Review: The Well-Educated Mind

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Each Sunday, The Simple Dollar reviews a personal productivity or personal development book.

well educated mindThere are a few books so tied to an individual’s experience that it’s hard for that individual to write about it with an unbiased perspective. For me, The Well-Educated Mind falls into that category – the experience that it opened me up to and the developments in my life that it triggered were tremendous and only matched by a few other books.

The Well-Educated Mind describes itself as a guide to the classical education you never had. For some people, perhaps even a strong majority of people, that would make them go “So what?” Most people have the basic knowledge they need to function in day to day life and really see no purpose in investing the effort to gain a deep understanding of the world around them, and a “classic education” seems as boring as can be.

For me, a person interested by countless subjects but often limited by my own education (rural public school, followed by a thorough grounding in the sciences, but often light on the humanities, literature, etc.), I found that quite often I would fail to really digest what I was reading. I could pull out specific facts and memorize them; I could even combine those facts and come up with strong conclusions (I was good at math, unsurprisingly), but in terms of absorbing a complete argument, or really knowing how to delve into many, many areas that interested me, I was at best a complete amateur – I felt like a babe lost in the woods.

Why? I had missed out on the joys of a true classical education. I started to get a glimmer of it when I read Mortimer Adler’s classic How to Read a Book, which focuses on how to absorb a book and incorporate it into your own knowledge, but I was still missing great swaths of basic understanding in many areas. It turned out that I needed to go back to the beginning and, at my own pace and with my own pleasure, read a ton of the classics, starting with the ancient materials and working forward.

It was the best decision I’ve ever made.

The only problem was, I didn’t really know how to do it. I could read a book and absorb it, but I didn’t really have even the basic framework of knowledge in a lot of areas and I was clueless on how to start. That’s where this book came in – it filled in these answers and sent me on my way to really understanding everything.

So how has this helped me as a person? Because of the fire lit by this book, I have a solid understanding of many subjects that I was clueless about before, increasing my understanding of the world. Even more, I really understand how many basic ideas about life, philosophy, history, and science are deeply interconnected – I see all kinds of connections in my everyday life that weren’t apparent before. In my day to day life, it has helped me immensely writing this site and has made it possible for me to at least follow and usually contribute to conversations on any topic, from a deep intellectual discussion to observations about NASCAR.

Ready to dig in? Let’s go.

Traveling Through The Well-Educated Mind

Chapter 1 – Training Your Own Mind: The Classical Education You Never Had
The modern public education system focuses primarily on preparing people for the workforce – in other words, the primary focus is on completing tasks, not on truly understanding things. While this is perfectly good training for many people, many others have an innately curious mind, and that mind, when it begins to try to understand new items, is often missing the tools for comprehension and the bedrock of human understanding to really build upon.

The first step is to simply devote some time each week to learning. The book recommends finding about four mornings a week to do this, starting off with a half hour at a time, and also to avoid all distractions leading up to and during that time. This is time set aside to learn new things and expand your understanding of the world.

Chapter 2 – Wrestling With Books: The Act of Reading
Many people develop the ability to read very quickly, which is good in some respects and bad in others. Most of the time, people read through material more quickly than they should because they’re pressed for time. If you’re going to devote yourself to learning about a particular topic or absorbing the classics, slow down. Read at a slow pace, even if it feels like you’ll never get done. When you finish a paragraph, you should be able to reflect back on it and completely understand it. That may mean reading at a complete snail’s pace, looking up words you don’t know, and stopping to reflect on a complex sentence or a major new thought. It’s slow, but it’s worth it.

The second step is to practice reading at a pace where you can absorb the material. Slow down, take pauses, and don’t let your eyes skip backwards or forwards without a reason. Make sure at the end of each sentence and each paragraph that you know what it said and can explain it in your own words. If you hurry up too much, you lose the whole argument. This is incredibly true and was one of the big breakthroughs for me – I eventually learned to control my pace depending on the type of book, but for many books I still read very slowly.

Chapter 3 – Keeping the Journal: A Written Record of New Ideas
One aid to this slow absorption process is to start a journal in which you can record ideas as you come across them. Interestingly, this works just as well for fiction as it does for nonfiction once you get used to it. Whenever a phrase brings forth an interesting idea in your head, copy down the phrase and write down the idea, too. If something suddenly clicks, jot that down. Use page numbers for annotations if you wish.

The third step is to select a journal in which you can record your thoughts and ideas as you write. I found that an electronic journal works well for me – I sit back with a book and an open document and whenever I think of something worth noting, I pause and jot it down. If I’m on the road and reading, I usually use Post-It notes so I can record them later. I have a folder of documents saved on my computer that cover the complex books I’ve read.

Chapter 4 – Starting to Read: Final Preparations
Those of you familiar with debate might recognize that the second step is actually the grammar and the third step is actually the logic, when referring to the trivium of the educational tradition. So what comes next? The rhetoric – what is an author actually saying and what are your own thoughts about it? The best part here is that if you actually follow through and read the book carefully, you’ll almost always figure out a correct answer – but find that there is no single correct answer. When you reach that point, you’re beginning to really understand the topic.

The fourth step is to truly understand what you’re reading by digging through all the information to uncover the core, central points. You’ve uncovered all the little ideas and pieces in the third step, but what do they all mean together? Interestingly, I’ve often found (and Bauer, the author of The Well-Educated Mind concurs) that a book is best absorbed if it’s read two or three times. What works well for me is to read a book, then read something different, then come back to that book again. On occasion, I’ll do this two or three times with the same book to really absorb it.

Chapter 5 – Chapter 9
The remainder of the book is a series of five suggested reading lists in five areas: novels, autobiographies and memoirs, history, dramas, and poetry, along with a few pages outlining some of the conventions of each. These basically happen to be five general reading lists – you may have a specific topic that you’re interested in where you can find a reading list online.

I will say, however, that the list of novels presented here is profoundly good, and I’d recommend anyone who takes a stab at reading literature to read the novels on the list and attempt to use the four steps of the first four chapters while reading them. It’s a list of only thirty one novels, almost all of which can be found on PaperBackSwap, and it really underlines so much of what you might read today, fiction or nonfiction. I enjoyed the other lists immensely, but the novel list was incredible and it has opened me to doing things like attempting to read all of the Pulitzer Prize winning novels (and deeply understanding them).

A Side Note On This Book’s Effect On My Parenting

One of my best memories of my education happened when I was eleven and I read a book at the same time as three of my friends – we all chose to read 1984. We were encouraged to do this by a teacher at our school, who basically wanted a small group of the “smart” students to form a book club. We would read two chapters a week and meet twice during that week to discuss a chapter.

I remember it fondly not just because of the “book club,” but because my parents got into it, too. They both read 1984 at the exact same time and we would talk about it, too. It was the dominant topic at the dinner table for a good month as we batted around the characters, the issues in the book, and so on. We’d tie the book into our own lives, the events of the day, and so forth, and I felt like we all got a deep understanding of it.

I hope, from the bottom of my heart, that my children will want to do such a thing. That experience made me appreciate literature so much – I’d love to have similar experiences with my own children. Bauer has even written a book on this very topic, The Well-Trained Mind. You’d better believe that as my son grows older, this one will be read and re-read by me.

Buy or Don’t Buy?

If this writeup seemed boring to you and you fail to see the point, don’t buy this book – it will be a complete waste of your time. This isn’t really a comment on your personality or thought process or anything – I know, for instance, that my wife is quite bright but sees this as being rather useless, but other friends of mine have thought it quite interesting. It’s the type of personal development that simply appeals to some people and seems pointless to others.

On the other hand, if this writeup stirred even an inkling of interest, The Well-Educated Mind is a must-read. It sent me down a completely new path of understanding the world and vastly broadened my ability – and my desire – to fully understand new ideas from the bottom up rather than just taking a cursory glance and calling it good enough. The opportunities it has provided me to really understand things and – even better – talk about these things with others and build strong relationships because of it has been tremendous.

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28 thoughts on “Review: The Well-Educated Mind

  1. Thanks, Trent! I very much appreciated this review and will find a copy of this book forthwith. Like you, my public-school education prepared me to complete tasks with a minimum of cognition, and thus a minimum of fuss. Perhaps this book will provide the impetus to make up for what was otherwise lacking in my studies.

  2. I liked this article a lot. It reminded me I’ve already bought this book a while ago and haven’t really read it. I think I’ll try again. How’s that for a “free” book? :)

  3. Oh and I couldn’t concur more about, in my case, my low quality urban California school education not seeming to have prepared me for much of anything!!! But then I do make enough to survive so I guess it very marginally prepared me for the workplace.

  4. Learning to learn is probably the most valuable investment you could ever make. I was lucky – I know I learned a lot more about how to learn in high school than college (and went to a very good university, so that says something), but also know a lot of people came into college with less ability to really ‘think’…

    Too bad I was still lazy at the time, or the time could have been put to even better use.

    Learning how to learn and learning how to work hard, then, are two very different things…

  5. Ahhh…a brief mention of the Adler book. I recall reading it about 10 years ago and being in total awe of the depth and breadth of the author’s grasp of the world. It is a truly useful and inspiring book, although it was a slow read because the information content was so dense.

  6. Continuing to enjoy your blog Trent. This is another example of why – your content is not Americanized, so a foreigner like me can benefit from 95% of your posts. Keep up the lack of 401(k) posts!

  7. Trent:

    The beauty is — you are also experiencing the classics in a form closer to the way many people experienced them through most of history, when there was no such thing as compulsory education. Instead, there was a whole culture (albeit confined primarily to the leisured in society) around reading, writing about, and discussing the best works.

    Trent, if this sort of thing is at all interesting to you, and especially if your children show a proclivity to the classics, when the time is right look for schools (college but also for younger grades) that teach according to “Great Books” methods. If I had my college experience to do over, I’d head for St. John’s myself (in Santa Fe — the classical education St. John’s, not the military academy).


  8. To preface, I have never had any interest in classic (or really any) literature and, all throughout my schooling, I completely avoided it whenever possible.

    Once though, I had no choice but to read a short story called “Bartleby the Scrivener.” I hated that I had to read it, I hated reading it, and when I finished, I hated the story. Not more than a week later I was watching a favorite show of mine and one character, a teacher, said to a returning student “Ah, come back to take another crack at Bartleby?” And the student replied “I would prefer not to.” It was a great line from the story that would have completely gone over my head had I not read the story.

    I felt like I had been let in on sort of an inside joke. Nobody else who was watching the show with me picked up on it. It was great.

    Still, I’d rather have 30 mins. back.

  9. I have never been one to read novels, and after reading this post I just might pick up this book as a primer. I’m attracted to more “how-to” books than classical literature, and I feel like this book is the perfect how-to book for me :D Thanks for writing a review on it!

  10. The classics it recommends are very heavy, especially if you don’t come from a christian background, a good selection of the literature is suggests is a little hard to get down.

    However, the howto section of the book is great, and good enough to justify purchasing the book (or reading it in the library) even if you can’t get through the fiction.


  11. I have really enjoyed this book and also read *The Well-Trained Mind* which is really about homeschooling so not actually for adults educating themselves. Nonetheless something I did enjoy about that book was the suggestion that you read, not by type of book (ie, first novels, then histories, etc) but by historical period. I’ve begun with Gilgamesh, Homer, Herodotus and Thucydides and these, with a helpful selection of maps and context from Wikipedia and books from the library, have been really interesting and engaging for me. Each thing builds on the other and the way you see ideas unfolding in the classical period is really interesting.

    It also helped me to know that, for example, I would take a year or so reading classical literature, and then maybe a year in the medieval period/Renaissance, a year in the Enlightenment and a year in the modern period. This way I don’t let myself get freaked out that I’m not “making progress”, and I know that it’s a big job, not a weekend project :-)

    Taking the time to do this for yourself is a fabulous, fabulous investment.

  12. I read two books in a row that recommended Adler’s “How To Read A Book”, so I went to Amazon to buy a copy. “The Well-Educated Mind” was listed as a book purchased by people who also bought “How to read”, and sounded interesting so I bought it as well. It’s next on my reading list.

  13. I’d suggest the discipline to “get down” a good selection of those classics would be an excellent endeavor — it might even remind people of the achievements made over the course of Western civilization — which if you LIVE in the Western civilization (as Americans do), should be required understanding.

    Of course, you can add a liberal dose of non-Western classic reading to the mix. That would be excellent. A lot of it is hard to “get down” too.


  14. Donald, the book you link to is actually for parents of homeschoolers who want to give their children training in the classics. I mention it in the article, but that’s not the book I’m talking about.

  15. I’ll have to check this out. I read constantly and try to keep various classics frequently in rotation, but I think I am often guilty of reading too fast and not absorbing as much as I should– I forget to keep a notebook and jot down ideas and quotes, and if I”m reading when I’m tired, I sometimes realize I’ve looked at all the words on a page and not paid attention at all! So this was a good reminder that it’s not just whether or not you read, but how you read that matters…

  16. This post is actually encouraging to me as a grade-school teacher. These are now steps that are considered ‘best practice’ for teaching, and I use them with very young children to get them in the habit of thinking- and questioning- as they read. The now classic teaching books that outline these reading strategies are: Mosaic of Thought and Strategies that Work.

  17. I’m not sure you can understand “Bartleby the Scrivener” until you’ve been in a demoralizing workplace for long enough. But perhaps I’m projecting :).

  18. It’s great that you’re reading through the classics now. I would be leery of anyone recommending a classics-only curriculum for children, though. Modern science is not going to be in those books, and a thorough grounding in the scientific method and the results of modern science is necessary for living in today’s world.

  19. As one who did receive a classical education (in the 1950s and early 60s), thank you so much for giving credibility to that kind of learning. Although my chief interest is in mathematics, I have found that nothing I learned during those years in school, nor in my reading since, has been wasted. My success in my chosen field is not a result of my training; it is because of a wide-ranging and highly varied field of knowledge. As you noted, this doesn’t indicate a higher intellectual ability, but merely a different way of approaching life.

  20. Let’s not forget that the scientific method was first pioneered by the ancient greeks, and there have been scientists and mathematicians throughout history who have brought a disciplined, logical approach to their topic.

    The premise of the St. John’s university is those interested in scientific study start by reading the treatises of ancient scientists and mathematicians, and keep working their way forward. In fact, you end up being much more thoroughly grounded in the discipline when you study it this way, since you are studying the actual proofs and studies upon which each successive generation of mathematicians and scientists based their inquiry.


  21. There is nothing in the entire world for which I am so grateful as the fact that I did receive a classical education.

    I’m glad you’re enjoying your reading. It’s a little prescriptive, and definitely theoretically problematic from various perspectives, but it might be worth trying out Harold Bloom’s How to Read and Why.

  22. A “Cliff Notes” version of a classical education can be had in the book, “Dictionary of Cultural Literacy” (E.D. Hirsch et al., Houghton Mifflin, 1988). The authors include everything that they believe the culturally literate person should know, grouped within topics from the Bible through Mythology, Idioms, World lit and philosophy, fine arts, history, politics, geography, and all the sciences. Curiously, “Bartleby” doesn’t make their cut, but they cover P.T. Barnum, the Barrymore family, Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, and Clara Barton.

    Dipping into this book can lead a person on an adventure into the “in jokes” in our society, just as the reader above experienced when the Bartleby remark appeared on TV. It is a joy to participate in society at large!

    I look forward to reading this reviewed book.

  23. i just want to say thanks for introducing this book to me. it’s a complete page turner for me — i don’t want to put it down, and it’s the most USEFUL book i’ve ever read. it’s given me the confidence and tools to read and understand the books i’ve never been able to get through, got through but didn’t get anything from, or been too intimidated to even try. i’m a big reader, but i’ve never been able to appreciate the classics, which i’m really looking forward to doing. thanks again!

  24. I think this book is absolutely fabulous. I stumbled upon it two years ago when researching homeschooling options for my kindergarten aged daughter. In those two years, I’ve only plodded through four of the novels, but the personal rewards in doing so have been very rich. If you are considering homeschooling, Bauer and Wise’s *The Well-Trained Mind* is essential.

  25. I stumbled across this subject several years ago and have since seen others espouse this way of learning. I was both frustrated that so many years were wasted in public school and thrilled to know that I can continue to educate myself in just this way. The two things I took from Adler’s book was firstly, always read at a higher level than you are comfortable with and of course, that a great book is a one that is read at least three times.

  26. I well remember discovering that One did not study history then forget it; then English, then psychology,etc Rather my courses were like strands of thread that wove together to form a picture.
    I was so excited I went to my advisor and told him. I asked,Now am I educated?” He answered “No, now you’re educable.”

  27. I just finished reading the first four chapters of the book and hope to re-read them next week God’s willing for a better comprehension of the ideas and the hopefully move on to starting on the novels tgo see how it goes.
    Perhaps you might just share your notes on the lists on this site.

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