It’s a commonplace in education that “a textbook is only as good as the teacher who teaches it.” But according to Michael Van Hecke (pictured above), founder of the Catholic Textbook Project, sometimes a textbook can transform a good teacher into a better teacher—or even into a great teacher.
Founded in 2000, the Catholic Textbook Project seeks to bring a Catholic worldview to the teaching of history in classrooms around the U.S. Since its founding, private schools and homeschools have discovered a wellspring of wonder and wisdom in the scholarly and exciting stories of history.
Whether the subject is American history, European history, or world history, students—and teachers—are opening the volumes of the Catholic Textbook Project’s history textbooks and finding a pleasant surprise. Instead of a dry recounting of events, dates and names offered by the usual history textbook fare, users of Catholic Textbook Project textbooks discover well-crafted and exciting stories of truth and virtue that render the past a living part of the present, even as it prepares students to face the future with a proper moral and intellectual formation.
The Catholic Business Journal spoke with Van Hecke about the Catholic Textbook Project, his role in its founding, how these textbooks aim to present the true, the good and the beautiful in the history of man’s works and days, and just what it took to make the Catholic Textbook Project a success from the first chapter to the last word.
Catholic Business Journal (CBJ): How did the Catholic Textbook Project get started?
Michael Van Hecke (MVH): I was teaching history at a Catholic school in New Hampshire before I started the Catholic Textbook Project. I was using a beautiful secular textbook in the classroom and I also had photocopies of history stories that were basically about Catholic figures in history. Because I had all these photocopies and the students had the book, I ended up giving a lot of lectures and telling stories that were engaging.
Shortly thereafter I became a principal and decided that based on this experience in the classroom, I wanted to buy Catholic-based history textbooks. Why use two different sources like I had to do? I didn’t want my teachers to have to prepare classes from two separate sets of materials. But in my effort to buy textbooks that had a Catholic worldview of history, I found there weren’t any, and I learned that there hadn’t been any published in nearly 40 years.
Consequently, working with my colleagues, we decided to produce our own history textbooks for Catholic schools. Then I moved to Dallas and continued with the idea of producing our own textbooks. Around this time, I was able to get a bequest from a lady who thought this textbook project was a grand idea. So we set-out to produce our first five textbooks.
The bequest was $40,000 and I thought we could produce the first five books with that amount. But it turned out that renting just the artwork for the first printing of the first book was $33,000. Needless to say, there was a steep learning curve to figure out what the publishing industry was all about. That’s our beginning.
CBJ: How did you acquire the capital to supplement the behest and the know-how to put a textbook together according to industry standards?
MVH: For capital, we received a $170,000 grant from the Ave Maria Foundation in addition to the $350,000 we received from Ignatius Press and about another $500,000 from friends and family, gifts and loans.
As for the know-how, we spent a few years hammering on the idea of a history textbook series, thinking it was an important thing to pursue, and that homeschoolers would buy it and schools would buy it. For initial funding, we went to Ignatius Press because they’re of a similar mindset when it comes to applying the Catholic vision to our products. We went to them a few times, and Ignatius Press’s founder, Father Joseph Fessio invited us to talk about it more.
At that point he agreed to a conversation in writing. We went back and forth with ideas and plans, proposed timelines and estimates. We produced a business plan and Ignatius Press accepted it, which meant that they gave us an advance on royalties to produce the books. It also meant we had Ignatius Press’s experience in publishing to guide us through those elements we didn’t know.
As it turned out, our product was really outside the wheelhouse for Ignatius Press, and they saw it as ultimately too expensive to keep funding. We produced two or three of our books with Ignatius Press, in partnership. Ignatius Press helped us get started.
CBJ: So where did you go from there?
MVH: As we were working on the first book we found an exceptional graphic designer to put the books together, Gary Hespenheide. It turns out that by God’s providence we hooked up with a world-class graphic designer. With Gary, what we really ran into was our real connection to the publishing industry. He showed us how to put the textbook together, design it, paginate it, index it, copy edit it, fact check it, etc.
CBJ: What gives Catholic Textbook Project books their sturdy manufacturing design?
MVH: The first book or two were printed in China, and they fell apart very fast, which was a dark spot in our beginning. We quickly moved the manufacturing back to North America, and Gary found us another press in Canada. These printers were better but still not great. Finally, we went to RR Donnelley [a Fortune 500 commercial publisher] and they do all their printing in the U.S., according to public school textbook specifications for printing and binding.
CBJ: Why did you make a sturdy textbook such a priority?
MVH: Students are not gentle readers to say the least. When I received my first copy of the textbook from RR Donnelley I put it out in the parking lot in my school, where I am headmaster, and let all the parents’ Suburbans and 15-passenger vans run over it. It stood up. It was pretty scratched, but the binding held. So I thought, OK, we found our binding.
CBJ: Has the Catholic Textbook Project turned a profit since it started?
MVH: From a cash-flow perspective, our company this last year has finally made money to the point where we’re paying all our bills and keeping ourselves afloat, but we’re not making the kind of money we need to make in order to produce more textbooks on our own. So we’re still fundraising. We’re a non-profit and since we’re still keeping the prices below industry averages, we still engage in fundraising and sponsorship campaigns in order to fund additional series, textbooks or phases of production.
CBJ: Why did you decide to produce textbooks and not primary sources to get at the truths of history? What advantage does a textbook have?
MVH: There are about three advantages to a textbook. First, frankly, a number of things we call “primary sources” are a sort of textbook anyway. What did the classical Greek historian Herodotus do? He told the story of history as he knew it. He sat down and pulled together all the stories in his book. So what’s a textbook and what is a primary source?
I think textbooks got a bad rap because there are so many bad textbooks. In one aspect, though, given the modern educational culture, our textbook is a sort of anti-textbook. I was interviewed on CNN a few years ago regarding textbooks and the bad nature of textbooks and how unreal they are compared to what real people have to read in real life—a sustained paragraph or a sustained argument across several paragraphs, rather than pictures and graphs and USA Today or MTV versions of history. In that sense we would call our books anti-textbooks. So the first thing a textbook can be is a good tool for learning.
Second, a textbook can be a good tool because it pulls together in between two covers a narrative, a story, a picture in words of what happened in history in a given time period or across a span of time. That’s important as children are learning the scope or the arc of history; they’re learning to have it all put together in a flowing narrative.
Finally, we want to produce for children a tool that they’re going to use because a textbook is part of the culture we live in. Most people don’t use primary sources but in our textbooks we certainly encourage them. Anyone using our books is going to use primary sources, but if we want to work with students in the 21st century educational environs, a textbook is the best way to reach them.
We use the textbook as a tool and that tool employs beauty, because of our art, and it employs narrative because the grammar of history is the stories of history. If you’re not reading history in a narrative manner it is not history but social studies, which is cold and ugly.
CBJ: What has been the response to those who discover the Catholic aspect of the textbooks?
MVH: We put a much more scholarly telling of history into the hands of students because a modern secular textbook has to write the Church out of history in large part. They’ll never totally write it out but they have to write it out in large part because they’re trying to reach a secular world that will not abide anything religious. So rather than cause controversy they cut it out. There are many forces at play there.
First, an underlining nihilism that most teachers are not even aware of, and a misguided pluralism that grants everyone their own truth. You can’t say one claim to the truth is true and another isn’t because that wouldn’t be nice, and if it’s not nice you can’t do it, says the secular world. Ultimately, the secular world has to deny truth, and if they’re denying truth they’re not really teaching the reality of history.
If you tell 99 out of 100 people in America that our textbook is more scholarly because it comes from a Christian worldview, they’ll think you’re an idiot (but in reality we’re actually right). How do you say that in the modern world though? You don’t really.
We see the Catholic Textbook Project as a Trojan Horse: get the books to the teaches who think it’s like every other textbook and when they begin to teach from them, they are really telling the narrative of a Christocentric view of history and telling it with beauty and in story. That’s why you’re going to find even secular university people, even those who are Catholic, such as Kevin Starr, the California state librarian, and a professor at University of Southern California, saying the books are terrific because they tell the story of history.
That kind of praise speaks to the nature of the scholarliness of it. On the other hand, I had a couple beautiful religious sisters come to our booth at the National Catholic Education Association conference last year. They told us our books were beautiful and asked if they came from a Christian perspective. We told them the books were written from a Catholic worldview. Then they asked how we know the books taught an objective view of history.
That’s so sad, I thought. These beautiful religious women who have given their lives as brides of Christ and they didn’t trust the books because the books are Christian—or worse, because they’re Catholic.
It is so illustrative of the depth of the problem we face in the industry we’re working in.
CBJ: What’s the difference between Catholic history and Church history?
MVH: That’s one of our marketing problems. We often get sent over to the religious department in bookstores. But we’re not making Church history books. Church history is an examination of the Catholic Church as an institution. Church history looks at the interaction and interplay of actions, decisions and consequences of the Church as an institution. That’s what Church history is.
In the same way, American history would look at America and its institutions and consequences, etc. If we wanted to look at Spanish history, we’d study the different aspects of Spain and its people.
As far as Catholic history is concerned, when the Catholic Textbook Project looks at American history, we’re writing about American history and about this country. This country has a lot of elements to it in its founding and formation that are Protestant and Masonic. There’s also much that is classical in thought that went into the founding of our country’s governmental structure.
And there’s a lot of Catholic influence in the country’s founding too. For instance, there’s a profound element of the Catholic involvement in the Southeast and the Southwest. In a typical modern American history textbook, though, the authors are not so much concerned with history as a matter of culture as they are with history as a matter of chronologically connected events.
If you start to look at, talk about and think about culture, then you have to start to make judgments. For the secular textbook, it doesn’t matter whether the historical figure is Catholic or not when he signed a bill or fought a battle. It just says he signed a bill or fought a battle. But if the figure is a Catholic and he was going against Catholic teaching when he signed a bill or fought a battle, that’s worth mentioning. There are some real cultural issues involved in questions of history.
If a Catholic figure is advancing the Church’s teaching on social justice even if he’s doing it from a “secular” perspective, as far as everyone else sees, it’s also worth noting that he might be taking a certain action because this is his philosophical view of humanity.
We’re writing about the history of the country or the history of the world as far as individuals and nations interplay with one another to create civilization. Whether you love or hate the Catholic Church, if you’re really honest, you can’t ignore the Catholic Church’s influence in the development of that civilization.
CBJ: What has been the course of your teaching career?
MVH: I had my first teaching position at Bishop Ireton/St. Mark’s Children’s House, Arlington, VA (1988-1989), before I began teaching at Immaculate Conception Apostolic School, Centre Harbor, NH (1989-1991). From there I moved to Irving, TX, and became assistant principal and then principal of The Highlands School.
In 1994, I became headmaster of Ville de Marie Academy in Scottsdale, AZ, before moving in 2000 to my current position as headmaster of St. Augustine Academy, Ventura, CA. In 1996 I also founded and serve currently as president of the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education (ICLE), which is privileged to have Bishop Robert Barron, apologist and auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, recently become a member of ICLE’s board.
CBJ: How did your educational background influence your decision to take on this project in the first place?
MVH: The education I got as a student was from my parents spending so much time fighting the schools. By the time I graduated from high school I knew one thing: education was important. I had a cruddy education, but that was the one great lesson I learned from my elementary and secondary education. The English classes were terrible—they never taught us to diagram or learn the basics of grammar; it was touchy-feely stuff in the classroom mostly. And it was the 1970s. There was no rigor in the basics; there were all these experimental, educational practices that got thrust on us.
It was also the time of values clarification, with no sense of a catechism or of morality. In the secular subjects, I received a bland, weak, mindless education that did not challenge us and did not form us. It was the time of New Math, Whole Language and all those other stupid things that came along.
CBJ: How did your education change in college?
MVH: When I applied to Thomas Aquinas College (TAC), they asked me to write about my favorite book. I wrote on Shakespeare’s Hamlet because it was the only book I read in high school—and that was a Catholic high school. From a raw, totally secular mindset, the schooling was just bad.
At TAC I experienced vicariously a great culture of learning. I experienced history, the questions I was supposed to have as a man and as a human being; I learned all those things I was supposed to learn in grade school and high school such as grammar and math and the basics of science and history; I also learned that those basics allowed me to think about things and talk to people about things and find better ways to be just and virtuous and wise.
CBJ: How did you fair when you received your education administration degree after college?
MVH: That was the third phase of my education; I was taking education classes (“Ed School”), where I learned that the government schools would only be considered truly successful once they have enrolled children from six weeks to 26 years old. I had professors who actually said that. I had class after class in multiculturalism and all these state and federal laws to learn, but nothing about the subjects we were teaching.
Ultimately Ed School was about the public school system and how to keep it going, and how to work all the widgets within it. So Ed School taught me that education was simply a factory we needed to operate and we needed to make sure the factory was indispensible. It was a pretty dark image of education and the future.
CBJ: How did you stay true to the vision of true education?
MVH: These three phases, the bad schooling I received in my youth, my college years at TAC, and postgraduate work at Ed School formed me in my desire to continue the career path I started. It convicted me in advancing the Western intellectual tradition. I saw it as essential to educating children in the basics and educating them with an eye to personal wisdom and virtue.
CBJ: How has the Catholic Textbook Project deepened your faith?
MVH: Suffering always makes one’s faith stronger, right? But more seriously, the biggest thing the project has done for me personally is taught me how much to trust in God in the work of the Catholic Textbook Project. You would think that a product so much better than the junk out there would just take off like fire and everyone would want it instantly. But people don’t. So you have to keep working, trying and explaining your vision. Little by little it starts to grow and word gets out. Then people try it, use it, and start to see a different vision of how history can be taught and what history means. That’s a beautiful thing.
The project should have been dead many years ago, but in his providence, God keeps us going. We started this project almost 20 years ago and talking to teachers and superintendents from 10, 15 years ago, the Catholic school market wasn’t ready for this book or the idea of Catholic identity in textbooks that aren’t religion textbooks.
CBJ: How did the market change?
MVH: That conversation about Catholic identity changed in the crises that hit the Church, particularly the abuse scandal, which seemed to shake everyone’s faith. That’s when the bishops started to wake up and say, “Maybe we need something new.” Catholic schools were closing left and right; we have half the number of Catholic schools we had 40 years ago. So the bishops decided we needed to do something and they centered on this idea that Catholic identity needs to come back to the Catholic schools.
It should have never left the schools, but since that term has been bounced around for nearly a decade, teachers and principals and superintendents and bishops are starting to ask, “What is Catholic identity?”
I have a crucifix in my classroom and I say a prayer before class every day with the students. But what do that crucifix and that prayer have to do with my history class? What does it have to do with science? With math? The answer: Catholic identity.
In the years we’ve been doing the Catholic Textbook Project, we’ve seen an awakening in the Catholic school system at large that is beginning to remember that Catholic education is about transference of culture. We’re gifted with faith to know that the culture we’re trying to transfer is a Catholic culture ordered toward wisdom, virtue and ultimately toward heaven. Looking back, I see now we had to be founded soundly enough to have a product good enough for when the need was really there.
CBJ: How did the Catholic Textbook Project deepen your love for history?
MVH: The more you study the movements of history and the more you have the opportunity to sidle up to history, the more it becomes clearer that there are so many strains of humanity that roll in and out of the landscape of history. In different times and different places, whether it’s George W. Bush or Julius Caesar, what bubbles up out of history is a clear picture of human nature. As humans, our virtues, our vices and our struggles are always the same.
It’s not that there’s a good guy and a bad guy, but that there is a guy who responded this way and a guy who responded that way: this guy decided to go down the path of greed and that guy decided to go down the path of sacrifice and virtue. So ultimately they are called good or bad men based on their decisions, but each human being is this basket of conflicting desires and intentions.
When you put yourself aside and choose the good, you become good; and when you to start to satisfy the lower desires, you become bad—and even evil. That’s what I’ve come to see more clearly in my increased relationship with history.
CBJ: How has the project influenced others’ faith?
MVH: If you give the right matter to teachers and a chance at the right manner of teaching the matter, they’re going to become better teachers. That’s what our product does—Catholic Textbook Project becomes not just a textbook, but also a spark for a teacher to become a better teacher. It also sparks a love of history and a reverence for what history really is and how it affects us.
When teachers get our books they often don’t like them—many of them don’t, anyway. They think the material is too difficult; it’s not like the normal textbook they work from with 47 ancillary teacher helps, DVDs, runoffs and all these kinds of things.
The Catholic Textbook Project believes less is more in that regard. The teacher receives our book and a small teacher’s manual. They’re not sure how to do it. We tell them: “Just read—read to the students.” Don’t worry about every little date and every little name; worry about the story. Are students understanding the story—can they talk about the story?
If they do find this sort of learning happening, then teachers will then find some renewed freedom as a teacher. Many teachers go into teaching because they want to inspire students; then they get bogged down with state or federal standards all the time. But the Catholic Textbook Project allows teachers to open up and have that conversation about true learning.
CBJ: How do you balance your work in the relatively secure position of a school administrator and your work in the relatively unstable situation of a start-up business?
MVH: The Catholic Textbook Project is really an outgrowth of teaching. Almost every teacher develops his or her own materials for classes. A textbook is only a starting point for a teacher, and if that’s true, then as a group of teachers we’ve banded together to develop material for our classes that derive from a shared vision, this better understanding of teaching history as a teaching of culture and civilization. That understanding has been ripped out of the typical history class and the teachings of history have become political pawns, usually for some progressive agenda.
In maintaining the Catholic Textbook Project, I’m not really the smart one in the group, but I have the vision for making it salable—we want to make a product which we want to share with other schools—and if we can share it with others we can make enough money to make more material and more subjects because, for instance, the good Lord knows we need a science book with a Christian worldview. How do you honestly teach science if you don’t acknowledge there is a creator?
The Catholic Textbook Project is a ministry that’s perfectly harmonious with our work in schools, and because I have an interest in entrepreneurship and my talents are not in writing the book, I surround myself with folks much smarter than me. We have a roster of top-notch Catholic historians who produce the product and I pull it all together, make it look good and bring it to market. To do that, though, even, I still have to surround myself with people smarter than me. Graphic designers, editors, marketing managers, etc.
CBJ: How does Catholic Textbook Project balance its sense of mission and its bottom line?
MVH: In one word: counsel. What makes me a good headmaster makes me also successful in this business. I know the importance of listening. I seek counsel from those in the different elements and then I have to make the judgment. I have to pray, first, to make the right choices. I make wrong ones too. Then I have to listen to my graphic design team to make sure I’m following design elements that are palatable to modern educators. I have to listen to my editorial team to make sure I retain the unique qualities of our product, and that I don’t forsake those qualities just to make something salable. It’s a delicate balance but I do it through listening.
There are a lot of good teachers who become principals—and they become bad principals. When you’re a teacher, you mostly stand in front of class and teach students who don’t know yet, and you want them to know because you love your subject. You’re trying to give.
But when you become a principal and sit behind that desk, your job is totally switched because a large part of your job is listening. You have to listen to teachers and to parents. An essential attribute of being a good principal is being a good listener. You walk away from a situation, you cogitate, you look honestly at the situation, and you manage the situation.
If you’re used to making students do what you want them to do all the time, you’re going to tell parents what they need to do all the time, and that’s not going to flow very well. And you’re going to be out of a job pretty soon.
For me, that’s how I dealt with the Catholic Textbook Project. I’ve used the counsel of those others around me who have their specialties and let them present me with their specialties. I’m the guy who has to make the final decision. That allows us to get good counsel and broad experience without me having to spend 40 hours a week doing it. I use professionals in the field as consultants and make my time more efficient. In that way we share the work.
CBJ: What advice would you have for other Catholic business leaders on what makes a successful Catholic business?
MVH: In any field you have to seek the wisdom of others and presumably you’re in business for some reason that derives from passion or talent. So you have to be very aware that what you are trying to bring to the market is something unique and better than what’s already being offered. There may be areas where you lack. Seek counsel in those things, but stay true to your principles. If you don’t, then there’s no reason for you to be in business.
Text and context….
Have you been able to interpret the elements that make your business run smoothly? How have you read between the lines of leadership by listening even as you make decisions? What great and Catholic endeavor has your education inspired you to accomplish? Feel free to let us know in the Comments section or on our FaceBook page.
Joseph O’Brien is a correspondent for Catholic Business Journal. He writes from Wisconsin.