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Review- The Well-Trained Mind

“The Well-Trained Mind, A Guide to Classical Education at Home” By Jessie Wise and Susan Wise Bauer.

My oldest is kindergarten age, so I have been revisiting popular homeschooling methods in an effort to find one that will fit my own homeschooling style, as well as meeting the needs of my children.  I have heard Susan Bauer speak twice in person, and I originally read this book 6 years ago, before I was married.  Now I re-read most of it, and have overlooked some of the curriculum choices that she recommends in the 1999 edition. 
I have not read the newer edition, although from the reviews I have read online, I feel little desire to.  Apparently, the new edition highly recommends the learning materials that these two women (mostly Susan) have created to accompany the trivium.  If I decide I am interested in their products, I know where to look, but I prefer to see what these women recommended as the cream of the crop beforethey became biased towards their own materials.  I can’t blame them for it, but I’m content to study and review the 1999 edition.
Overall, I think that this is a great book.  I am confident that following this methodology would produce great results for my kids.  I appreciate the author’s candid remarks about the hard work that will be necessary to give children a superb education.  It is intense and complete, and I like that.  I want something that will challenge my children and this book fits the bill.
My 5-year-old struggles in his handwriting because he wants to write his circle letters clockwise.  Bauer recommends starting preschoolers in writing by letting them draw lots and lots of counter-clockwise circles.  Case in point of the good advice this book has to offer.
This book outlines in great detail the author’s top picks for all of the academic subjects, from pre-K through 12thgrade.  She gives her full review of what she thinks the pros and cons are for these top picks.  Her subjects include the “three R’s”,  History and Geography, Science, Latin, Religion (stating only that your family’s religion should be taught) Art and Music, Logic, Languages, Rhetoric, and Computer Skills.
In a nutshell, the authors recommend that you rotate through the subjects by spending a full year in each of the following categories:

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

Most subjects, not just history, reflect upon this division.  Science during “Ancients” reflects on what the Ancients could see, and so on.  These four eras are divided into the Trivium, “Grammer”, “Logic”, and “Rhetoric”.  “Grammer” is taught during 1-4 grades, and is a time for learning the basic facts in each subject.  This is where you memorize your parts of speech, spelling, multiplication facts, etc.  During the “Logic” phase (5-8 grades), a student covers the materials again, but learns how to evaluate what is logical, and how to recognize fallacies.  Finally, during the “Rhetoric” stage (9-12 grade), the student learns the art of persuasion, as they develop their own opinions and gain the ability to defend their world view.
Overall, I really love this broad overview.  I do not want my children to be passive in their understanding of how the world works.  I will train them in rhetoric, as I believe this skill to be essential to leadership.  Many great leaders of the past were trained in rhetoric, such as Queen Elizabeth I and Thomas Jefferson, and I can see that this training served them well.  Such a study was unfamiliar to me until I read “The Well-Trained Mind”, so I am grateful to the book for that.
I highly recommend reading this book, with the understanding that you take what you want and leave the rest.
I have a few criticisms of the book, which prevent me from tackling this approach head-on.
First is the effort the authors make to appeal to the secular crowd.  In and of itself, this is not a bad thing, but the constant apologetics of how the Christian material in some curriculums may offend some readers, while ignoring how secular materials may offend Christians, seemed inconsistent to me.  To her credit, she does recommend some Christian materials, such as A Beka, and I appreciate that.  She gives excellent secular alternatives, which I think is great.  Here is an example of her inconsistency:
For 1-4 grade history, she recommends “The Usborne Book of World History”.  This book is to be used by reading 1-2 pages a week, and then going to the local library and checking out several books on the topic presented.  I LOVE that approach, as our family already has a solid library routine, and I want my children to learn from living books as much as possible.  However, if you read the reviews of this book on Amazon, the consensus is that there is a lot of nudity in the pictures.  (I am not implying that Christian parents are the only ones who might be offended by this.)  Gory depictions of throat slitting, gladiators crushing heads, and pubic hair are all among the charges brought against this book.  This book is to be the core history book for little children, no alternatives are suggested, and no mention of this potentially offensive material (I’ll say!) is mentioned.  If she mentioned it with an apologetic approach, saying you will have to decide for your family, the recommendation wouldn’t bother me.  But she doesn’t.  I admit I haven’t personally seen this book, but if there were several parents who took the effort to give it a negative review because of this issue, you would think that this material would be on par with mentioning that a potential curriculum choice contains a scripture reference here and there.  If this is an issue for you as it is for me, I recommend that you carefully read reviews of her recommendations before purchasing.
Another criticism I have is that Susan Bauer is undoubtedly a strong feminist, strongly opinionated, and, in my opinion, condescending in her writing approach.  Her religious views, while Christian, are also very different from my own.  For these reasons, I will not be choosing any of Bauer’s products with my children.  I read about half of her “Story of the World, Volume 1, Ancient Times”, and I didn’t finish it because this was my perception.  I’m only giving my opinion on this matter, but this is my blog, my review, and I’m entitled to share it.
I have been looking for history alternatives, and aside from checking out lots of books on the subject, I’m leaning towards “A Child’s History of the World” (the updated one with a boy blowing bubbles on the cover), and “The Mystery of History”, although I have not made a final decision on this matter yet.
I also do not agree with Wise/Bauer’s insistence that Latin be included in the curriculum.  In the days when knowing Latin was the only way to study the Bible, certainly an understanding of Latin was of great benefit.  I also understand that many of our modern words have Latin roots, which makes this study valuable today.  However, many of the founding fathers studied Latin, and straightway abandoned the study as soon as they left school.  I think a study of modern, living languages would be of much better use for my children.  My husband’s English vocabulary was dramatically improved when he learned Spanish, because words that sound similar have the same Latin or Greek roots.  I’ll ask him what a word means, and he will often use a Spanish word and its meaning to help explain the English word to me.  He also uses his Spanish when conversing with members of our community who struggle with English.  Wise/Bauer further argue that Latin teaches a child’s mind to think logically, to organize, and to build vocabulary.  Knowing a foreign language guards against arrogance as a child comes head-to-head with the reality that his language is not the only, or even the best, language in the world.  Well, these are good arguments, but I don’t think that Latin is the only, or even best way of teaching my children these principles.  Learning piano will certainly teach my children to think logically, and it most certainly requires organization of thought to play with both hands.  Any foreign language can accomplish the other goals of Latin.  These notes are not to discourage anyone from studying Latin, as such knowledge would certainly be useful.  Rather, I hope to convey that a family should not feel that Latin is a requirement.  I see it as an elective, while a foreign language of the family’s choice would be a requirement for a classical education.  Again, that’s my opinion, but take it with a grain of salt.  I have not personally studied Latin aside from “Dies Irae”, and foreign language was never my forte.
In summary, I will simply reiterate that “The Well-Trained Mind” is, for me, a great reference book that I am content to allow the library to store for me, although I am sure I will be checking it out again and again as we approach each stage.  I see the benefits of having a classical education, and I want this for my children.  I am still in the studying phase of my own learning, as I do not believe that Wise/Bauer are the ultimate source.
On the BrillKids forum, “A History of Education in Antiquity” has been recommended as a great source to understand what a classical education really entailed.  It isn’t easy reading by any means, but I find myself wanting to tackle it for my own education.  Such information could only help me as I teach my own children.  “The Well-Trained Mind” is only one great book of many to help me give my children the education I desire for them.  It isn’t the ultimate “bible” for me.


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  1. Tamysn-
    So I have the Usborne book of World History. I wish I had seen the reviews you did. The crazy thing is that I got it off of a recommendation through Sonlight. I had looked at their lists because of their christian standards. I was disturbed at how the nudity went on and on. Some cultures had nudity, yes. But I felt that instead of just mentioning it the book went out of it's way to highlight every time nudity would be involved. Needless to say it got shelved. It was a bit frustrating because I had used the list because I can't read everything before had and I was looking for a source to trust.

  2. How sad. A few of the Amazon reviewers went so far as to say that they wouldn't buy anything published by Usborne after seeing that book. It's got a lot of other secular things that can be dismissed because of our culture, but the nudity in this book was the last straw. Too bad, a lot of Usborne books are really cute. I'm planning on staying away from Usborne because of it! Thank you for sharing your experience.

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