The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home, by Susan Wise Bauer and Jessie Wise (W.W. Norton and Company, New York, 2004)

I heard so many homeschoolers raving about The Well-Trained Mind that I had to read it for myself. Then the question became not why so many people love it, but why do I? One reviewer called this approach “ultra school-at-home”—which should have been enough to send me fleeing as from a thousand devils.

If I didn't loathe labels that place homeschoolers into boxes, the one I would be most likely to accept concerning our homeschooling philosophy would be "unschooling." So why would I enthusiastically recommend this book, in which the only reference to unschooling is negative and largely inaccurate? Why would I even read a homeschooling book that opens with the stated belief that homeschooling is second best to an ideal school system, and includes the line, "I set up the desks and the American flag and started to teach my children at home"?

Let me begin with my sympathetic feelings for the White Queen in Alice, who could believe “as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” Just as I find no inherent contradiction between Attachment Parenting and my belief that babies need to spend a lot of time prone on the floor, so I see no reason why someone who passionately believes an unspoiled child hungers and thirsts for knowledge should not find much of benefit in the Classical Education model. One of the secrets to success with unschooling is knowing how to discover, discern, and extract from many sources that which is good.

What is commonly called the Classical approach has fascinated and appealed to me ever since I read Dorothy Sayers’ The Lost Tools of Learning. Despite the best (unintentional) efforts of one of the most popular present-day advocates of this approach, and of a private school of my acquaintance that attempts to follow it, to make this form of education appear repulsive, if I were homeschooling now I would find a way to synthesize these ideas, to offer my children the benefits of both unschooling and the Trivium. Impossible? Go ask Alice.1

Two aspects of The Well-Trained Mind make it particularly valuable:

  • The authors have compiled an absolutely fabulous collection of ideas, recommendations, and resources. The reading lists alone are probably worth the price of the book.

  • The book articulates one of the foundation stones of my unschooling educational philosophy: Children can achieve far, far more than is commonly expected of them, if they are given the opportunity and the encouragement our educational system commonly denies them.

I do want to point out an area in which I find The Well-Trained Mind to be deficient: mathematics. We used the Saxon math books from Math 54 to Advanced Mathematics (neither the earlier books nor calculus was available back then), and our experience was quite different from what the authors describe.

They state that parents need to teach the mathematical concepts in the Saxon books, that it is not a self-teaching program. We found that to be dramatically untrue. I can't speak for anything before Math 54, but beginning with that book the Saxon texts contain everything needed. Our children simply sat down with the books, read the material, worked the problems, and went on. This was a delightful contrast to other math texts that had left us bewildered because they assumed a teacher had already explained the concepts.

A grievous omission from The Well-Trained Mind's carefully laid out mathematics curriculum is any recognition that some students will be able to cover the material more quickly, although they do provide a revised sequence for students who might need to take a slower approach. Our children would have hated these math books if we had followed the official Saxon plan, which requires students to work every single problem. This would have bored them so seriously they probably would have developed an aversion to math, instead of the love they now have. We found that doing one third to one half of the available problems (carefully chosen to avoid missing concepts) was the right pace, and they flew through the books with joy. Saxon proponents who fail to acknowledge such an option do a disservice to both the publisher and the students.

Children who follow the path described in The Well-Trained Mind will receive a liberal arts education exceeding that of most college graduates, yet their mathematical knowledge will be little better than that of a typical college-bound high school senior. Not only is mathematics critical to many fields, but the mental skills developed in more advanced (post-calculus) courses should be an important part of the rhetoric stage.

1 For those who are too young or too old to have experienced Jefferson Airplane, this is not a reference to my mother-in-law.

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, November 11, 2005 at 12:40 pm | Edit
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I found your comments about how you used Saxon math VERY interesting. I think your intuitions about burning out were right, only I wish I would have thought of them! My kids are now using Life of Fred which, when I first saw it, I vowed I would never buy. Now they are loving math.

Posted by Tracy on Thursday, October 20, 2011 at 11:59 pm

Wow, Tracy, thanks! I'd never heard of Life of Fred, but I'm definitely looking into it. It sounds like fun.

Posted by SursumCorda on Friday, October 21, 2011 at 7:54 am
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