The Well-Educated Mind ~ A Road Map to Learning Enlightenment – Offical UM Review

For years we have used and loved The Story of the World series and The Well-Trained Mind was one of the first books on classical education that I read, but it was Laurette’s interview with Susan Wise Bauer that led me to my library to reserve a copy of The Well-Educated Mind and I am so very glad that I did.

I have always felt that reading is the key to being educated and loving to learn. I have found that often those who feel they “can’t read” or “don’t like to read” see themselves as stupid and inferior to others. This is not a new phenomenon and in the first chapter Wise Bauer shares historical points of view that agree with this assumption as well as some interesting points as to how self-educated people through history built their educations by reading.

“Reading alone allows us to reach out beyond the restrictions of time and space, to take part in what Mortimer Adler has called “The Great Conversation” of ideas that began in ancient times and has continued unbroken to the present.” p. 16

Within the initial chapter Wise Bauer also goes over a brief outline of the trivium using a fabulous quote from Francis Bacon; “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.” to give a great outline to the levels of the classical three part process – “First, taste: Gain basic knowledge of your subject. Second, swallow: Take the knowledge into your own understanding by evaluating it. Is it valid? Is it true? Why? Third, digest: Fold the subject into your own understanding.  Let it change the way you think — or reject it as unworthy. Taste, swallow, digest: find out the facts, evaluate them, form your own opinion.” I have been reading, watching and listening to a great deal about the trivium lately and I have to say that this description is the one that has sealed the deal for me, as it has solidified the ideas of the stages for me and the importance of each step in the process of learning. Wise Bauer also shares some great insight into how our modern society reflects historical periods in a manner that reminds me of ebbs and flows of educational interests.

In Chapter 2 the theme moves on to the skill of reading, as Wise Bauer distinguishes between the gathering of data and the act of reading – “When you gather data, you become informed. When you read,  you develop wisdom – or, in Mortimer Adler’s words, “become enlightened.”p. 24 She then continues on to explain how different outlets of media allow us to gather data in different ways for different purposes and though this is ideal in some situations, it is detrimental to others. Wise Bauer also presents some great tools to determine if the reader should work on some remedial skills – reading fluency, speed and vocabulary – before moving on to the great works she has outlined in the book. These are the skills that make people feel inferior and intimidated by reading. Her examples and methods for this are clearly laid out and she suggestes resources that could help as well.

After reading this chapter, the multitude of aha moments rang through my head for the remainder of the day. This is what I have been trying to get across to my daughter for years. This is what they are forgetting in many schools. The mass information being pumped in by edutainment resources are not allowing children to make connections on their own or form their own opinions due to the overwhelming amount of details that are shoveled in through multiple senses. When you read a story you put the pieces together using prior information in your brain, you create the visuals in your mind and it is developed slowly with your own understanding as the base. When you watch a newscast, sit through a multimedia presentation or watch a documentary, you are passively fed the information with the bias of the presenter rather than your own mindset. Even when given both sides or an unbiased opinion, it is still not your own visions created within your head, it is those that are chosen by someone else. This makes it harder for your brain to categorize the new input and therefore it will often be lost as quickly as it came in.

As I read through Chapter 3 I had a very difficult time following because Wise Bauer was describing the very actions I was doing – note taking, summarizing and quoting as I went along. It is a rather bizarre thing to be reading directions for something that I have always just naturally done – imagine picking up a book that describes how to walk, explaining each muscle movement in detail. I realize that not everyone does this sort of journaling, but was glad to see that she pointed out the transition of society through the years to have taken something that was traditionally an external note taking to the current intrinsic usage – “Present-day use of the word journal tends to imply that you’re creating a subjective, intensively inward-focused collection of thoughts and musings…But the journal of self-education has a more outward focus.”p. 35 This should be the self-educated persons production of rhetoric, she states – “the journal is the place where the reader takes external information and records it (through the use of quotes, as in the commonplace book); appropriates it through a summary, written in the reader’s own words; and then evaluates it through reflection and personal thought.” p. 36 Wise Bauer then goes on to give a description of how to effectively take notes and suggests using the next chapter to try it out.

Chapter 4 is more than adequately titled – “Starting to Read: Final Preparations” as this is where Wise Bauer covers the general principles for reading, analyzing and evaluating literature – both fiction and non-fiction. She covers this with great tips and suggestions such as not to choose “scholarly editions, packed with critical footnotes that stop you dead every time you hit a little super script number.” p.42, while giving explicit instruction on how to tackle each stage. The grammar steps she describes hold true for all genre and level, but she gives a brief description of the general steps for logic in this area as she covers them indepth for the specific categories in Part 2 of the book. For the rhetoric stage she recommends that you find a partner to tackle the great works with as this will help with accountability as well as fully engaging in the art of rhetoric which she aptly describes as “clear, persuasive communication, and persuasion always involves two people.” p.46

In Part II of the book each chapter covers a genre giving history or insight about the area and then a path to understanding each including pointers, tips and questions specific to that area. Lists of titles include suggested versions and brief description, along with explanations as to why Wise Bauer choose the titles. She expresses clearly “The purpose of answering questions isn’t to provide the “right answer” as you would in a fill-in-the-blank test. You answer them as part of your effort to think about books.” p. 48 She also clearly states the emphasis on chronological is an important key to understanding the great works – “Writers build on the work of those who have gone before them, and chronological reading provides you with a continous story.” p.50

Susan Wise Bauer has managed to create a relaxed conversation between writer and reader that is informative in a way that I have not found in other self-education books. She reiterates time and time again that if you have confidence in yourself and are steadfast in your ambitions you can become classical educated regardless of your previous schooling, education, or interest in learning. Throughout each chapter she slips in more explanations of the trivium stages in a way that is seamless and easily comprehended, even for those who have no experience with the concepts. This book would be a great addition to anyone’s library and would be my top pick for teens, young adults and really anyone who feels they need to take charge of their education.


Comments from Laurette Lynn: 

I have not yet digested Well Educated Mind but I have read Well Trained Mind.  Upon the first read, I wasn’t sure what to make of it.  My kids were very young when I first picked it up and it did seem so rigid.  I finished it and left it on the shelf.  As I learned more and as time passed and my kids grew both physically, spiritually and intellectually, I realized I needed to provide more challenging educational opportunities for both them and for myself!  I began to notice that I was using tips and suggestions from Bauer’s book.  Notice, I did not recall them, then use them, I was using them and then noticed that I had been – and many of them were working wonderfully for our family.  I revisited WTM and began reading it with more attention, having had a better understanding myself of critical thinking and application of the art.   Suddenly it no longer seemed rigid, but smooth, not difficult, but natural.  It takes an open mind to really see the organic developmental nature of Bauer’s work, and perhaps mine was just not open enough at the time.  
I thoroughly enjoyed conducting the UMRadio interview with Susan and I look forward to a follow up discussion.   I do not think that every practical  suggestion in her books can be practiced precisely as she describes in every family – but I do not think we are meant to and she does not suggest that we should.  There is however much to be learned, pondered and practiced.  Her years of research and her unique and sound insights offer some very useful suggestions that deserve attention and trial.  I hope you will give the books a look.
Additionally worth mentioning…  We read aloud from “The Story of the World” by Susan Wise Bauer and enjoy it very much.  It’s a really well written and delightful summary of world history to read aloud with the kids and makes a great tool in our discovery and study of history.   This is worth picking up for kids up to about 11 or 12.  
Thank you Gina for this great review!  I look forward to reading Well Educated Mind for sure!


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avatar About the Author: Gina is a home educating mom since 2007, when her daughter was in 5th grade and could no longer deal with the ridiculous public school system. You can find out more about their journey on their blog – Home Learning Family Going Sane - .

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  1. avatar beck63 says:

    I thank both you ladies for your comments on this book. I have it from my local library. I’m searching for educational material and input on all topics for my one year old granddaughter. This book will go on my list for her. Thanks again ladies, and thank you Laurette for your faithfulness in the podcast and on your up to date website of information!