Review: The Well-Educated Mind

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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