Religion & Liberty Online

Setting the World Ablaze, Thales-Style

(Image credit: Thales Academy)

Parents are desperate for alternatives to public schools and even conventional college educations. The classical education movement is seeking to meet this need. And Thales Academies are among the best examples of what the movement has to offer.

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Business and educational entrepreneur Robert L. Luddy is a conservative Catholic who embraces dynamism and adaptability in bringing visions to life. Thales Academy is one such vision. In his new book, The Thales Way, Luddy provides the blueprint for and origin story of this now immensely successful classical school franchise. The Thales approach to education and its unique charisma make Luddy’s primer an inspiring read.

Thales Academy was founded in 2007, in North Carolina, when a group of 30 concerned parents and dedicated teachers gathered at Luddy’s successful HVAC manufacturing company, CaptiveAire, to discuss the potential for a new private school. K–12 education had already become a passion for Luddy, in part because of his awareness of how unprepared the modern workplace was for new challenges and for the demands of continuous growth necessary for American industry to compete and prosper.

Luddy agreed to provide the newly proposed school office space at CaptiveAire. His daughter, Julie, proposed naming the new endeavor after Thales of Miletus, one of the Seven Sages of Greece. In the halls of this business, then, Luddy and his collaborators forged a new school that “is proudly and distinctly American, both in its entrepreneurial culture and the way we embrace traditional values.” More specifically, it was to be a private school that “has the freedom to teach the Classics in the Judeo-Christian tradition” and the business savvy to make it both “excellent and affordable.” Today there are a least a dozen Thales Academies as well as a promising new Thales College.

Thales Academy is a unique educational institution; it’s also part of the larger classical education movement. The schools and organizations that comprise that movement are one of the great hopes for American cultural renewal. In these schools, the virtues are still taught and modeled, and the classroom is alive with students who want to be there and to learn. There are in my estimation upward of 1,000 classical schools today. They are not educational alternatives merely. They are the counter culture.

Thales Academies’ whole-person approach to affordable, Classics-based education reflects the business, civic, and religious orientation of Robert Luddy. His unique blend of business acumen and broad interdisciplinary commitments results in a vision that might be called “management humanitas.” The classical ends of wisdom and virtue, of cultivating in students the lifelong pursuit of truth, beauty, and goodness, find practical expression at every point of Thales Academy.

Some basic commitments made at the outset of the Thales experience are relevant to this aspect of their story. High among them is that Thales schools are managed to outcomes, not to inputs as most elementary schools are. Alternatively, Thales “measures success by evaluating student outcomes such as university admission, SAT/ACT test scores, school transcripts, senior theses, and quarterly teacher evaluations. Students must be able to research, think, debate, and write clearly and concisely.” Luddy devotes a chapter near the end of his book describing the “15 Top Outcomes of a Thales Student.” As he asserts, Thales is unique for a lot of reasons, but its commitment to outcomes is “essential.”

This commitment is a main reason why Thales rejected accreditation. Luddy believes that the accreditation process is locked in stasis and staleness and produces the wrong incentives. As he puts it, “We believe that rigorous processes quickly become obsolete because the world is dynamic and constantly changing.”

Rejecting accreditation was a courageous decision that came at a time when the power of the accreditation cartel was starting to weaken and employers were looking for innovative ways to validate knowledge and skills. Schools like Thales are providing new pipelines of talent capable of meeting the challenges of today’s dynamic workplace, as high school and college degrees are no longer reliable assurances of knowledge or competence. A Thales student is just what many businesses now seek. Indeed, Luddy himself notes that CaptiveAire has a successful internship program and that Thales has a feeder dimension to it with some of its most successful recent hires coming from homegrown Thales talent.

Luddy and his associates are duly proud of the Thales curriculum. While a broad outline of the curriculum will probably be recognizable to readers familiar with the classical education movement, its exceptional organization and ambition are impressive. By way of explanation, Luddy organizes The Thales Way in two parts, each consisting of six chapters. Part I focuses on speculative wisdom, which he calls “classical formal education.” Part II seeks to foster practical wisdom, which he calls “Thinking and Life Skills.”

Within each of these parts and chapters, Luddy demonstrates the order, integration, and progression of knowledge students receive in their K–5 years, in 6th–8th grades, and in high school. It is an impressive, learned, and thoughtful approach to schooling, all the while focused on “developing virtuous future leaders with well-developed judgment.”

Thales positions truth as the foundation for all it does. It invites students to “climb the ladder” and its sturdiest rungs—the transcendentals of truth, beauty, goodness, and the dignity of the human person. Throughout the curriculum, Luddy emphasizes an approach that sees the world as it really is. Rejecting the progressive utopianism common to the curriculum of many schools today, Thales opts for an Aristotelian and Thomistic realism. One might add a Hayekian realism, too.

Thales Academies also seek the good through character formation. They approach this by focusing on skills and competencies necessary for any profession, as they will speak to the full truth of nature and the destiny of the human person. Reasoning skills, communication skills, and social skills—all these help students grow with special attention to the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, courage, and temperance.

These virtues find clarity and progression in the Thales Academy commitment to the three classical stages of learning: grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Luddy has witnessed the outcomes that follow from this approach. As he writes: “By the time our students graduate from high school, they have been equipped to be highly capable truth-seekers and thinkers with excellent character, civility, fairness, and integrity.”

The arts are pursued at Thales for their own sake, Luddy explains in a chapter entitled “The Arts and Vocational Training,” as well as for the practical benefits they might confer, especially in the lower grades. Upper-level students follow an “industrial arts” sequence that emphasizes vocational and practical skills. Literature, writing, and rhetoric fall under a “communications” track and again lean practical, emphasizing the connection between great writing and innovation. It seems here that more design work is desirable as part of the Thales experience to cultivate in students what Edmund Burke called a “moral imagination,” especially as we live in an age dominated less by the word and more by the image.

Luddy’s management and economics experience finds expression throughout the school’s design. Examples include the school’s commitment to Kaizan, the Japanese philosophy of continuous improvement; in its inclusion of emotional intelligence as an area of interest; in its understanding of the limits of technology in education; in its commitment to Direct Instruction as a pedagogical approach; and in its promotion of dynamism and change as a goal and not just a process.

In this sense, the curriculum is unique in teaching the theory of entrepreneurship in addition to economics and personal finance in its “Thinking and Life Skills” track. Thales may stand alone in emphasizing not only economics to the degree that it does but specifically the Austrian School. High school students graduate having read both classical economists like Adam Smith, Jean-Baptiste Say, Thomas Malthus, and David Ricardo, and more recent free market and individual-rights stalwarts such as Ludwig von Mises, F.A. Hayek, Henry Hazlitt, Carl Menger, and Thomas Sowell. I can imagine one outcome of this rich immersion is that Thales students are much less likely than their peers elsewhere to fall prey to the false panaceas of pop social justice movements, government interventionism, and collectivism.

Whether through its speculative or practical emphases, Luddy is proud to note that the advantage a Thales graduate has over others is “perseverance.” As he reflects, “Perseverance drives one’s determination and passions to serve the future generations. Innovators, thinkers, and doers alike all exhibit perseverance in the face of the challenges they must overcome to build the future they envision.” Robert Luddy is his own best example here. He has persevered in a time of great moral and educational confusion, determined to serve the rising generation by creating an excellent educational experience that can yet yield virtuous leaders.

Or as he put it elsewhere in The Thales Way: “I set about building what a school could and should look like, and as an American who loves our founding principles, I cast a vision for the future of their children and my grandchildren. The greatest thing I can do is to create opportunities for the people who come after me to achieve their dreams, whatever those may be.”

This is not just the Thales Way. It’s the Luddy Way.

Jeffrey O. Nelson

Jeffrey O. Nelson is CEO of the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal.