own experience and judgment, the experience and judgment of the greatest figures and the best thinkers that have ever lived. It makes their world ours too.

It’s education that opens up to each of us the wisdom of Plato, Aristotle and Aquinas, the insights into human behaviour of Shakespeare and Dickins, the creative imagination of Da Vinci and Michelangelo, the soulfulness of Handel and Bach, the scientific genius of Newton and Einstein, the daring and curiosity of James Cook and Marco Polo, and the courage and ambition of Julius Caesar and Napoleon. It gives us the world’s example to reflect upon. It enables us to be so much better than would otherwise be the case, in the ceaseless endeavour that should be the object of every life, to become our very best selves.

There’s hardly a heavier responsibility than the right nurturing of young people, through a judicious combination of the good teaching, the good example and the good practice to which the Great Hearts academies aspire. Every teacher should reflect on the gospel warning against anything that might lead young people astray, “better for him that a millstone were hanged around his neck and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea”. That’s a judgment that the Great Hearts Academies, at least, should magnificently avoid.

When screens are demanding every minute of young people’s attention, you have the responsibility to refocus their gaze.

When the saturation of social media preys on young people’s insecurities, it’s up to you to ground them back in reality.

When your students are tempted to see themselves to see them selves as victims, your job is to encourage them to count what blessings they have and still make the best choices they can.

When today’s story tellers are saying our history is more marred by villains than illuminated by heroes, it’s up to you to pass on the torch of culture, for without a vision the people perish.

Your work is more important than ever because each of us is shaped by all our lessons learned.

Churchill’s teachers changed the world, in ways they could hardly have guessed at the time, and likewise the teachers of today can tilt the world of tomorrow towards good.

Let me close with the immortal words of the late Queen Elizabeth, on her 21st birthday, that “my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and to the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong”. No one should be in ignorance of such a life, such an exemplar of the duty and service, the honour and the fealty, by which all should live; yet but for the study of history, what will future generations know of our mighty forebears, and how they lived and how they died: for family, for country, and for God.