"The Well-Educated Mind"

A miracle has occurred. I have finally finished The Well-Educated Mind: A Guide to the Classical Education You Never Had by Susan Wise Bauer. It probably took longer for me to read it than for Bauer to write it, publish it, and do the promotion. Part of the reason for that is that I took notes on the whole thing (more or less following the TWEM method). Taking thorough notes on one’s reading is more time- and energy-consuming than just reading, but I found I was able to retain and use what I read much better than if I had just read through from cover to cover. The information in the book on historical contexts, genres, and major works, subtly infiltrated my brain and I have found myself automatically making all sorts of connections and observations about the various arts that I am exposed to (from ballet to Monty Python) that I would have been oblivious to before. Although this may indicate that I was galactically ignorant about literature (which is no doubt true, and is only slightly less true now), I think it also reflects Bauer’s ability to boil things down to essentials and relate them in a way a beginner can understand. In other words, she knows her stuff and she’s a good teacher.

The reading method she presents is based on the “trivium,” the three-stage process of classical learning. The first stage, grammar, is learning the basics through memorization and repetition. The second stage is logic, which involves critical thinking, analysis, and evaluation. In the last stage, rhetoric, the reader draws on the first two stages to form and express opinions in speech and writing. Bauer follows this basic outline and poses questions (specific to each genre) to help readers along in the various stages.

Her suggestions for grammar stage reading involve recording basic information about the book and author, briefly summarizing (in sentence form) each chapter or section as one reads through the book, and giving the book (and even the chapters) your own title (and subtitle) that expresses your understanding of what the book is about. In the logic stage, one reads the work again, this time answering questions about the form and style of the work, and how this contributes to the work’s purpose. Finally, in the rhetoric stage, one answers (and, ideally, discusses with others) questions about the argument of the work and whether one agrees or disagrees with the author (or narrator).

Integral to this process is the keeping of a journal or notebook. For Bauer, a reading journal has three purposes: to record information (such as quotations or lists of characters or events); to appropriate knowledge by summarizing in one’s own words; and finally to record one’s thoughts and questions as one reflects on and evaluates the work in question. I filled up nearly half a moleskine with my own notes on TWEM, which is a bit excessive, but it was a form of practice for me. I found it especially difficult to summarize in complete sentences, but it forced me to make sure I really understood what I had read. Taking notes in point form may get things down on to paper but not necessarily into the brain.

A large proportion of the book is taken up by Bauer’s annotated lists of major works in each genre (novels, autobiography, history, drama, and poetry). As someone commented earlier on this blog, it is somewhat ironic that Bauer strongly urges readers not to read the introduction before reading a book (and recommends purchasing editions without introductions), lest it limit or shape their personal reactions to the book, but then she goes on to give her own summaries of the works in her reading lists. Taking her advice, I have for the most part ignored these.

There are also a couple of other general reading principles Bauer (among others) recommends. One is to buy inexpensive copies of the recommended books (such as Dover Thrift editions) so that one can mark them up without guilt. I’m not sure I agree with this, only because if I’m already keeping a reading journal, it makes no sense to mark and write in the book as well, forcing me to consult both places whenever I want to review my notes. It seems more sensible to me to do one or the other.

The other major principle is to read in chronological order, that is, the order in which the books were written. The main reason for reading chronologically is that it automatically gives you the context in which each book was written, because you have read what the author had read and been influenced by. This not only increases understanding but saves you having to go look up the historical, cultural, or intellectual context of a work. It also gives you a general sense of what Bauer calls the “rhetoric of ideas,” or the development of human ideas through history, which is the meta-narrative overarching all the great works of art. Studying this meta-narrative is for some the main goal of reading the great books. Bauer applies the principle of chronological reading within genres but applying this to a single author, or across genres, would, I think, result in interesting and equally valid meta-narratives.

What I found most helpful in The Well-Educated Mind was the historical context Bauer gave for each genre. As a result, before delving into those delicious Norton anthologies I blogged about a while back, I am going to hit the history books to find out just exactly what happened on this planet before I got here.


9 comments on “"The Well-Educated Mind"

  1. Stefanie says:

    So are you going to continue filling up the moleskine or are you going to break down and write in your books?

  2. Sylvia says:

    I think I'm going to use the moleskines for my serious reading, and write in books that I'm just reading casually or for pleasure (although some of those come from the library so there will be no writing whatsoever). I don't expect to fill half a mole for every book–I took lots of detailed notes on this book for future reference. I certainly can't afford to burn through moleskines that fast on a regular basis, but at the rate I read I don't think that is going to be much of an issue! 😀

  3. Talmida says:

    Sylvia, thanks for this post — I will be trying this technique with the next non-fiction book I have to read — I can never stay focused if there's no plot!

  4. Stefanie says:

    I am curious, with all the note taking the book encourages, does it offer a suggestion for keeping tham all organized and finding them months and years later?

  5. Sylvia says:

    No, she doesn't get into that, but it's pretty easy to put a table of contents at the beginning of each notebook (made possible by numbering the pages as you go along). It would help to have different notebooks for different genres and mark them in some way. One reason I like Moleskines (and other hard-bound notebooks) is that I can (theoretically) put labels on the spines to identify them when they're on the shelf. And if things get really out of hand you can always put together a master list saying what notes are in which notebook.
    Of course it's just a matter of preference. Bauer doesn't specify a particular format. I like the compact, book-like form of the moleskine, but others may prefer loose-leaf paper, which can be arranged in whatever way in a binder or portfolio. Whatever works for you.

  6. Julie says:

    I can't write in books. It just feels wrong — unless of course it's a cookbook. I annotate those all the time.
    I'm in total agreement over the chronological order principle. It drives me absolutely crazy that the Narnia series was reissued in the order that the stories take place instead of the order they were written.
    I'm also in total agreement about not reading introductions, UNLESS they were written by the author, and not just as a prelude to a reissue. But I read every word of whatever's at the end: acknowledgements, afterword, and above all, notes on the type.

  7. Sylvia says:

    Another thing we have in common–I'm always fascinated by the colophon!

  8. Stefanie says:

    I love notes on the type and sadly they are appearing less and less often.

  9. […] Well-Educated Mind: A Guide to the Classical Education You Never Had by Susan Wise Bauer (post) —This was my first introduction to active reading, and got me started in developing my own […]

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