Friday, April 09, 2010

Book Summary - The Well-Trained Mind

I read/skimmed the 700+ pages of that book last week. what exactly is a *classical education*?

My mind immediately thinks: rhetoric, logic, philosophy, Greek, and Latin.

And according to this book, my hunch was mostly spot-on.

Author Susan Wise Bauer (and her co-author mother) also wields the term trivium - which is defined as grammar, logic, and rhetoric.

For general observations on this important work, I direct you to her website and to the reviews on Amazon.

This is my blog and the book was rather lengthy, so I'm going to focus on what I took away from it. Bear in mind that I've been actively homeschooling my kids for almost two years now and have probably read more books on the subject than 95% of even long-time homeschoolers. Thus I can gloss over a lot of material that demands others' attention.

So, for me, the most important element was Susan's treatment of history, a subject near and dear to my heart, to Napoleon's:

My son should study much history, and meditate upon it....for it is the only true philosophy.

...and even for that clown Nietzsche's who admitted:

All philosophy has now fallen forfeit to history.

Susan Wise recommends taking a systematic (almost scientific!) approach to studying history.

First she divides it into four eras:

  • Ancients 5000 BC - 400 AD
  • Medieval - Early Renaissance 400 AD - 1600 AD
  • Late Renaissance - Early Modern 1600 AD - 1850 AD
  • Modern 1850 AD - present

And then she has students cycle threw each era for three entire years apiece. For grades (I hate this term!) 1, 5, and 9, kids delve into the Ancients. For grades 2, 6, and 10, they cover the Medieval - Early Renaissance period. And so on.

How exactly do the poor kids approach each period?

Well, she provides plenty of direction on that front. Susan gives lists of important figures, important events, and scores upon scores of book recommendations for each given period and each iterative study thereof. In fact, check out Google's search suggestions:

As you can see *book list* and *reading list* come right up in the results. From what I can tell, and have heard, many value The Well-Trained Mind primarily for the exhaustive and thoughtful history outlines provided. I myself borrowed the book from my homeschool co-op - but will definitely procure my own copy for these comprehensive lists.

Susan is also very big on having the brats memorize historic dates, lists of Presidents and monarchs, etc. And, importantly, her students have to *outline* everything they read - culling significant events, figures, and breakthroughs from the readings and inserting them into time-line organized notebooks. This all may sound fairly obvious and undiscerning minds may even mistakenly think this is precisely the approach of government school curricula - but it's most certainly not.

The classical education is more in-depth and better targeted. While students are memorizing facts just like their conventionally-schooled peers, Susan's pupils aren't wasting time on superficial tests that are only designed to test fleeting knowledge. Instead they are building a robust map of chronological history in their heads and in their notebooks; one that if built properly will not only stand the test of time, but will be able to accommodate a life of continued learning as incoming facts fall neatly into fertile mind slots. Without a systematic and meticulous approach, unclassically trained minds forget most everything a day or so after the exams - I know I certainly did. Even to this day, though I've read copious amounts of history books, I still can't really sit down and accurately outline the major events of the past as someone with my educational pedigree should be able to.

So to summarize the WTM on the history front, let's just say that Susan Wise's approach is PRECISELY what I had in mind for my homeschooled children before I had even read her book.

Moving on to some minor criticisms...

One thing that I've heard from a few parents who've read the book is that the WTM's course of study is too daunting, if not downright scary in scope. But these aren't parents who necessarily tried to follow it; they are forward-looking *moms* of young children. I believe, if memory serves me, that Susan's *day planners* typically had the older kids anyway doing upwards of 5-6 hours of formal work each day; by formal work I mean grammar exercises, handwriting, reading, outlining, memorization, transcription, etc. That's significantly more than the typical homeschooling parent who, I believe, does only 2-3 hours of work - *done by lunch* is what I generally hear.

My stance is this....5-6 hours might sound like a lot, but Susan, I believe, gives her kids the weekends, holidays, and summers off. Here at the C-Nut homestead we do *work* 365 days a year. So if one spreads it all out, it's not quite as much work as it seems. Or, one can look at it from another angle.

Why should anyone be afraid of *work*? Everything that is genuinely rewarding on this planet requires hard work, does it not? Parents spend 40-60 hours a week wage-slaving for perishable fiat currency each Monday-Friday. It's nothing short of a human tragedy that most of them consider sitting down and learning with their children for a few hours each week a tedious and unnecessary chore - a burden even.

And, now that I think of it some more, 5-6 daily hours still pales in comparison to what I used to inefficiently devote to my studies in high school. Between getting ready, getting to and from, 6 hours of soporific classes, and an average of 2-3 hours of homework every night....I had to be putting in roughly 10 hours per diem, five days a week!

Susan is big on a couple of other things: transcription and grammar. At this point in my homeschooling odyssey, I'm only with her on the former.

Transcription is simply having the kids devote time and effort to copying verbatim, quotes, verses, and passages from the time-ordained greats: Plato, Edmund Burke, Voltaire, Shakespeare, the Bible, et al. As my regular blog readers well know, not only am I a huge advocate of transcription, I myself practice it all the time. See two of my latest posts here and here - or, just check out my random quote generators in the upper left margin of the blog.

But as for grammar, well, at this point I don't think it demands as rigorous a study as Susan Wise accords it. I believe that if students read and transcribe plenty of erudite works, that they'll soon enough learn the rules of proper grammar indirectly, by osmosis. Of course I diagrammed sentences when I was in 7th grade, learned a bit about subject-verb agreement somewhere along the line, etc....and perhaps I unconsciously minimize the role such formal study played in my literary development. I simply don't know. I can only go with my gut and my best analysis at the present moment - though I'll try not to become closed-minded on the subject of grammar in my homeschooling. If my kids start punctuating sentences in the middle....

Here's Susan on math:

All college-bound students should complete two years of algebra plus a geometry course. This sequence should begin in eighth or ninth grade. (p528)

That's it?

Obviously, with my 5.38 year old son already immersed in algebra and fluent in geometry, I have set far higher mathematical goals - and proven they're attainable!

Here's Susan on computers:

...we think that every high-school student ought to read at least one neo-Luddite work on the computer age (for example, Data Smog, Resisting the Virtual Life, or one of the other titles listed at the end of this chapter) to balance out the techno-ravings of software executives and Internet providers. (p571)

While that quote doesn't summarize her complete thoughts on computer-based learning, it at least gives a window. Essentially, Susan is an old-fashioned (surprise, surprise) *paper-and-pencil* advocate. She takes shots at *image-based* and *computer-based* learning, at chatrooms, email, and virtual friendships here and there throughout her book. I believe the WTM was first published in 1999 - a time when the web was still coming into its own as a fount of useful information; and Susan is a bit *older* than me so her smidgen of technophobia isn't surprising.

Nonetheless, I know she's dead wrong on this one. Personally, I've learned orders of magnitude more from surfing the web, from cultivating online friendships, and from blogging than I ever did from 15.5 years of textbooks and curricula - and that includes time at a very well-esteemed high school and an Ivy League college (UPenn).

Furthermore, I see the educational benefits of the web everyday with my kids who are already non-stop Googlers, who learned to read online, learned their states and capitals efficiently, learned to spell,....and my 5.38 year old son is already blogging his book reports and science experiments.

We are all irretrievably biased by our own personal experiences and Susan, not only was she herself educated with books and paper-and-pencil, she's now a college professor, an *academic* from root to leaf. Susan repeatedly refers to *college prep* in her book. But I submit that's a sub-optimal focus, "Why not life-prep?" If my homeschooled kids end up going to college and wasting hundreds of thousands of dollars, AND four precious years of their lives....I'll feel like I failed in my homeschooling.

In this sense, my stance is kind of funny. How many millions of Americans aspired to have their children *be the first in the family to go to college*? Or to get into a *better college* than they did? Now I'm of the opposite opinion, trying to raise my children to a higher plateau by them NOT SEEKING fraudulent, over-priced, and meaningless college degrees!

A well-trained mind is a necessity for any job - from car repair person to university teacher. The mechanic with a classical education will be more successful than her untrained counterparts; she'll know how to plan her business, how to relate to her customers, how to organize her responsibilities, how to think. A classical education is the best possible preparation for the job market.

Throughout this book, we've maintained that the classical education is not intended to teach all subjects comprehensively - history, science, math, language. The classical education is designed to teach the student how to learn. In its constant demand that the student read and then analyze and then write about what she's read, the classical education trains the mind to gather, organize, and use information. And the student who knows how to learn - and has had practice in independent learning - can successfully do any job. (p601)

The *best* possible preparation for the job market?

Perhaps - if we are talking about the *wage slave* job market - and even then perhaps not. The kids might turn out too knowledgeable to bow to bureaucratic hierarchies...

The best plan for raising economically viable children is to teach them economic history, to cultivate their productive creativity, and to get them as quickly as possible on the path to self-propelled entrepreneurship. It most certainly has nothing to do with Socrates or memorizing the chronology of Egyptian rulers!

I have to end this post here. While my last several bits were critical in nature, in no way do they discredit this wonderful book. What can I say? I can't help my Captious self - it's what I do better than anyone, pounce on the smallish mistakes.

This remains a highly recommended book for those who've first read and digested the introductory homeschooling propaganda - like John Gatto, John Holt, David Albert, etc. And even then it can be put off until one's homeschooled kids are maybe 5, 6, or 7. Because otherwise, this tome might scare some poor parent right back into the clutches of government schools! In fact, many would argue that teaching the *trivium* as Susan would have one do is ANTITHETICAL to the (their) concept of home schooling. These unschooler types, John Holt chief among them, passionately believe that re-creating *school at home* via narrowly defined curricula and assignments is, and I'll quote their refrain, "the worst thing a homeschooling parent can do!"

But demonstrate your parental homeschooling credentials and use your own brain; read the book and just take away from it what you need - as I did. There's certainly plenty in it to chew on.


Anonymous said...

Wonderful essay / review.
Makes me wish "there were world enough and time .... but at my back I always hear time's winged chariot drawing near "

And I have to clear the attic !

Anonymous said...

In case you're interested - entrepreneur kids from Yahoo Finance

Bible study

Khaliah said...

Good article. My daughter is 13 and her writing and grammer is way off and I feel horrible. She's in public school but I would like to do something with her daily at home to improve her writing and grammer. Do you have any suggestions for 13 year olds.

CaptiousNut said...

Hi Khaliah,

Do you mean creative/expository writing or *penmanship*? I will assume you mean the former - the latter we in my house don't care about one bit. I can't write legibly myself!

Writing skills and grammar can surely be directly taught via those boring drills. Some good resources here.

But ideally those will be learned organically via voluminous reading and a good deal of writing (almost any kind).

The television simply has to go. It can't be *cut down* - though that would be the logical start. Only when kids aren't having din poured into their brains can their creativity percolate. Only then will they truly appreciate the written word.

Rebecca said...

"This all may sound fairly obvious and undiscerning minds may even mistakenly think this is precisely the approach of government school curricula - but it's most certainly not."

People who believe that probably graduated more than a few years ago. Having graduated from high school in 2005, I can very much dispel the notion that what she proposes is similar to public school history classes. If I remember correctly, TWTM endorses not only moving chronologically through history, but also teaching other subjects in a way that is tied into the history being studied. In essence, teaching the big picture rather than snippets and separate, completely unrelated subjects.

Teaching history chronologically is such a simple, wonderful concept. I wish I had learned it that way. Instead, public-schoolers are taught history in what almost seems like a random way. American History one year, Mesopotamia the next semester, then the Middle Ages, then the Roman Empire, then current events, etc. I'm sure it isn't random (I hope, at least), but it certainly feels random next to a well-ordered chronological learning.

I certainly don't know how world events fit together, because I was taught in pieces rather than a whole.

Sorry for the spiel, Hubby and I have totally fallen for the idea of teaching history in order, and tying all the subjects together as much as possible. I hated the piecemeal system of public-schooling.

TWTM is one of my favorite homeschooling books. The funny part is, we don't even have kids yet. We are just research junkies. We figure that when we do start having kids, we'll be glad to have taken the time to research this stuff now when we have lots of extra time.

CaptiousNut said...

Hi Rebecca,

But I don't know that you can teach history *in order*. Different things were happening in different places, etc.

Probably the ideal way to teach history would be to start in your house/town/state and go backwards. When was it settled? Who came there? Where did they come from and why? Who were their ancestors? Etc.

This approach would be firmly rooted in personal relevancy - I think.

I haven't really done any focused study of history with my 6.39 year old yet but am looking forward to it very much. Although I'm pretty much just going to assign him readings and make him self-educate.

Why don't you get rid of those animals and start having some kids!?!?

sarahpaschall said...

This was great, and well balanced. I particularly appreciated the acknowledgment that "The kids might turn out too knowledgeable to bow to bureaucratic hierarchies"