The Well-Educated Mind, by Susan Wise Bauer (2003)

Pages: 432, Final verdict: Great-read

I have realised a strange paradox recently. Even though the mankind reached the highest literacy rate ever in history (on average), the influence of ads, mass media, gerrymandering, conspirators or populism have risen with it. We have become overwhelmed by the information that we cannot understand fully. Our debates in public spaces are mostly accompanied by an inability to refute, to persuade or to create an argument. Public figures leap into simplifications or logical fallacies constantly. And they still gain the societal trust. I am sure it is not only me who find the trend strange and uncomfortable.

Susan Wise Bauer shares the concern too. Her book - The Well-Educated Mind - uses the concept of classical education to show an alternative way of learning about the world around me. She puts an emphasis on developing skills essential to a meaningful reading. She claims that the goal of classical self-education is not merely to "stuff" facts into your head, but to understand them. The cultivation of the critical thinking and an intellectual curiosity is paramount for a well-educated mind.

"Study is an exacting art involving a labyrinth of details." Richard J. Foster

Bauer's main argument running through the entire book is straightforward. Reading difficult books is a skill, not a talent. I can master any skill if I put deliberate practice into it. The practice is usually the biggest obstacle due to various distractions in my life. Bauer points this out and provides a guideline for a curious reader (I believe there are some on this blog) to advance the skill of reading.

Grammar, Logic, and Rhetorics

If I approve the premise that the reading of difficult books is the skill, then Bauer deconstructs it further. She divides it into three stages:

  1. Grammar stage (read a book, absorb the information in the book, gain basic knowledge about the book, author, and history);
  2. Logic stage (analyse the book and evaluate the text);
  3. Rhetorics stage (form opinions and make conclusions).

Bauer argues that learning process is flawed if these stages do not follow the order. I cannot start with the logic stage and then move to the grammar stage. I would do the same mistake as a public education system does. Schools encourage their students to produce the third stage mostly. Students should express their opinions about Don Quixote even without first understanding the text and the circumstances in which Cervantes wrote the famous story.

"Self-education begins where school education ends." Eliza W.R. Farrar

Many of us become suspicious about this whole logic. It is, in the end, a difficult activity to pursue. We have many obstacles in our lives and do not have time to pursue such education. Bauer does not hide this fact. Classical education is a complex skill that creates a challenging learning process (and that takes time). This is the moment when The Well-Educated Mind comes to help.

How to reach the ideal (sort of)?

Studying involves an act of reading, and reading can have different forms. This is often a neglected topic during student years. The author provides a basic framework on how you can speed up reading. It is a mechanical step that I can get better at throughout practice. So, the first challenge is to practice the mechanics of reading.

Once I read a book, I need a place where to record quotes, comments, and notes. A reading journal is a tool that has survived centuries. I bet those people who regularly use it during their reading time approach reading differently than those who do not have the journal (you can approach me if you think differently, I would like to hear other opinions). So, the second challenge is to practice taking notes as you read.

The last step to conclude is to engage in a conversation with another person to discuss what I took from a book. It corresponds with the last stage of classical education - rhetorics. Having a reading partner to talk with is a useful way how to sum up your reading experience.

To sum up:

  1. Master the practice of reading
  2. Take notes as you read
  3. Discuss the book with a reading partner

Susan Wise Bauer then takes you on the path through literary genres - novel, memoir, historical non-fiction, drama, and poetry. The proposed reading lists introduce Great Books of each genre with a short introduction. The journey to be better educated in a classical manner is open for everyone.

Bottom Line

The experience of reading this book is like discovering something great, something hidden in the shadows. It feels exciting to change perspective on how I approach books in general. Moreover, the writing style shows the maturity of the author. It is clean and engaging. The balanced mix of stories, theory, and step-by-step guidelines is pleasing to read.

The suggested reading lists of literary genres are subjectively chosen. The lists include Anglo-Saxon literature mostly. They are not supreme authority on what constitutes a classic book in general. Every reader can add his or her own books to the lists. However, that does not work against the message of the book. In the end, Bauer's appeal is to exercise my own reason and judgement upon all I read.

Note: This review is based on the first edition of the book published in 2003, the author published a second updated edition in 2015.

Further learning:

This post was written by Ivan Bielik (@bielik_ivan), a guest author at BetaGlyph. You can find out more about the author at