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Susan Wise Bauer grew up in Virgina and was educated at home at a time when homeschooling was rare. She holds advanced degrees from Westminster Theological Seminary and the College of William and Mary, where she currently teaches literature. A homeschool mom of three sons and a daughter, she lives in rural Virginia with her husband, Peter, who is the minister of a nondenominational church.

CBD: Tell us a little bit about your background as an educator. How did you become interested in homeschooling and in world history?

SWB: I became interested in homeschooling through being homeschooled; my parents decided to teach my brother, my sister, and me at home beginning in the early 1970s (back when it was still illegal in most states). My mother had taught in both private and public classrooms in three different states, so she was an experienced teacher. But she would be the first to tell you that her teacher training didn’t help her be a better homeschooler; she says that her education classes mostly taught her how to manage classrooms. So when she began homeschooling, she was starting from scratch—like many homeschool parents.

I remember my parents giving us the option to go back to school at several points, but we never took it. I counted up the number of hours that I would spend on buses, standing in line, doing homework, and so on, and decided I’d be better off at home. Now that I have children of my own, I homeschool because it seems the natural way to live. People ask me, “Isn’t it hard to have them home all day?” Frankly, I can’t imagine laboring under the restrictions of a school schedule. Always meeting the bus, only taking holidays when the school allows it—that seems like a much harder schedule to me.

But I also homeschool because I’m convinced my children flourish with one-on-one attention to their individual strengths and weaknesses. I’m sure there are some subjects that a school would teach more thoroughly than I do. But I don’t think any school could duplicate the flexibility and creativity of home education. I love giving my children the opportunity to investigate areas that pique their interest, and I know that if they were in school their time would be far too limited to pursue their curiosities. Anyway, I’ve inherited the teaching gene (that’s the one that makes you repeat everything twice, and also makes you sure that no one can educate your children as well as you can).

I’ve enjoyed very much teaching at William & Mary in the literature department, which I’ve done for the last 10 years or so. But I realized that I tend to teach literature historically—in chronological order, with attention to the world events taking place during the writer’s lifetime. When I decided to go back for my Ph.D., I specialized in American history. History is endlessly fascinating to me; I like to quote Ken Burns, the documentary filmmaker, who said that history is the only subject, because it’s a record of everything men and women have done, thought, and said up until yesterday. In order to understand any field of endeavor—science, literature, government, mathematics—we also need to understand how we arrived at our present state of knowledge. And the only way to do that is to study history.

CBD: Your book The Well-Trained Mind is a primary resource for homeschoolers who are interested in classical education. For those not familiar with the classical education model, what is it, how does it differ from other approaches to teaching and learning, and what are its benefits?

SWB: Classical education depends on a three-part process of training the mind. The early years of school are spent in absorbing facts, systematically laying the foundations for advanced study. In the middle grades, students learn to think through arguments. In the high school years, they learn to express themselves. This classical pattern is called the trivium.

The first years of schooling are called the “grammar stage”—not because you spend four years doing English, but because these are the years in which the building blocks for all other learning are laid, just as grammar is the foundation for language. In the elementary school years—what we commonly think of as grades 1 through 4—the mind is ready to absorb information. Children at this age actually find memorization fun. So during this period, education involves not self-expression and self-discovery, but rather the learning of facts: rules of phonics and spelling, rules of grammar, poems, the vocabulary of foreign languages, the stories of history and literature, descriptions of plants and animals and the human body, the facts of mathematics; the list goes on. This information makes up the “grammar,” or the basic building blocks, for the second stage of education.

By fifth grade, a child’s mind begins to think more analytically. Middle-school students are less interested in finding out facts than in asking “Why?” The second phase of the classical education, the “logic stage,” is a time when the child begins to pay attention to cause and effect, to the relationships between different fields of knowledge relate, to the way facts fit together into a logical framework.

A student is ready for the logic stage when the capacity for abstract thought begins to mature. During these years, the student begins algebra and the study of logic, and begins to apply logic to all academic subjects. The logic of writing, for example, includes paragraph construction and learning to support a thesis; the logic of reading involves the criticism and analysis of texts, not simple absorption of information; the logic of history demands that the student find out why the War of 1812 was fought, rather than simply reading its story; the logic of science requires that the child learn the scientific method.

The final phase of a classical education, the “rhetoric stage,” builds on the first two. At this point, the high school student learns to write and speak with force and originality. The student of rhetoric applies the rules of logic learned in middle school to the foundational information learned in the early grades and expresses his conclusions in clear, forceful, elegant language. Students also begin to specialize in whatever branch of knowledge attracts them; these are the years for art camps, college courses, foreign travel, apprenticeships, and other forms of specialized training.

This pattern reproduces the way that the mind learns any new subject. The mind must be first supplied with facts and images, then given the logical tools for organization of facts, and finally equipped to express conclusions. The classically educated student has discovered the secret of how to learn. First, find out the basic information. Next, figure out how it fits together into a pattern. Finally, decide whether the information is true: form an opinion about it.

CBD: The Story of the World, your 3-volume series on world history for children, has been praised by educators across the board. The series is subtitled “History for the Classical Child.” How do these books put your ideas about classical education into practice? Are the books compatible with other methods of homeschooling?

SWB: The books tell history chronologically, beginning with ancient times and moving up toward the present. This approach has grown out of my conviction that the logical way to tell any story is to begin at the beginning, and go on till you come to the end. Any story makes less sense when learned in bits and pieces.

That’s probably why history is a chaotic mass, in the minds of most adults. It’s too often taught unsystematically, as a series of unrelated bits and pieces: American history this year, ancient history the next, 18th-century France the year after that. By the time you graduated high school or college, you’d studied King Tut, the Trojan War, the Bronze Age, the rise of the city-state, and the Exodus. Chances are you studied these subjects in different years, out of different textbooks. You probably can’t put them into chronological order in your own mind.

Also, Americans spend maybe three times as much time on American history than on world history. American history is important for Americans, but this myopic division of the curriculum does the Founding Fathers a disservice. Children who plunge into the study of the American Revolution with no knowledge of the classical models used by Jefferson and Washington and their colleagues can achieve only a partial understanding of American government and ideals. And American history ought to be kept in perspective: the history curriculum covers 70 centuries; America occupies two of those centuries. Studying world history—and then studying the place of America within that framework—gives us a much more realistic view of our place in the world.

I also think that the study of world history gives students a more realistic view of themselves. A common assumption made by history programs seems to be that children can’t comprehend (or be interested in) people and events distant from their own experience. So the first-grade history class is renamed Social Studies and begins with what the child knows—first herself and her family, then her community, her state, her country, and only then the rest of the world. This intensely self-focused pattern of study encourages the student of history to relate everything she studies to herself, to measure the cultures and customs of other peoples by her own experience. If you begin your child with the study of herself and only then move outward, you can easily give her the impression that she is the center of the universe, and that history which doesn’t directly coincide with her particular wants and preoccupations is unnecessary. The goal of the classical curriculum is entirely different. The student learns the proper place of her community, her state, and her country by seeing the broad sweep of history from its beginning and then fitting her own time and place into the pattern.

This pattern of studying history isn’t limited to parents who think of themselves as “using a classical approach.” I think it’s useful for any student. Imagine how different American foreign policy might look if the people who ran it had been classically educated.

Anyway, I’m now writing a 4-volume world history for adults on the same pattern; it will published by Norton, starting sometime next year. So maybe all those adults who feel that their history knowledge is chaotic will find it helpful.

CBD: As a homeschool mom, author, university professor, and pastor’s wife, you lead a very busy life. What tips can you share with homeschool parents to help them stay focused and avoid burnout?

SWB: The biggest lesson I’ve learned about burnout comes from my writing. Over the last few years I’ve been involved in several HUGE writing projects. I’ve learned that the only way to get through a massive writing project is to sit down every day and do a little bit of it—even if what I’m producing strikes me as totally formless and trivial. Often it doesn’t look nearly as bad the next day; instead, it proves to be the foundation of something that’s a little clearer, a little more sophisticated, a little closer to what I hope the final product will look like. And after a year or two of this, I have a manuscript.

It’s been helpful for me to think of home education in the same way. Every day, we do 15 minutes of grammar, half an hour of Latin, a couple of pages of math, a chapter of history . . . and even if it doesn’t go well, if I’m interrupted, if the children seem to have forgotten everything they’ve learned in the past year or so, if nothing productive seems to have happened . . . well, I’ve still added something to their education, and I’ll build on it the next day, and the day after that. We’ll look back in two years and see how far we’ve come, even if we don’t seem to be creeping very far forward day by day. Home education is a 12-year process (more or less). Sometimes forward progress is only visible at a distance. But it is there. So I’ve learned not to be discouraged by the days when nothing seems to be happening; I just keep on plugging forward. Most of all, I try not to fret over whether or not I’ve come far enough each day. It is absolutely impossible to evaluate this on a day-by-day basis. Measuring your success as a home educator by how far you’ve come is a sure road to burnout.

The second thing I’ve learned about burnout is this: If you don’t get help, you will burn out. If you can afford help to clean the house and tutor the kids, hire it. If not, don’t be afraid to ask. In this country, we are far too reluctant to ask others for help—and yet think how pleased we are to be able to offer help to others. After crashing from exhaustion and overwork one too many times, I finally learned that independence can be a spiritual flaw; it can be a symptom of unhealthy pride. Too many homeschoolers stake their view of their own success on the idea that they’re doing it all: they’re teaching their kids, cleaning the house, caring for babies, making meals from scratch, working at church, and maybe holding down a job as well. No one can “do it all” without hitting the wall.

When people ask me how I do it all, I say: Well, I don’t do it all. Who possibly could? I write, I homeschool my children, and I have ONE primary role in my church. I turn down all other requests to be on church committees. I do NOT teach Vacation Bible School. I let other people host baby showers—I just go bearing gifts. I hire a cleaning service to come and clean my house once a week. I have a wonderful mother’s helper, a recent graduate of William & Mary, who comes two afternoons a week to help with the kids. My mother has taught all of the children how to read; that’s her passion and her joy. My husband helps with the homeschooling and the house maintenance. If I didn’t have all this help, I couldn’t possibly home educate and carry on a writing career at the same time.

I know that not everyone is in a position to hire help, or fortunate enough to have a spouse with a flexible schedule. But every parent can say “no” to the pressure to add other jobs to his or her schedule. And every parent lives in a community—often a community of religious faith—that can offer help. Ask for it. Don’t struggle on alone—it isn’t good for you, and it certainly isn’t good for your children.


 See more in our Story of the World Store

The Story of the World, 4 Volume Set
The Story of the World, 4 Volume Set
Susan Wise Bauer

The Well-Educated Mind: A Guide to the Classical Education You  Never Had
The Well-Educated Mind: A Guide to the Classical Education You Never Had
Susan Wise Bauer

Audio CD Set Vol 4: The Modern Age, Story of the World
Audio CD Set Vol 4: The Modern Age, Story of the World
Susan Wise Bauer, narrated by Jim Weiss


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