Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Well Educated Mind: A Guide to the Classical Education You Never Had by Susan Wise Bauer

Source of book: I own this
Date originally posted on Facebook: May 16, 2011

This book served as a partial inspiration for my blog, and indeed my project to continue to expand my knowledge and experience throughout the rest of my life.

In addition, Ms. Bauer’s educational philosophy fit well with what my wife and I were already planning to do for our own children. Neither of us has been thrilled with the trend within the Christian homeschooling movement - and strong in our local area - away from a focus on academics and toward indoctrination into a certain “worldview” that includes a lot of poisonous ideas about gender, race, politics, and so on. This divide has gotten rather contentious, and those of us who vary from the Gender Essentialist, Young Earth Creationism, Women should stay home with the kids, Television is evil, and on and on tend to not fit in so well.

In fact, even posting this review in 2011 earned me a rather violently disapproving comment from a person I won’t name, because he/she had been alerted that the book didn’t have an “orthodox” reading of the meaning of Animal Farm. Because Bauer tends to reject the hyper-conservative, libertarian, anglo-centric view of the world that many believe to be a central tenet of the Christian faith, she is very much outside of the circle of “acceptable” authors within this worldview.

I’ll also note as a follow up that we have continued to use Ms. Bauer’s history curriculum and have found it to be quite good. (It avoids both the “Manifest Destiny” crap and the made up “facts” of so much of Christian history curriculum these days (hello, David Barton) and also the  ever changing and “trendy” focus that exists in much mainstream curriculum to justify selling a new edition every couple of years.)


Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to his nephew, Thomas Mann Randolph Jr., advised him regarding his plans to take courses at the university. In this letter, Jefferson stated that while lectures were useful in the sciences, most knowledge was best acquired by a course of reading.

It is with this in mind that literature professor and home school mother Susan Wise Bauer wrote The Well Educated Mind.

I became acquainted with Ms. Bauer after my wife ordered her history curriculum, The Story of the World. Some fellow homeschooling friends of ours have started using them, and found them useful. My wife then borrowed The Well Educated Mind from the library. We liked it so much that we bought several copies for gifts.

The intention of this book is to assist those who wish to become familiar with the classics of Western thought without having to spend years and tens of thousands of dollars pursuing a specialty degree in literature. Bauer is correct that the classics used to be considered a necessary body of knowledge for any well bred (or well read) person. Unfortunately, they seem to be rarely taught at the undergraduate level, let alone in high school. The result is that the vast majority of ostensibly educated Americans (and others) lack the basic knowledge and skills to read and understand the great works of our cultural heritage. (Obviously, there are exceptions, but it is often disappointing to discover how few classic books otherwise well educated people have read.)
Bauer divides her book into two sections. The first is a primer on preparing for a classical education: skills such as reading at basic to advanced levels, the trivium (grammar, logic, rhetoric), and note taking. The second is her list and summary of the most important works in each of five basic genres: the novel, autobiography, history, drama, and poetry.

I agree strongly with Bauer as to her basic approach. To some degree, I have been using similar techniques to educate myself since my teens. In following my mother’s lead, I have read voraciously since a child; I have taken notes here and there, particularly since passing age 30.

I also agree that much of this part of education is best done outside the classroom. Too little of modern education focuses on the great works anymore. Either they are considered too difficult and therefore uninteresting for the average student, or they are dismissed as relics of a distant and bigoted past. 
Unfortunately, this means that so many of the best thoughts man has had since the dawn of time are now being forgotten by all except a few specialists.

The second part of the book is interesting both in what it includes and what it omits. Bauer attempts to distill the list to the essentials. For the most part, I found I agreed with what she includes, but tended to wish she included additional selections. Of course, for the literarily minded, this is at least half the fun. Amanda and I spent hours discussing what we wanted to read from the lists, and all of the books we would recommend adding to it. This discussion could go on all day, but I would say the bottom line is that a person could do much worse than reading the books on the list.

A further benefit of the lists is that Bauer has identified inexpensive and quality editions of the works listed. In books requiring translation, she has recommended accessible and worthwhile translations. I did find myself leaning toward the more traditional (and therefore “outdated” translations. For example, I am fond of the Robert Fitzgerald translation of Homer. On the other hand, her quotations from the Seamus Heaney translation of Beowulf and the Robert Pinsky translation of Inferno are sufficient for me to consider adding these to my collection.

Certainly, I intend to use these resources in continuing my autodidact lifestyle. I would consider this book a good starting point for anyone who wishes to continue to learn after formal education has ended.


  1. I own the Heaney translation of Beowulf. It would be a worthy addition to your collection.

    1. I love Heaney - and own the Beowulf translation. I haven't gotten to it yet, but it is definitely on the list.

      Speaking of excellent modern translations, have you read Robert Pinsky's translation of Dante's Inferno?

    2. I hadn't heard of the Pinsky translation, but I can probably find it at SFPL. I have the John Ciardi and the Clive James translations. The James one received mixed reviews, but I like what I've read. I've heard good things about W.S. Merwin's translation of Purgatorio too.

  2. Early in our homeschooling, I was introduced to Bauer. Box curriculums didn't work with the boys and I was desperate for some sanity. I read the book and used her Story of The World. The grace and fluidity of the two made schooling a joy instead of a chore. I've been through it three times now. I love teaching in the layers-picture books from Gilgamesh to Shakespear, then youth versions of them and finally the translations. Zany even got into an on going argument with a highschool teacher because she wouldn't allow them to read the real Julius Caesar because she didn't believe the kids would get it. He ended up reading it on his own.

    Picking up some things and letting go of others so that a love of learning can develop.

    1. Teachers that assume a kid "just won't get it" irritate me to no end. If I have found anything to be true, it is that kids get a heck of a lot more than you think they do.

      I read Shakespeare's Julius Caesar in high school as part of the curriculum, and the original Plutarch in translation soon thereafter. I loved them both.

      I agree that it is much better to cultivate a love of learning than to adhere to something that isn't working.

  3. I started out with SWB and intend to stick with her! :)

  4. I agree that reading the Classics should be done outside of the classroom. I don't even like to read the introductions much; I'd rather get right into the story. One exception, though, is Tolkien's afterword to his translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; even after reading The Lord of the Rings, I really did not understand alliterative verse, a part of my heritage as a descendant of Vikings, until I read Tolkien's clear explanation. And so far in my reading, Tolkien is by far the best at translating not just the words, but the verse form of Sir Gawain--an essential part of any translation of poetry, and one that is often bypassed because of real and supposed difficulties...

    1. Interesting that you mention introductions. Bauer recommends skipping all introductory material with the exception of those written by the author him/herself. That way one doesn't read through the lens of the writer of the preface. I tend to agree - but it is fun to go back afterward sometimes.

      I definitely want to read Tolkien's translation of Green Knight, if I can find a copy somewhere. It is easy to forget that Tolkien was a linguist long before he was a novelist, and that LOTR started out as an idea to invent an elvish language.

      The difficulty of translating form leads to some interesting compromises. I read parts of three different approaches to Dante's Inferno (you can find my review in the index), and it was fascinating to see the differences.

      In the verse version, the terza rima was preserved, but required some interesting syntax, and, in my opinion, some "flexibility" as to the original meaning. The prose version preserved the tercets, but gave up the rhyme and meter, so it didn't feel even close to poetry. It was the easiest narrative to read, though. Robert Pinsky's version included the rhyme and meter, but broke up the tercets. None was perfect, but each had its advantages.

      Presumably, it was easier going from Middle English to modern English than from Italian to English.