The Wheatley Institution

Education for Character and Values

John Nagl
February 18, 2015

Related Videos

Donald Deshler

Closing the Achievement Gap for Struggling Learners
Donald Deshler

September 17, 2009

Gary Fenstermacher

An Education Agenda for the Next President
Gary Fenstermacher

October 31, 2008

Michael J. Wilkins

Who Represents the Public in Public Schools? The Constitutional Conflict Between the Legislature and the School Board
Michael J. Wilkins

October 6, 2011

Click here to view the transcript
Click here to hide the transcript

It's great to be back at BYU. It's great to be back at Wheatley, and great to have the opportunity to talk with all of you a little bit this afternoon about something I care very deeply about, about educating the next generation of young people. I think that that is a civic responsibility, a moral responsibility that my generation do that and create a cadre of young people who care deeply about their planet. We have been talking about climate change a little bit and the fact that I didn't bring skis with me on this trip to Salt Lake City in February. That was a good decision because there is no snow in Salt Lake City this February and that is a real problem. It is beautiful outside, but God did not intend it to be 60 degrees in Provo in February. So I think we need to be good stewards of our planet, we need to be good stewards of our youth, we need to educate and train them in ways that will cause them to pass on a better planet, a better world to their children in turn. I think that is perhaps the primary responsibility of every generation. So what I am going to talk about today has great importance, and I am glad that you are interested in being a part of that discussion.

Emily gave some indications of how I got here. I think it is safe to say that I have had a pretty unusual path to get here. I was a tank platoon leader in Operation Desert Storm, a great little war. We took the Iraqi army from the fourth largest in the world to the second largest in Iraq in a period of just 100 hours and that experience convinced me that the future of warfare looked not like the tank fighting I had just done but much more like counterinsurgency and counterterrorism and the kind of fighting the generation before me had done in a place called Vietnam. Having studied counterinsurgency and counterterrorism in some depth, I then had the opportunity to practice it myself for the first time back in Iraq in 2004 and that experience, that enormously difficult experience of fighting an enemy I couldn't see and leading a group of men and women engaged in very difficult and very dangerous work with no immediately discernable results, that years-long crucible experience, the most difficult experience of my life convinced me that I was correct, that the future of warfare was going to look more like Iraq in 2004 than like my first war in Iraq in 1991. That conclusion and that work, the combination of all of that work, led to me helping General David Petraeus of the Army and General Jim Mattis of the Marine Corps write the US Army a Marine Corps counterinsurgency field manual. Then I left the army and I ran a defense policy think tank, sort of like Wheatley but with more of a focus on killing people, which Wheatley doesn't really spend a lot of time on. I will be honest with you, right? And on building better societies, which Wheatley does spend a lot of time on, but building better societies in a conflict situation. I spent more time thinking about those very difficult questions of building good, stable societies under fire. So when I left those positions and that world and accepted a position as the ninth headmaster of the Haverford School just outside of Philadelphia, the question I got asked most often was, "How bad can those boys be that they need a counterinsurgency and counterterrorism expert to keep an eye on them? What do you have going on out there in Philly?" Of course the boys are great and the career shift wasn't really as dramatic as it might appear. In between service and both Iraq wars, I taught international relations at West Point, and after retiring from the army I taught at Georgetown at the Naval Academy at Indianapolis before becoming the ninth headmaster of Haverford. And I am convinced that teaching the next generation of American thinkers and leaders is just as important as is fighting our enemies on the fields of battle. We have got at least one soldier in the room with us today. I was proud of my service as an educator as I am of my leadership of combat units. Further, I am convinced in that the fight in which I am currently engaged in preparing boys for a life of character filled with meaning and service to humankind is the single most important fight our country is currently engaged in, and I am happy to talk about that in questions. I spend more time doing TV interviews about the fight against ISIS, it is more the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. That is more exciting stuff to talk about. It is more dramatic, but I am not sure it is nearly as important over the generations to come. So I am excited to have the opportunity to talk with you and I am very grateful to Wheatley for having forced me to gather together my thoughts and write them down.

I am going to start by talking about the education I received myself, how the values I was taught helped create the man you see standing before you. And then I will think about how I approach education to try to imbue those same values or hopefully even better ones in the young men I am now privileged to teach at Haverford School, an all-boys school. One-thousand boys from kindergarten to big kids. I have a 308 pounder this year who is going to play football at Harvard next year. I am going to close by discussing some of the threats to the character of our young people that society proposes, presents to them and what we can all do collectively because this is a collective action problem. We all set the culture. We all set the tone together. We can all help shape our society, the society in which we live. We are not only recipients of that culture; we can affect it. So there are ways we can work together to keep the threats to the character and value of our young people at bay and help them grow into the men and women our country needs to keep us all prosperous and healthy and safe.

I was born on a naval base in California and grew up mostly in Omaha, Nebraska, a place not terribly unlike Provo, actually, a very homogenous place with very Christian values. The nuns at St. James Elementary School focused on discipline first and last and in between and that approach didn't exactly sing to me, but the Jesuits at Creighton Prep were very, very different. Here for the first time, the love that is at the very heart of Christianity revealed itself to me through the good work of men who devoted their entire lives to the service of others. Creighton Prep attempted to instill the same commitment to the lives of the young men it taught creating what the Jesuits called, "Men for Others" and I am what I am largely because I think, certainly the best parts of me are a result of the good work of the Jesuits. The lay teachers at Prep were mostly civilians, not Jesuits, but core of Jesuits at Prep. The lay teachers weren't sure about my decision to follow my prep education with attendance at West Point, the nation's military academy, but the Jesuits knew that it is not called military service for nothing.

It was a great privilege to commit myself to the profession of arms at West Point just as the Cold War was coming to an end. The stories of the Vietnam veterans struck a particular chord with me. They had answered their nation's call to fight communism in Southeast Asia and had been spit upon by their fellow Americans upon their return to these shores; nonetheless, they continued to serve their country in uniform having accepted unlimited liability when they took an oath to uphold and defend the constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, so help them God.[1] I felt privileged to take that same oath myself and then to continue my education in international relations and global leadership at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar.

In addition to providing a sound moral base on which to make every future decision following West Point's core precepts of duty, honor, and country, West Point had shown me how to find the answer to almost every conceivable question whether in the natural and physical sciences, history, literature, or my own field of political science. This was an education for men and women who are likely to be severely tested by hunger, hardship and enemy action, whose fellow soldiers had to be able to trust them to do their duty to the fullest, to be honest and true in their reports, to kill and if necessary to die for their country and for her citizens. It was a serious place. Oxford was not so much. It is an Alice in Wonderland kind of place. I don't know how many of you had the opportunity to be there. It is probably not surprising that Oxford is an Alice in Wonderland kind of place. Alice, the real Alice, was in fact the daughter of the dean of Christ's Church College, Oxford. If West Point focused on results, character under pressure, and getting the right answer quickly to any question that was posed, Oxford provided the luxury of time and comfort in order to contemplate which questions were worth answering. The combination of the two approaches was close to perfect if the objective of an education is to give someone the tools required for real leadership. I felt truly fortunate and still feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to learn and grow at two of the world's most storied institutions, and, of course, you have the privilege to learn and to grow at another of the world's great institutions of higher learning and in the promotion of values and character that matter.

I graduated from Oxford in June of 1990, and the work of the Jesuits and the West Point professors and the Oxford dons was almost immediately put to the test. Saddam Hussein decided that Iraq needed a 19th province. President George H. W. Bush stated firmly that the annexation of Kuwait by force would not stand, and I experienced a crucible of combat for the first time. I had been well taught and well trained and was proud to be part of an effort that liberated Kuwait from a horrible tyranny and from horrible suffering, but the victory was so overwhelming that I became convinced that no future enemy of the United States would attempt to challenge us with conventional force on force strategies instead. I believed they would fight us asymmetrically as insurgents and as terrorists.

So when the armies sent me back to Oxford to get my doctorate, because we all make sacrifices for national security, I decided to study not the kind of war I just fought but the kind of war I thought we were going to have to fight: counterinsurgency. The good news is I was right and the bad news is I was right, right? People told me I was crazy to study ancient history, to study an ancient kind of warfare that had no relevance to the real world. Well, they were wrong. There is a lesson there for those of you who are thinking about master's degrees and doctoral degrees and are on the cusp of developing yourselves, preparing yourselves for the impact that all of you hope to have. I am going to quote the great Wayne Gretsky, a hockey player who was asked why he was so good. He said it was because he didn't skate to where the puck was, he skated to where the puck was going to be. So as you look forward, as you plan your lives, where is the puck going to be in your life? What are the challenges the nation is going to face not right now but 20 years from now when you are going to be in a position to make a real difference? Try to project that forward and think through what skillset you are going to need to be able to help our nation, our world with the biggest problems it is going to have at your most productive point when you are in your 40s or 50s. Downhill after that. That is right where I am.

Counterinsurgency: a dirty, nasty, grinding kind of war. It demands very strong moral values and moral courage from those forced to fight it, and all the good work of the Jesuits and the West Pointers and the Oxford dons was put to the test after September 11 when I was sent to Al Anbar province of Iraq to fight a counterinsurgency campaign for the very first time. My tank battalion task force had an incredibly hard year. We lost 23 young men, earned more than 150 purple hearts in the valorous unit award. Worse, at the end of our year of constant fighting, we were no closer to building a stable democratic Iraq than we had been when we started. Arguably, despite the hard work of so many, we had gone in the wrong direction. The story of what came next, my efforts in conjunction with those of a number of my friends and mentors to change the way the American military thought about and conducted modern warfare, are the subject of my talk tomorrow, right here, same bat time  same bat channel. For the purpose of this discussion, allow me to humbly brag that some combination of perceptiveness which I just talked about, preparation and persistence, all built on the foundation of the absolute commitment that our honored dead had not died in vain and that our nation deserved to be protected from future attack, helped, contributed in some small way to turning around a war that had been lost and gave Iraq a chance at a decent future. That those efforts and opportunities were, in turn, later squandered by poor national and political decisions does not negate the character or the sacrifices of those who fought to give the politicians the opportunity to make better decisions for Iraq and for the world. Much more on that tomorrow.

I now have the privilege of serving as now the ninth headmaster in the 130-year history of the Haverford School working to prepare those thousand boys for life. I visited the school for the first time unannounced one weekend morning almost three years ago, not long after my first visit to Wheatley and to BYU. The first thing I saw was a century old stone building, lovingly restored, anchoring a new steel and glass edition that seemed to be launched right out of the foundation of its older brother. A fitting metaphor, I thought, for education, which at its very best is grounded in the past, respects its history, but leaps into the future and tries to change the future, tries to alter the course of human history. I looked inside the building and found the great Teddy Roosevelt quote praising the man in the arena. Teddy, one of my favorite presidents and certainly one of our most adventurous and enjoyable presidents to study. Teddy said,

It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errors and comes short again and again because there is no effort without error in shortcoming, but who does actually strive to do the deeds, who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself in a worthy cause.[2]

Let me stop there. A big part of being a young person is finding the cause to which you are willing to devote your efforts and your energy. One of the things I try to do at my school is help my boys determine what their passions are, what their cause is going to be, what are they going to do, how are they going to change the world? So spending yourself on a worthy cause I think is among the most important things you can do with your life. "Who at the best knows in the end, the triumph of high achievement is the worst if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory or defeat."[3] "Don't be a cold and timid soul. Go for it," said Teddy Roosevelt. I read those words and I thought, "Here is a school that understands the purpose of an education to prepare citizens to fight the world's fights." There are lots of different ways to fight the worlds fight. Education is one, fighting climate change is another. Fighting cancer is another, fighting tyranny around the globe, yet another. I can keep going. There are lots of ways to fight the world's fight. Choose yours and fight it with everything you have got. I was immediately impressed and felt comfortable and at home.

I walked around the wonderful building and into the quad with its century-old oak trees and I found a covered walkway connecting the lower school and the gym. The walkway was inscribed with virtues: respect to honesty, courage, 24 in all with one tablet left blank. I later learned, for boys to write essays about making the case for the virtue that had been omitted that they would carve in stone themselves as a guidepost for their own lives. This was a place, I thought, that knew what it stood for and was not ashamed to proclaim its adherence to virtues of which Aristotle would have approved. In a field of education that can shift with the breezes it seems and chase fads, there is very little we do, I think, that really matters that Aristotle would not have known and understood and that Aristotle would not have approved of. I was honored after visiting this wonderful place because places matter; architecture matters, another way to fight the worlds fight. I was honored to accept the board's invitation to become the ninth headmaster of this school and in the years since I have both found existing already and attempted to reinforce and further build a commitment to the values that the Jesuits and the West Pointers and the Oxford dons taught to me: service to others, a healthy mind and a healthy body. The gym has  strong body in Latin. I am sorry that my Latin has left me. The Jesuits would be deeply hurt. A healthy and mind and a healthy body in Latin over the gym. I love that. Respect and honesty, encouraging questioning, one of the things that Oxford gave me asked that the question is what we are doing right. Can we do it better? Always seeking the path to truth and to justice and to the good life, a life lived for those around us. I have found and reinforced a commitment to excellence in academics and athletics and the arts to winning the right way or to losing while accepting responsibility for ones failings. For sometimes we learn more from losing than from winning. I work every day to prove myself worthy that has been placed in me to safeguard this wonderful school: to select as students, the very best boys that will bring honor to its long history and traditions, to hire teachers and staff that are committed to its mission of preparing boys for life.

That is a challenging task. It is getting more challenging every day and Wheatley is doing good work in this area. The miracle of the internet has made communication faster and more anonymous with unsettling and sometimes disturbing results. I am talking to you, Yik-Yak. Discouraging teen alcohol and drug abuse has been an accelerated and enabled by the irresponsible movement toward legalization of marijuana in this country. A disaster for our youth, a disaster for their brain development, a disaster for us all. My boys are growing up in a society that glamorizes the acquisition of things and promotes instant gratification but does not properly publicly value the virtues of hard work and perseverance and teamwork. With the Haverford School, at least we attempt to do so. We work to development of character in the classroom and on stage and in the studio and on the field and in the weight room. We value the service of our faculty who teach boys in the classroom, coach them on a field or the court or the river, supervise their play at recess or on the quad, monitor their discussions in the lunchroom, direct their singing and acting and playing. We applaud the work they do every day to help the boys learn and grow in wisdom and strength as they progress from boyhood to manhood and I am deeply proud and honored to be part of this team doing that good work.

Earlier this week, we celebrated President's Day remembering two great Americans—George Washington who created this country, an extraordinary military and political leader and Abraham Lincoln, my own favorite president who fought to make all Americans free. I hope and believe every day that the boys we coach and teach and mentor today, the sons and daughters, the boys and girls, the young men and women who learn and who teach here at BYU will in the fullness of time become better men and women who will do more for each other and for America because of our efforts and our example.

I thank all of you for your interest in and your adherence to these important tasks. I am excited for the young people in this room that you find your own missions, your own dreams that you find the way that you are going to fight the worlds fight and I look forward to your questions.


[1] Oath of Enlistment, US Military.

[2] Roosevelt, Teddy. "Citizenship in a Republic." University of the Sorbonne. Paris, France. April 23, 1910.

[3] Ibid.

Click here to hide the transcript