Like the logician Isaac Watts, Susan Wise Bauer believes a well-educated mind is the result of steady effort rather than natural genius. She says anyone who devotes the time can adequately educate themselves. In The Well-Educated Mind (written mostly for adults) she compares the three stages of reading for understanding to the three principal elements of classical education: grammar, logic, and rhetoric. The grammar stage is the most basic stage and involves simply "getting" what one reads. The logic stage requires critical thinking in order to really understand what one reads. In the rhetoric stage, learners unlock the secret to clearly expressing the ideas learned in the logic stage. These three stages, once mastered, will be enough for you to pursue a valuable self-education.
Bauer suggests setting aside time to read and study four days a week. It doesn't have to be a long time—thirty minutes per day will do. She stresses not trying to study every day or for too long at a stretch as you're likely to burn out before you've developed any stamina. Consistency is the key—only by steady exercise will you build endurance or any useful skills. It's not a difficult system, either: just read and take notes on what you've read.
Part one discusses how to get started giving yourself a classical education. The author discusses her educational philosophy and shows how to read in order to make your efforts worthwhile. She offers insights into literary analysis, good note-taking, and how to summarize your notes for increased understanding. Everything you need to prepare for your self-guided classical education is in these first four chapters.
Part two is mostly a series of annotated reading lists with accompanying questions to help you along; there is also some discussion of the mechanics and interpretation of poetry. The reading lists are huge. Most people won't have the time or patience to make it through all of them, and you don't need to. This isn't a curriculum, it's designed to get you started on the road to consistent and constant self-instruction and learning. Each title has a few paragraphs describing the book in question, a brief discussion of the author and his perspective, and maybe some clues about what to look for when reading the particular work. A lot of these synopses are glorified plot outlines, but even so many are genuinely helpful.
Throughout the text (including part two) there are little asides and explanations designed to further hone the reader's analytical skills. The real purpose of this book isn't to encourage people simply to read as much as possible, but to read for understanding. While it was intended for adults, this would make a good substitute for a more elaborate literature course for many high schoolers, though it's crazy to expect any high schooler to get through all the books listed if they're taking notes and reading for comprehension, even in four years. However, the skills and insights into literary study make this an invaluable text and one that has the potential to change your entire view of education and how it ought to be regulated and pursued.
Listed below you'll find the books Bauer recommends. For the most part we've included only the editions she suggests, but as long as you have the original text it doesn't really matter which edition you have; the author doesn't cite pages or anything like that. What matters is that you (or your students) don't quit at the first sign of difficulty. Difficulty is (despite modern educational rhetoric) a necessary part of learning, and though many of these books are difficult Bauer's always there to lend a hand and show you how to enjoy them and take something worthwhile from them.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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