On August 17, 2022, Columbus Dispatch announced that “Some parents who want to find an alternative to current public and private schools are looking at something called ‘classical education.’” 

Those few words are both misleading and revealing. No evidence is presented about any parents “looking,” other than the founders/promoters of the foundling retail—private—franchises of Columbus Classical Academy and Heart of Ohio Classical Academy. Is the name meant to evoke –or be confused with—Columbus’ highest-ranked private school, the Columbus Academy, another common marketing ploy?

More compelling, “something called ‘classical education’” misrepresents and exaggerates the relationship of this new marketing campaign to either “classical” or “education.”

First, these retail shops are marketing right-wing ideology and curricula dishonestly. They are neither classical nor conservative or, broadly-speaking, educational. Classical curricula and pedagogy are not “Christian” They predate Christianity, and are not religiously aligned or committed. The age-appropriateness and relevance of any formulation of authentic “classical education” is nowhere considered in the announcement of two proposed elementary schools. At what age will instruction in Latin (but not Greek) begin, for example? How will it be taught?

Columbus Classical Academies’ marketing touts “explicit phonics,” which is almost universally taught in contemporary US elementary schools.Singapore math,” a particular product for sale, is also on the menu. What is that? According to its website, it “is a highly effective teaching approach based on research of math mastery in Singapore, which consistently ranks at the top in international math testing.”

There is no explanation of what it is, what “math mastery” might be (a form of classical slavery, perhaps), why it is effective in Singapore at least, if not necessarily in Columbus, or any evidence of its ranking “at the top in international math testing.” Nor but at what ages and levels.

The promotional script, of course, pitches “rigorous” STEM as well as “classical.” Is that like a hot sauce on the side? How could it not in 2022 Ohio in the shadow of the domination of Intel?

But the relevance and relationship to, first, “classical education” which attended little to mathematics and science, or much beyond Euclidian geometry, and not at all to technology and engineering is not established. Second, the normative and historical opposition or antithesis of the “classical” to “science” which emerged as a coherent but not yet cohesive subject almost two millennia later is nowhere acknowledged. Third, age-appropriateness of “STEM” to elementary education is nowhere mentioned in the slim catalogue. The questions that arise are too many to list.

More mundanely but practically, we are told that “the school will use textbooks from primary sources, including books written by scientists such as Marie Curie, Isaac Newton, and other historical scientists.” I am confused: what is a “textbook from primary sources”? Do they mean an anthology? Writings by “historical scientists”: what is a “historical scientist,” a deceased one? Again, what is the relationship to K-6 or K-8, and to “rigorous STEM”?

The promoters are ignorant of education in general, and “classics” and “STEM” particularly. They are sales persons. There is no evidence that any of them have appropriate training. Dan Gibson, “co-founder and headmaster of Columbus Classical Academy” is a lawyer who left his partnership with a large firm. His notion of “classical education” is purely ideological, not historical, humanistic, or classical. To him, “classical education differs from modern education on three levels.” The first is “a commitment to learning the true, the good and beautiful.” The second is “teaching for virtue;” the third “is a difference in curriculum.”

Forgive me for declaring loudly: Huh? Huh! What does he mean? Does he himself know? What is “the true, the good and beautiful?” The most brilliant classical authors, more recent classicists, and modern critics have never agreed among themselves. And to most educated people, that’s a very good thing. Gibson is unaware of this.

His collaborator, co-founder Mike Gross, tells us more: “the school is a Hillsdale College Curriculum school, where its goal will be to ‘instill in students moral and intellectual virtue by means of a really rich and robust course of study in liberal arts and sciences.” But neither strong classical or modern education “instill in students . . . . virtue.” That is indoctrination, not education, certainly not classical education. Not even the Socratic Method has a place for “instilling.”

Two major issues arise. First is Gross’ history with respect to fraud and deceit committed by his wife with respect to false allegations about the real Columbus Academy teaching some never- defined “critical race theory.” Gross’ wife and another mother read completely fabricated scripts taken from one of a handful of radical right-wing websites (from Heritage to 1776 Project or ALEC) claiming that their daughters were exposed to “critical race theory” at the Columbus Academy when the subject is not taught in K-12 and rarely to undergraduates anywhere in the US.

When the mothers were challenged by the school and the media after they purposefully disrupted a school board meeting, their children were “disenrolled.” In other words, they were removed legally because the parents had explicitly and knowingly violated their contract with the school. The Columbus Academy publically stated: the parents “waged a public campaign of false and misleading statements and inflammatory attacks” against the school and teachers.

Where are “virtue,” “the true, the good and beautiful”? Nowhere. This bears no relationship to any recognizable form of “classical education.” This “classical” is a spoiled sauce left to simmer far too long.

These “Academies” and their home company, Hillsdale College, a small historically Baptist, and for most of its history unaccredited small town college in Michigan, claim to be conservative. They are not. They are right-wing ideologues and self-promoting sales people.

Conservatives, we too often need to be reminded, accept facts, value honest debate, are generally tolerant if not egalitarian, and, fundamentally, believe in limited government, not banning everything with which they disagree. They are a diminishing group.

To Hillsdale, in its embrace and its president’s contribution to Trump’s 1776 Project’s dishonesty, fictionalization, and radical shrinking of documented inclusive American history to exclude almost all residents who were not white men—and not all of them, and its rejection of shared public rights and interests, represents a militant fringe movement.

Proudly promoting its refusal to accept “taxpayers’ money” in any form, Hillsdale relentlessly and indiscriminately grifts all mailing lists for donations. My wife was bombarded with unsolicited spam for no apparent reason along with some of my activist undergraduate friends until I threatened to report Hillsdale to the FCC and FTC as well as publicizing them in higher education media. 

Hillsdale is imperialistic and seek political-cultural hegemony dishonestly. It markets both online “degrees” in “The 1776 Project” and has an expanding chain of elementary and secondary school franchises, like the so-called Columbus Classical Academies. They are also part of the college’s National Education Campaign: An Effort to Promote Informed Patriotism & Preserve Liberty by Educating Young [and Older] Americans.” As should be clear, Hillsdale is not about education but rather right-wing ideological indoctrination. Its tried-and-true methods are deceit, frightening, brain-washing, grifting, and self-enrichment.

President Arnn’s unsolicited form letter begins almost laughably, “Dear Friend of Liberty, America is in a crisis. The far-Left in our nation is pushing to replace the American idea of equal individual rights with the revolutionary idea of unequal rights based on identity with critical race theory.” This 1776 Project proponent continues, making it up as he goes, “recent surveys show younger citizens are increasingly drawn to socialism, anarchy, and other ideas destructive to society.” In supposed opposition, “Hillsdale College, where I am president, leads a mighty effort to push back against this. Since its founding in 1844, we have offered ‘sound learning’ of the kind needed to preserve ‘the inestimable blessings of civil and religious liberty.’” Note the simultaneous denunciation and praise of “civil liberty.”

A misleading and completely leading “National Opinion Survey of 1,000,000 U.S, Citizens” and an unrestrained, repetitive begging for donations—from “as little” to “as much”—accompanies the letter. A laugh-out loud, separate endorsement from game-show host and Chairman of the Hillsdale College Board of Trustees, Pat Sajak, tops off a separate mailing along its sales catalogues Imprimis and Legacies. With no more definition or evidence than Arnn, Sajak proffers, “Hillsdale offers a world-class education free of the far-Left propaganda that has infected so many of America’s college campuses.” He does not identity either what “world” or what “far-Left” that may be. He can’t.

This is the parent company of Columbus Classical Academies. Not surprisingly, Hillsdale’s own material does not mention “classical” or “STEM.” That is a seasonal or a regional selection, an occasional sale; or did I miss that issue of the catalogue?


Harvey J. Graff is Professor Emeritus of English and History at The Ohio State University and inaugural Ohio Eminent Scholar in Literacy Studies. Author of many books on social history, the history of literacy and education, and interdisciplinarity, he writes about the history and contemporary condition of higher education for Times Higher Education, Inside Higher Education, Academe Blog, Washington Monthly, Publishers Weekly, Against the Current; Columbus Free Press, and newspapers. Searching for Literacy: The Social and Intellectual Origins of Literacy Studies is published by Palgrave Macmillan in August. My Life with Literacy: The Continuing Education of a Historian. The Intersections of the Personal, the Political, the Academic, and Place is forthcoming.