Katy Arnn O’Toole

2008 Publius Fellow

What is your current position?

I’m the Assistant Provost for K-12 Education at Hillsdale College. Here at Hillsdale we have a large network of K-12 charter and private schools that we have helped start, and many others that look to us for guidance on classical liberal arts curriculum and instruction. My job is to oversee all of that work and help it grow.

What inspired you to choose this career path?

I started a classical school in Austin, TX, and it was part of Hillsdale’s network of schools. Being the Headmaster of a K-12 schools is one of the best jobs in the world. I loved it. I worked at my school for 5 years, and then Hillsdale hired me to help schools like it all across the country.

What are you currently working on?

I’m thinking a lot about board governance these days, and also learning a lot about Latin curriculum and instruction. Those are two issues important to Hillsdale’s network of schools at the moment. We’re also planning our annual summer conference for teachers (800 attendees for two weeks!) and interviewing applicants for positions in our curriculum department.

How did you hear about the Claremont Institute?

I grew up with the Claremont Institute. My dad, Larry Arnn, was one of four graduate students that founded it. I remember when the Publius Fellows stayed around for the whole summer, and when the fourth of July celebration happened at the Publius fellows’ apartments on the Claremont McKenna campus. One year we watched the fireworks on the grass right outside the stadium, and we had pieces of exploded fireworks falling all around us–fun, and probably very dangerous. My mom (a Brit!) used to make the American flag cake for that party. We still read the same Claremont patriotic readings when I get together with my parents for the Fourth.

There are all sorts of educational programs out there for current and rising conservative professionals. What do you think makes the Claremont Institute’s Fellowships unique?

The professors associated with Claremont make the argument for America with greater depth than any others.  They treat America as if it can be understood through reason. Therefore their arguments help us love it not just because it is our own, but because it is good.

Who would it be, why, and what would you discuss, if you could have a conversation with an American Founder, or any great thinker?

I would say George Washington, but my husband (also a former Publius Fellow) would counter that Alexander Hamilton is really the one to talk to, because he wrote everything that Washington said. We actually had this debate while working at the Claremont Review of Books. He’s probably right that Hamilton would be the better conversationalist, but I’d still like to just watch George Washington at work.

What do you believe are the most import issues currently facing education in the United States and why?

There is a renaissance happening in American education right now. Parents are more interested in what their children are learning in school than they have been in a long time, and schools are having to answer questions about what they teach and how they teach it. Schools that can answer parents’ questions well are thriving, and many new schools focused on providing tried and true curriculum and instruction are being founded all across the country. There is a massive number of students on waiting lists for classical schools, and governors and state legislators are starting to notice. In Florida, South Dakota, Ohio, Arizona, Louisiana, Iowa, and many other states, there are promising moves to promote school choice and high quality curriculum.  

But, at the same time, teaching should be a highly sought after career, and it hasn’t been for a long time. We don’t properly honor teachers in this country, and it’s gotten much worse in the last couple of years. We’ve forgotten what it takes to be an excellent teacher, and we don’t properly appreciate the ones who are really good. A school is only as good as the teachers within it, so we’ve got to figure out how to attract the best back into teaching positions.

What qualities do you believe will make outstanding statesmen/women in this century?

Courage and prudence, as in all times.

What do you believe is the secret to reaching young minds in terms of embracing the adventure of learning about our nation’s history?

A teacher who students’ respect must talk about America as if it is something worthy of inquiry–which means, of course, that the teacher must believe that, too.

What books are you currently reading?

I read Aristotle’s Ethics or parts of it over again all the time. C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man is one of my favorite books to teach, and I still use it a lot for talks I give about classical education. I haven’t gotten to teach in a couple of years, but when I did my favorite book to teach was Gulliver’s Travels. Reading right now? During the day, some pretty technical stuff on the Carver model of board governance and a night, a lot of children’s books.

Do you have a favorite quote?  Why does it resonate with you?

This quote from Leo Strauss reminds me that good thinking requires stablity of soul, and that the moral virtues are required for the intellectual virtues:

Liberal education, which consists in the constant intercourse with the greatest minds, is a training in the highest form of modesty, not to say of humility. It is at the same time a training in boldness: It demands from us the complete break with the noise, the rush, the thoughtlessness, the cheapness of the Vanity Fair of the intellectuals as well as of their enemies. It demands from us the boldness implied in the resolve to regard the accepted views as mere opinions, or to regard the average opinions as extreme opinions which are at least as likely to be wrong as the most strange or the least popular opinions. Liberal education is liberation from vulgarity. The Greeks had a beautiful word for ‘vulgarity;’ they called it apeirokalia, lack of experience in things beautiful. Liberal education supplies us with experience in things beautiful. —Leo Strauss, Liberalism Ancient and Modern

What is the most distinctive attribute/character of the people in the state where you grew up that you genuinely admire?

I love California. I had a beautiful childhood there, and today I still notice when people are from the West Coast. They’re relaxed.

What is your favorite cultural/recreational pastime (or hobby) and why?

We bought a hundred year old house in Hillsdale, MI, and we’re renovating it. I love doing that. Here in Michigan we have real seasons, and now that it’s March we’re waiting for spring and thinking about gardening. Gardening becomes really appealing when you can only do it for a few months out of the year.

Where do you see yourself in ten years?

We have two little children – 10 months and 2 years old. They’ll be in 4th and 5th grade, which are some of my favorite grades. Kids that age are little scholars. They’re young enough that they still have a childlike openness to discovery, but old enough to discover some pretty high level things. So that will be fun.

It’ll be interesting to see how the classical school movement has grown in ten years—and what has happened to America’s public schools. I think we’re at a turning point in K-12 education right now, and I hope that in 10 years we’ll look back and think that all of the work we did helped turn the tide.