Anchored by the Classic Learning Test

Dean Forman on Maintaining a Countercultural School Environment

September 14, 2023 Classic Learning Test
Anchored by the Classic Learning Test
Dean Forman on Maintaining a Countercultural School Environment
Show Notes Transcript

On this episode of Anchored, Soren is joined by Dean Forman, founder of John Adams Academy and author of John Adams Academy Leading a Revolution in Education. Forman shares how meeting his wife and reading a high school newspaper inspired him to establish a classical charter school in California. He explores the significance of creating new institutions instead of repairing existing ones and shares how he has maintained a countercultural school environment by proactively educating families about John Adams Academy's mission and carefully selecting faculty.

Today’s episode of Anchored is brought to you with support from America’s Christian Credit Union. Find out how ACCU can be the banking partner to your school or family by visiting americaschristiancu.com/CLT.





Soren Schwab (CLT):
Welcome back to the Anchored Podcast, the official podcast of the Classic Learning Test. My name is Soren Schwab, VP of Partnerships here at CLT, and today we are joined by Dr. Dean Forman. Dr. Forman founded John Adams Academy in 2010 with his wife, Linda, who lit the fire of education, classical education, and learning for Dean and his family. Their love of America, education, and family was a great motivation for the academy. Dean's undergrad degrees in financial planning. He's a certified employee benefit specialist and a certified financial planner. He holds a master's degree in retirement and estate planning and a PhD in constitutional law and philosophy. Dean also lived in Brazil for two years and speaks fluent Portuguese. John Adams Academy is the culmination of decades of work by Dean and his wife. In 2020, Dean completed a book called John Adams Academy, Leading a Revolution in Education. in which he shares his philanthropic journey in founding a school in American classical leadership education. This academic year, John Adams Academies has over 5,000 scholars. Dean and his wife, Linda have four children and 12 grandchildren, and they live in the Sacramento area. And Dean, it's such an honor to have you on today.

Dean Forman:
Thank you. It's a blessing to be here and I look forward to hopefully igniting the flame and many others to do what we've done. It's been quite a journey.

Soren Schwab (CLT):
Absolutely. We have such an exciting episode lined up today. I mean, I am joined by truly an educational revolutionary, if you will. There are people that look at problems in our education system and they complain endlessly these days, usually on social media. And then they end up doing nothing. And then there are leaders like you, Dean, who decided to sacrifice time, resources, energy in order to positively affect and impact our schools and thus our culture. And so it's really an honor to have you on today. And we always start the Anchored Podcast by talking about our guests own educational journey. I think that's the most fascinating part. How did you get here? How did you get to where you are? If I understand it correctly, you did not receive a classical education yourself. How were you first exposed to it? What lit the flame so to speak for you?

Dean Forman:
When I got married in 1981, I married a very educated woman. She went to the American school in Madrid, Spain, which was a classical school. So after we got married, I noticed that she was always taking me to museums and art galleries. She loved music. She played music. And she loved the classics. And for me, the world was revolved around business, sports. and economics. And I quickly learned that I was so undereducated. And I would liken it to the metaphor of coming out of the cave. And as I came out of the cave, and I looked around and I saw all this great literature and art and was being introduced to the beauty of music and classical music and so forth. I thought, oh my, I'm on a mountain top of such beauty, and where have I been? And so I decided then go back in the cave and bring others out and try and do something unique and different. And so that was kind of what ignited my classical journey. And like you said, how many times we sit around with a kitchen table, having dinner or whatever, and someone says, someone ought to do something about this. And I'm thinking, exactly, and that's you. So get up off of it, let's do it.

Soren Schwab (CLT):
Was there a moment in your life, maybe it was a dinner conversation, maybe it was something you witnessed or experienced, where essentially you said, you know what, enough is enough, like we can't keep going like this?

Dean Forman:
Yeah, there was that moment. There are a couple moments. But one that comes to mind is that my daughter brought home a high school newspaper in 1999, and the headline on it, very splashy, it said, let's talk about sex. And I thought, are you kidding me? And as I read the article, I thought, these are things that you'd have in a biology class, but you probably wouldn't be splashing them as a headline or trying to do it. do something like this. And as I got in further, email parents and things, I could tell that the culture was broken. It was not an uplifting culture of beauty and truth and goodness, but it was one of debauchery. And I thought that's just not what I hoped for my children. And so that was one of those epiphany moments. The other one came on the heels of that. When a person came to town, his name was Oliver DeMille. He had written a book called The Thomas Jefferson Education. And he was doing a seminar called Space to Face with Greatness. And as he did the seminar, he talked about the founding fathers and how they gave their public virtue. In other words, they did things not for remuneration, but because they wanted to uplift their community. And as they did that, they formed a country and a nation. that I think is the envy and the beauty of the world in many ways and is exporting the greatest export, which is freedom.

Soren Schwab (CLT):
Wow. In your book, you repeat the phrase, you can't put new wine into old bottles, especially when speaking about your and your wife's decision to found a new school in order, instead of maybe trying to reform existing schools. What were some of the first steps you took and when you decided this is something we wanna do?

Dean Forman:
So that metaphor is certainly one that was part of this. So what I did after that face to face with greatness and reading that high school newspaper, I went and talked to the high school principal and I could tell that we had a lively conversation is the only way I could characterize it for like two hours. And I could tell I wasn't going to change his mind and he wasn't going to change mine. you know, I'm going to get on the school board and really dig deeper and try and make a difference that way. And what I found is, is I got into the school that the bureaucracy and just the type of education they were teaching and how they were doing it was not uplifting. It was not inspiring. It didn't bring out that desire for something that was better or that I would call virtuous. It lacked virtue. And so I decided to get on the board. I was elected to the board and I got in there and I thought, wow, this is a big job in terms of trying to take this ship and turn it around. It was a Titanic and they were hitting icebergs everywhere. And I thought, you know, I'm not going to change this. The only way I'm gonna change it is doing a school that's different. But I thought, I don't know how to do that. I'm not really educated to do it. And so... It was at that point that I decided to take my own journey with Oliver DeMille as my mentor and pursued this PhD in Constitutional Law and Philosophy. And that's what kind of set me on this path then. But it was a journey that didn't all happen at once. You know, I'd call it my odyssey or whatever you want to call it because it has been. But that's why that metaphor was so important. Those principles of freedom. required me to do it first. In other words, Oliver DeMille taught me, he said, it's you not them. And this is a good educational principle because a lot of times we think, well it's the kids that are the problem and no the kids aren't the problem, it's you. If you fix you, the only person you can ever really fix, you will fix others because you'll inspire them. You won't fix them, they'll fix themselves but they will see how you did it. and they'll want to follow.

Soren Schwab (CLT):
We'll talk a little bit about mentorship later on which plays a big role at your schools, but somewhat facetiously I have to ask you I mean you're a Classical charter school a network of classical charter schools in California named after a founding father How are you not canceled yet? But but in all seriousness, right? Tell us about your decision. Well, I think I I understand now why a classical school, but maybe also the combination of a classical school, a charter school, and then naming it after one of our founding fathers, John Adams.

Dean Forman:
Well, John Adams was a mentor of mine. You know, you don't have to have mentors that are necessarily living. As we read books and great books, especially autobiographies or things that people learned, it's such a beautiful thing because in a short space of a few hours, you can learn what took them decades to understand. And I love John Adams. And you may recall that it was July the 2nd of 1776. And the delegates were wondering how they're going to get this approved. They knew they needed everyone to vote for it. And it wasn't happening. There was still a lot of bickering going on. And John Adams stood on his feet and he gave what Jefferson said was the speech. And he said, ever after I will refer to him as the Colossus of independence. And he said, because his words moved us from our seats. And he got everyone to come across the line. And of course, if you know anything about John, Abigail was no wilting violet. I mean,

Soren Schwab (CLT):
Hahaha

Dean Forman:
she was a strong woman and so strong in many ways. And she would constantly say, you know, remember the ladies and you only need to look at what she did while he was over in Europe. And, or no, he wasn't in Europe at the time. He was in Philadelphia, I believe. And as the battle of Bunker Hill started, she took Quincy to Penns Hill and she said, I want you to see this. And they stood there on Penns Hill and watched what was happening. And it made an impression on this young lad. He never forgot it. And because of that, this first family in many ways, I think became really a first family for America. Why? He had a family with a wife and children, many children, one that even became a future president. He took him, brought him over to Europe when he was a young lad and at the age of 15 sent him to be the ambassador to Russia. You know, and you go through these things, you think, my, oh my, how does this happen? They abhorred slavery. They were faithful to each other. You know, the list just goes on and on and I thought, this is the... type of individual we want to hold up to Americans to show the world how virtue and freedom can come together.

Soren Schwab (CLT):
Wow, absolutely beautiful. I love that in your book and it's about obviously your founding of John Adams Academy, but I feel like I learned a lot about John Adams himself too. And so I love, absolutely love the stories. Just on a quick side note, what's your favorite John Adams biography? Is it? Do you have one?

Dean Forman:
Yeah, it's probably McCullis. I

Soren Schwab (CLT):
Okay,

Dean Forman:
felt

Soren Schwab (CLT):
yeah.

Dean Forman:
like that just lit a fire in me and he did such a good job. And I've read all of John Adams' works because part of my education was we read the originals. But I love that. And you know what I loved is I loved his integrity. You look at who would defend British soldiers in 1770, you know, in the 1770s timeframe. But he would, he believed that people deserved a fair trial. And as he said at the time, facts are stubborn things. And he was trying to show that we should base our system of judging others based upon not only facts, but what the virtue I would say and recognizing the innocence of people, and unless there's facts that say otherwise. And so, He was willing to go against the tide of popularity. But yet, at the same time, within the next few years, what a voice he was for the revolution. I mean, between he and Jefferson and Franklin, and you know how it comes together, Madison, you look at all these people and how the roles they played, each was so unique and so beautiful, and that's why I think this was providential in every way.

Soren Schwab (CLT):
Well, quoting another great of American history, Lincoln, who once said, the philosophy of the school room in one generation will be the philosophy of government in the next. What did you or do you see in America today that you think points back to, well, we, I think both would consider a failing education system.

Dean Forman:
Well, it was about two weeks ago I was in Springfield, Illinois, and we went to the Lincoln Museum. And once again, I just got such a, my heart was just bursting as I watched and listened and read again, all of the things related to this strapping young lad born in Kentucky, moved to Indiana, eventually goes to Illinois and, you know, self-educated. hardly had a year's worth of formal education. But with that small education that he had, he then turned to Plutarch's lives and he turned to Shakespeare and he turned to Aesop and you look at all these things that he did and read and he had a great vocabulary. That Gettysburg Address, oh my, how could you not read that and go? Where did he come up with these things? And yet we know that he came up with them because he had read all of these classical works and he was a gifted writer. And because of that, he taught, at least me, again, as I watched this, just the importance of teaching children about good literature and the virtue in it, and it teaches us lessons. And that is the philosophy that we're looking for. It's one we talk about in classical education of virtue, but it takes it beyond just maybe the meanings that we use. The meanings of virtue goes very deep into personal integrity and honor and courage. It's as though, well, you may recall the great Christian apologist, C.S. Lewis, that said, every courage takes the form of every virtue at the testing point. And I thought to myself, that is what we need. We need people that can have that courage at its testing point to make the right decisions.

Soren Schwab (CLT):
And so when you look at the educational landscape, well, when you founded John Adams Academy, maybe even still now, well, maybe even worse so now in our maybe traditional public schools, what are you missing? Clearly they're not classical schools, but it goes beyond that, right? You were saying they lacked virtue in itself. I mean, is that even still a goal of progressive education?

Dean Forman:
Yeah, yeah, that's the maybe big question. And as I look at that education today, I think to myself, what can it really offer in terms of inspiring someone to do more and become more? Because industrial education is what we have been raised on and industrial education. is not the right education for our day. We believe that not only do you need classical education, but you need leadership to go with it. And you need to become, and I'll put a little word in front of that, I call it servant leaders, because servant leaders are ones that capture what the founders did, and that's public virtue to put the goodness of society above themselves to help others find their excellence. And together, our collective excellences make a society that is virtuous and it promotes the desire for becoming people of integrity and wisdom and knowledge and understanding to really change the world. Because that's what we're about, I think, for the most part. But in our little crest

Soren Schwab (CLT):
Yeah.

Dean Forman:
we have, we have the Latin words servimus ducemas praecilemus. And I'm not a... very good at pronunciations perhaps, but what it means is we serve first. How many people wanna come in, they wanna raise their hand, pick me, pick me, I wanna lead, I wanna lead, but no, you serve. Then others see what you do and they will then ask you to lead. And then when you lead, because you based it on virtue of service, you become someone that they wanna follow, you will excel. So we serve, we lead, then we excel.

Soren Schwab (CLT):
Beautiful. Well, that's a perfect transition at John Adams Academies provides an American classical leadership education. And one of the main goals for the scholars, and you mentioned along with virtue, wisdom and truth, is self-governance. How do you accomplish that, especially in K-12, when it seems like if we're looking left and right, adolescence. But you expect so much more of your scholars. So how do you instill or teach self-governance at such young ages?

Dean Forman:
Well, you hit the nail on the head at such young ages. It begins at the youth and even when they're, you know, three, four, five years old in their homes. And now when they come to us at the school, we have 10 core values and every day we do have them raise the flag, salute the flag. say the Pledge of Allegiance, but then also recite our 10 core values, which begin with appreciation of our national heritage. And they follow a sequence, if you will, about how to produce virtue in the soul. People say, what kind of school is this? What do you do? And I say, well, we do two things. We produce great citizens and great souls. And so if you... teach them those values, those core values. You relate everything you do in the classroom and in education to those values. Then when they come out the other end, hopefully in the 12th grade, they are a self-governing citizen. They know what that means. They know how to be accountable to... take responsibility, I'd call it personal responsibility. How many times do you hear people say, hey, I threw me under the bus, or, you know,

Soren Schwab (CLT):
Mm-hmm.

Dean Forman:
it wasn't my fault, don't look at me. And it isn't about that, it's about, self-governance is about looking inside yourself and seeing what I did wrong and how I can do better. It is a, it's a process, it's about becoming, like I said, becoming a great soul and a great citizen.

Soren Schwab (CLT):
Wow. You know, over the last 10 years, I've had the privilege of visiting a lot of schools and sitting in a lot of classrooms. And it's favored part of my job, whether it's charter schools, Christian schools, private schools. But I got to say, classical schools just feel different. And I'd argue that obviously, besides, you know, curricular differences or pedagogical differences, I think it's truly about school culture. right, that sets them apart from other schools. How did you approach when you and your wife started the first John Adams Academy, how did you approach the question of school culture?

Dean Forman:
You know, isn't that the heart of the,

Soren Schwab (CLT):
Yeah.

Dean Forman:
everything we do so, and I mean, think about that. I mean, I said that over the years to those that are here, I said, let me ask you, what's our report card? As an institution, what is it? And sometimes people say, well, you know, they learn the classics or this and that. I said, those are all really good things. And you know what? They're important. But I said, the most important is the culture. The culture is what determines who we become and who we are. And it's the product of what our country is. And so when I look at a school, the culture has to be at the bottom. And so what I tell them is, if we have a culture that's virtuous, people will want to flock here because it's a haven. It's a place of sanctuary. It's a place where people can come. and know they're safe. If you talk to parents why they come to our school, the first thing on their list they'll say, the culture. And so that tells me that we're doing some things very well. We aren't perfect in many of most ways, but one thing we try to get right is the culture. And we tell our leaders that that's number one, and we call it the ABCs of leading. And if you're an administrator here, and that is, You learn that the academics are very important. That's the A's. And the B is the, you need to learn the business side because we have to be able to survive economically. But the C is the culture. And I said, if you get the culture right, the A is gonna be super easy because they'll like to learn. It'll be the right environment to do that. And the B will happen because everybody will be flocking to us.

Soren Schwab (CLT):
Wow. Well, I guess over 5,000 students now, you've proved right. But in our current culture, people would probably look at your school and say that you are counter-cultural, right? And that you're so different from, you know, I found that term interesting, right? Because

Dean Forman:
Yeah,

Soren Schwab (CLT):
we're... Anyways.

Dean Forman:
yeah. No,

Soren Schwab (CLT):
But

Dean Forman:
I think that's

Soren Schwab (CLT):
I guess...

Dean Forman:
right.

Soren Schwab (CLT):
But you're not a private school. And so it's not like you can handpick families that you think fit your culture, right? And so your lottery system with a long, long wait list. And so I guess how do you maintain that kind of culture and shape that kind of culture continuously when you get new families with different backgrounds year after year?

Dean Forman:
Great question and what we do on the front end is to try to educate the parents is to this is a school of choice so when you choose this You need to know that you're choosing John Adams but you're choosing what comes with that and what comes with it is a classical education An American classical education, so we actually teach him to like America I know

Soren Schwab (CLT):
rebel.

Dean Forman:
that sounds counter-cultural these days, and it is, but we want them to know we will be teaching them how to be an American citizen and what that means. Because remember it's not about rights, it's about responsibilities, it's about duties, that's what citizenship's about. And so as we lead to this end, we want to make sure that they see that and so when they We will have an interview with the family and say, this is the education, this is the culture, these are the 10 core values. Now listen to this mission statement. John Adams Academies is restoring America's heritage by developing servant leaders who are keepers and defenders of the principles of freedom for which our founding fathers pledged their lives, fortunes and sacred honor. It's a noble statement. And those core values are noble. And so we let make them look at them and say, is this the right place for you? Will you serve also in the community, a minimum of 40 hours with your family to do things? And they sign that. And we tell them, when you sign something, your word is your integrity, your honor, and everything. And so we expect them then to honor their word. And that's how it's set up. you set up the foundation correctly, I think then you end up with the right kind of people.

Soren Schwab (CLT):
Well, let's talk about the right kind of people that you hire and that you have hired over the years. And in particular, I'm curious, spoken with quite a few folks that started one charter school and then turned into a network, right? And we've heard Great Hearts and Valor and the Hillsdale schools and Ascend and of course, John Adams. How do you... avoid kind of, I guess, over bureaucracy or administrative fluff, right? As you're scaling, as you're growing, as you're replicating, how do you keep the schools from seeming overly bureaucratic, I guess?

Dean Forman:
I wish I had the magic potion for that.

Soren Schwab (CLT):
Right.

Dean Forman:
The right prescription. I think we have a few things, but I think we are like most institutions trying to make sure we're not letting the bureaucracy overcome the classroom. And I think you do that in a couple ways. One is that remember teachers should be empowered within their own classroom. I would call them academic entrepreneurs. And we need to get out of their way. We need to remember that that's where the magic happens. It's not in the ivory tower where the magic happens.

Soren Schwab (CLT):
Mm-hmm.

Dean Forman:
If anything, I'm not trying to say anything negative about administrators, we need them. But the teacher is our product. That's what we sell. I told people early on, I said, you know, I'm just a concerned citizen that started a school. I'm going to make a lot of mistakes. But I said, you know what, if I have the right teacher, those kids are going to go home happy and mom and dad are going to be happy and they won't give a hoot or a holler about the small errors that I may make. And, um, that's what is, I think extremely important. So the principle is, uh, stewardship. It's about teaching the, the administrators, the ABCs that I talked about earlier. and remembering that the virtue of an administrator is in their ability to lift things out of the classroom so the teacher can do the teaching and inspiring.

Soren Schwab (CLT):
Wow, amen to that. Yeah, yeah, no, that's very prudent thing to do. And clearly you have three campuses. And would you say when you go to those campuses, are they distinct? Would you say, do they each have their own flair when you visit them or do they all pretty much feel the same?

Dean Forman:
They are the same in the ways that are important and that's the culture first and foremost. And the core values and the mission. They understand the mission and they understand what we're trying to do. Where they're different is maybe in the way that they might empower or in the way that they might do some things to build culture and take it even further. And they can do that in a variety of ways, maybe at the harvest festival in one, although what happens is one starts to do things well and then the other's adopted

Soren Schwab (CLT):
And yeah.

Dean Forman:
and that's a good thing. So, and we do a Veterans Day event every year that is just fantastic. And the veterans and others just flock here. I started a few years ago, a grandparents day to national grandparents day, because grandparents, if you look at it, those are the biggest, supporters of this because they understand that this is generational now and This is their posterity. This is what they're leaving behind and they want to make sure that it's gonna do something good I remember my mentor Oliver DeMille came to class one day and he said All right. What's the when it was the last time you did something for your grandchildren? Well, we none of us had grandchildren. I was thinking what kind of question is that? And he said something he said, I'll never forget. He said, you need to start thinking generationally, because that it's the three P's, it's the poets, the prophets and the philosophers that think generationally, and they're the ones that change the world. And he said, by the way, if you give me a dissertation that isn't going to change the world, don't bother bringing it to me. He said, I only will accept something that will change the world. Well, you know what, I five years almost before I decided they called me up and they said are you ever going to finish? And I said you know what I just I presented a few things I have an idea how to change the world but I just don't know how to do it exactly. And I eventually presented as my doctoral project dissertation John Adams Academy and that became my living change the world project dissertation. for my PhD.

Soren Schwab (CLT):
And can you remind our listeners of Mr. DeMille's, the title of the book that inspired you so much?

Dean Forman:
A Thomas Jefferson education.

Soren Schwab (CLT):
Thomas Jefferson education. Well, speaking of books, we always end the Anchored podcast by talking about books because that's what we're doing at CLT. We love, love books, especially great books. If there is one book or one text that you can point to that has been most impactful in your life, what would it be and why?

Dean Forman:
I'd probably be, there's many, you know, we all vacillate and I'm going to obviously put the scriptures at the highest end of that and that has impacted me the most. But I would say from a non-scriptural basis, something other than the Bible, Man's Search for Meaning by Dr. Victor Frankel. was undoubtedly for me the greatest book that has ever been written. And why would I say that? If you read that book, he will tell you something that just pinned me to the wall, just got me right in the soul. In the early part of the book, he talks about coming home. I think it was 1942 and his visa had arrived and his father was greeted him at the door. He said, Hey, your visa's here. You can go to America. You can leave. And, He looked on the table and he saw a piece of stone. And he said, what is that? And he said, that's from the synagogue. And he said, well, what does it say on it? Because it was only a piece of it because it had been destroyed by mob action. And he said, honor thy father and thy mother. And he said, it was like fire went into him. And he said, I'm not going to America. I'm staying here with you. Well, a few months later, they were all in a concentration camp. And his seminal work, his penultimate work that he had done was on this idea of logo therapy.

Soren Schwab (CLT):
Mm-hmm.

Dean Forman:
And all of that document was lost. But over the next few years as he was in that concentration camp, he learned really what I would call it in the laboratory then of what was going to happen. And he taught me something that, and I'll summarize it this way. You may recall that, you know, when you look at Maslow's hierarchy of needs and people say, you know, life's about self actualization. And he didn't say anything negative about Maslow. But what he did say was this. He said it isn't about self actualization. It's about self transcendence. And it's about using your excellence and having a purpose for living. And then you use that to bless those around you. and you change the world that way. And I thought to myself, if everyone had that glimpse of how to find purpose with their excellence or their virtues that they have and transcend self in the service of others, that servant leadership, that is what I believe will make classical education set it apart from anything else. And... Whether it's classical education, you don't have to be classically educated, but you take that principle and it will change the world and it'll change communities and make us better people everywhere.

Soren Schwab (CLT):
Wow, thank you for sharing that, sir. What a way to end the episode. Thank you. Again, we're here with Dr. Dean Foreman, who founded John Adams Academy in 2010 and is also the author of John Adams Academy, Leading a Revolution in Education. Thank you so much for joining us today, Dean.

Dean Forman:
Thank you. It's been my pleasure. Truly, thank you for the opportunity.