The words we use

In the fall, I gave a series of three lectures as part of the 2010 Laing Lectures at Regent College in Vancouver. The lectures were all about words–why they’re important, how we use them to fight, and why we’re afraid of more visual media.

Here’s the blurb for the first lecture:

Words: threatened with extinction by an image-based culture, wielded as weapons, used as tools of manipulation. The last few decades have seen an enormous shift in the way words are used and spread. How should we respond? Should we continue to fight against the encroachment of other media on the territory of the book? How do we argue in the Internet age, when a debate can balloon overnight into an argument shared by thousands? And how do we respond to the attempts of politicians and celebrities to spin their actions through speech?

Join Dr. Bauer for an exploration into the contemporary realm of words and consideration of the way through these questions.

Disappearing Words
People of the Book in a Multimedia Age
Wednesday, November 3, 7:30pm
Today we identify the Word of God primarily with the print on the page. Is it possible that the culture’s shifting attitude towards words and its vivid, flexible, gripping methods of communication might bring us closer to the contexts in which the Book was originally given to us?

This lecture takes an explicitly theological approach to the question of: Is Facebook making us dumber? Were students of the past better taught because they had only books, instead of screens? Is modern media really lowering our intelligence?

This past week, I had the opportunity to hear Sandra Day O’Connor, Gordon Wood, and Jim Lehrer talk about how civic engagement has changed in the present day. Listening to them, I heard the same worries I tackled in my lectures: Facebook is encouraging teens to disengage. We don’t care about politics because we rely on talking heads instead of argumentation. The Internet is lowering our ability to grasp difficult issues.

Those of you who’ve been reading my blog (or books) for any time know that I’m a words person: a book person, a page person, a print person.

But I disagree.

Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be posting chapters from my first Laing Lecture. Not all of my readers will share my theological concerns, or my theological starting point, which is fine. I think the lecture still addresses a worry that’s common to all those who educate.

Stay tuned; first installment tomorrow.

Posted in Reflections on education | 6 Comments

Classical education as cutting-edge trend

Julia Duin’s article in the Washington Post about classical education as cutting-edge trend: “The classical vision is about introducing our students to the true, the good, the beautiful.”

Listen to Duin interviewed on NPR’s “Tell Me More”:

Posted in Reflections on education | 2 Comments

Workshop schedule for Cincinnati

The schedule for the Cincinnati convention workshops has been changed so many times that everyone (including me) is confused. So here’s a full list of what I’m talking about, when, and where.

Dr. Susan Wise Bauer

DUKE Junior Ballroom
Educating Our Own Minds: How to Teach Ourselves as We Teach Our Kids

Educating our children involves educating ourselves. And that means gaining confidence in our own intellectual abilities—rather than relying solely on “experts.” Come discover a plan for self-education in the classical tradition, including scheduling for busy adults; setting up a reading plan that involves understanding, analyzing, and discussing literature; and mastering the skills needed for reading classic fiction and nonfiction.

DUKE Junior Ballroom
The Well-Prepared Student (High School): How to Get Ready for College
In this session, learn what and how to teach your child in grades 9-12–before they fill out those applications and head off for the freshman year. What expections should you have for high school? How can you teach those subjects that stump you? How should you personalize the high school curriculum for your student, while still making sure that the basics are covered? What skills will your student need to develop in order to thrive in college? As a college instructor, Susan Wise Bauer has taught scores of college freshmen and knows what they should have learned before the freshman year; as a home educating parent, she has graduated one high school student (now at UVA) and is in the thicket of high school with two more.

DUKE Junior Ballroom
The Joy of Classical Education: An Introduction to Classical Education at Home

 An overview of the philosophy of classical education and the ways in which home schoolers can pursue classical learning at home.  Covers the distinctives of classical education, the benefits to the student, the three
 stages of classical learning (grades 1-4, 5- 8, and 9-12), the subjects taught in each stage, and the overall goals of classical education. Also offers ways in which every home schooler can borrow from the classical tradition.

SATURDAY 8:30–9:30 AM
HILTON Pavilion Caprice
A Plan for Teaching Writing: Focus on Grades K
A plan for producing good writers at home. This workshop explains how to guide your student through a simple progression (copying, dictation, narration, summarizing, outlining) that will develop both writing and thinking skills in a systematic, stepwise manner. Includes suggestions on how to use these writing and thinking skills in every area of the curriculum, as well as strategies for remedial work. Recommended for those teaching all K-6 students, as well as for those teaching older students who are reluctant writers.

DUKE Junior Ballroom
Homeschooling the Real (Distractible, Impatient, Argumentative, Unenthusiastic, Non-Book-Loving, Inattentive, Poky, Vague) Child

High academic achievement (and particular the book-centered kind of achievement recommended by classical educators) often seems designed for one kind of student: the mature, self-directed, disciplined child who loves to read. In this workshop, learn how to deal with the other 90% of students. Includes practical strategies for dealing with roadblocks in the way of academic achievement, as well as time-tested advice for teaching to your child’s strengths while still addressing weaknesses. Susan Wise Bauer, classical educator, college instructor, and author, was home schooled herself and has homeschooled her own four real children, now aged 10-19 (the oldest is now at university).

DUKE Junior Ballroom
A Plan for Teaching Writing: Focus on the Middle Grades and High School Years

This workshop offers very specific guidance in how to teach middle grade (logic-stage) and high school students the skills of constructing an argument, outlining and writing from an outline. Includes training in outlining, writing from an outline, basic Socratic dialogue, and evaluation and grading. This seminar covers all of the types of writing that high school students should learn before entering the freshmen year of college: response papers, research papers, summaries, and critical essays across the curriculum.

Posted in Conferences | 7 Comments

A golden oldie…

of my own.

Seemed like a good time for me to republish a slightly edited and updated version of an essay I wrote several years ago. Hope you find it useful.

A Neutral Education?

“…we should approach claims on the part of a textbook and curriculum publisher to know the truth with great, great caution (not to say suspicion). God has not revealed His truth through publishers. He has revealed it within the context of a faithful, local worshipping community. “

Although I generally refrain from theological discussions online (the article below will explain why), I’ve been disturbed by discussions which pit The Well-Trained Mind against Christian classical education. If you’re interested in this topic, read on.

In 1998, New York publisher W. W. Norton bought our proposal for a book about classical education. We were delighted; we thought that The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home (which I co-wrote with my mother, Jessie Wise) fit beautifully into Norton’s list, which includes the Norton anthologies — collections of classic literature which have been used by generations of college students — and numerous twentieth- century classics of philosophy, history, and literature. Norton, one of the last large independent publishing companies, hasn’t been swallowed by a conglomerate; it is willing to publish books that go against the “best educational philosophy” of the present day, which we saw as a great advantage, since we rarely agree with any of the philosophy that comes out of schools of education. Norton’s interest in a book about classical education was proof that this time-honored way of teaching was indeed experiencing a welcome renaissance.

Publishing with a “secular” company did, however, prove more complicated than we had anticipated. We soon found ourselves in an ongoing debate with our editors about the proper tone to take towards Christian belief. As Christians ourselves, we ground everything we do and write in our commitment to our faith; our beliefs and practice are shaped by the historic creeds of the orthodox Christian church, particularly the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds, which we return to in our worship time and time again; our commitment to our local church, in which we see Christ’s Great Commission acted out through hospitality, through worship and through the celebration of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, is central to our lives. Yet Norton, with its eye on the “wider reading public,” was concerned that the book not exclude parents who do not identify with our Protestant beliefs. Our chapters on the place of religion in history were edited, and edited again. At one point, an editor even suggested that we not recommend any curricula from religious publishers, in order to maintain “neutrality” on the subject of religion.

We resisted this, arguing that the academic rigor of some our favorite resources from religious publishers were simply not matched by any “secular” resources. And we also objected that leaving religious curricula out was not, as our editors suggested, “neutral,” but rather showed a disturbing hostility towards Christian home schoolers and their beliefs. I wrote a defense of our position which eventually was incorporated into Chapter Eleven, “Matters of Faith: Religion”:

Education cannot be neutral when it comes to faith: it is either supportive or destructive. The topic of education is humanity, its accomplishments, its discoveries, its savage treatment of its own kind, its willingness to endure self- sacrifice. And you cannot learn — or teach — about humanity without considering God. Let’s take biology as an example. Mammals are characterized by, among other things, their tendency to care for and protect their young. Do mothers love their babies because of sheer biological imperative? If so, why do we come down so hard on fathers who neglect their children? It’s a rare male mammal that pays attention to its young. Do fathers love their babies because of the urge to see their own genetic material preserved or because fathers reflect the character of the Father God? How should a father treat a defective child? Why? (p. 212, The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home).

Our editors agreed; the argument stayed in the book, as did our favorite resources. And in the second part of the book, when I argued that a truly classical education must acknowledge the claims of faith, our editors agreed again. I wrote:

[E]thics cannot be discussed in some sort of “neutral” fashion. If you are a theist, you believe that human character comes from a Creator and reflects some of the Creator’s qualities. If you are a materialist, you believe that human character is primarily the result of biological factors, some of which can be controlled, some of which can’t. If you are a Christian, you believe that moral absolutes are binding upon every human being. If you are an agnostic, you believe that moral absolutes are unknowable and that making pronouncements about moral absolutes thus reaches the height of arrogance. What sort of neutral ground can these views meet on? None. (p. 546, The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home).

In this, I simply repeat the argument against “neutrality” made by Cornelius Van Til, J. Gresham Machen, Francis Schaeffer, and other thinkers who shaped my own education. But The Well-Trained Mind, when it was published in final form in the fall of 1999, was marketed by the publisher as “non-sectarian.” Is the book indeed “neutral?” And if so, why?

In The Well-Trained Mind, we suggest the use of many “secular” texts, such as the Usborne History of the World, the Kingfisher Illustrated History Encyclopedia, and Paul Johnson’s History of the Renaissance. For science, we have recommend Wild Goose chemistry kits, “Science in a Nutshell” science kits from Delta Education, the Reader’s Digest/Dorling Kindersley series How Nature Works, How the Universe Works, How the Body Works, and many other materials. Our reading list for middle grade students includes secular history books as well as Pilgrim’s Progress and Reformation biographies such as those of Martin Luther and John Wycliffe. Our Great Books list for twelfth graders includes Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, and C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity.

As the book became popular, these mixed recommendations drew numerous questions from Christians using The Well-Trained Mind to organize their own classical programs. Why do we — Christians who have the centrality of our faith as the organizing principle of everything we do — choose to approach education in this fashion? Don’t we believe that the knowledge of God is central to true education? How could we publish a book that didn’t explicitly assert God’s sovereignty over each specific area of the curriculum? Why was the book so secular?

The presence of “secular” book recommendations is not, itself, reason enough for such objections. After all, such Christian publishers as Greenleaf Press, Canon Press, and Veritas Press have always sold books that are not written from an explicitly Christian perspective, and Christian parents (the same ones protesting the “secular” nature of The Well-Trained Mind) buy and use these books. Veritas Press, while asserting that “Should God fail to exist, the certainty of two plus two equalling four would no longer be with us,” nevertheless sells the Saxon math program, which never specifies the philosophical grounds for all those math fact drill sheets. Canon Press sells John Milton Gregory’s Seven Laws of Teaching, which isn’t explicitly Christian in content — and our own book, “secular” though it may appear.

But both of these publishers also provide a central story of Christianity around which various resources (both secular and Christian) are organized. In contrast, our book — while insisting that neutrality is impossible, and that issues of faith and belief must be central in classical education — nevertheless refrains from laying out a Christian theology of knowledge. As Doug Wilson truly points out in “The Biblical Antithesis in Education,” such a theology of knowledge is vital for true education to take place:

As Machen states, truth is truth however learned. It is possible to teach students to balance their checkbooks without any reference to God. But this is not education; it is merely mental dexterity. Students are not being taught to think thoroughly. They are merely being trained to function in a particular way. When a student is taught to think, he will relate what he learns in one class to the information offered in another. But he can only do this when he has an integrating principle — something that will tie all the subjects together.

Can a Christian find an acceptable integrating principle in The Well-Trained Mind? Or did our publisher excise it in the interest of selling more books?

While it’s true that Norton copy editors changed my wording and eliminated some specifically Christian theological points, I do not want to claim that the final form of The Well-Trained Mind is “Norton’s fault.” Given that I signed the contract and spent the advance, I’d be in an entirely indefensible position if this were the case. I would have “sold out” to a secular publisher for the sake of finding a wider readership, allowing my own convictions to be “cleansed” so that I could go and cash Norton’s advance check.

In fact, The Well-Trained Mind reflects a deep commitment to Christ-centered education and accurately portrays my own convictions about what Christian education should be. There is an integrating principle to the book, but it is one that grew out of our own experience as faithful members of a Christian community — and I think it is one that many Christians will feel uncomfortable with.

I want to suggest — classical educator that I am — that in our immense and proper regard for the Word of God, we have elevated words in general (books and the Christian print culture which grew out of the American publishing scene) to a wildly exaggerated place of respect. We have allowed publishers, writers, and curriculum authors an authority which is unmatched even by the authority of the local body of Christ. I am not suggesting that we somehow lower our view of Scripture, but I am suggesting that the victory of the printing press has not strengthened Christianity. If it had, wouldn’t the church of Christ be stronger now than in the first century? Look at the fragmented, divisive, confrontational state of American Christianity; look at the hundreds of Bible versions that jostle for supremacy on bookstore shelves; look at the power which theologically bad books (from Left Behind to Chicken Soup for the Soul) exert over American Christians; look at the place that the Christian bookstore has assumed in determining the average Christian’s view of marriage, material gain, and work. And then consider that the New Testament church flourished with a low literacy rate, with Scriptures that were not printed and thus had to be read aloud — and so were always read and interpreted within the context of the obedient, faithful, local, believing community.

The church of Christ, not textbook writers, should be responsible for providing the central Christian story that must inform all true education. When I wrote in Chapter Twenty of The Well-Trained Mind, “When you’re instructing your own child, you have two tasks with regard to religion: to teach your own convictions with honesty and diligence, and to study the ways in which other faiths have changed the human landscape. Only you and your religious community can do the first,” I was not attempting to maintain neutrality. Rather, I was asserting that a Christian education can only be provided by a Christian community — parents, in obedience to and in faithful relationship with their local church.

What Is A Christian Education?
Christian education is that which has the knowledge of God at its core. But how do we obtain this knowledge of God, and how do we teach it?

American Christians, influenced by a culture that exalts individualism above all else, are far too ready to answer, “I obtain the knowledge of God from God, through Christ, by the agency of the Holy Spirit, and I teach it to my children in the privacy of my home.” I wouldn’t contradict anything in this statement — but I suggest that it is incomplete. Do we need something other than God’s freely-given grace to bring us to a saving knowledge of God? No — but throughout Scripture, this grace is always given in the context of God’s work with His chosen people as a whole. Adam and Eve were created to know God — and to give birth to a people who would know and worship God along with them. In a sin-corrupted world, Abraham was called by God, alone in his tent — but he was called so that he could be the father of a whole new people, who would know and worship God in company with each other. And Christ came, not to call individuals to a sort of private union which would exalt each soul to a solitary divine ecstasy, but to create a new community — a people who would join together to worship God. When this community came to life, we read in Acts 2, they spent all their time together: worshipping, living, eating, and (without a doubt) teaching their children. Their supernatural unity, visible to the pagans all around them, brought scores more into the knowledge of God — and into the community of the faithful.

American evangelicalism has been far too ready to dismiss the centrality of the church in God’s plan for Christianity, far too eager to embrace an individualistic view of salvation — and far too dependent on books, rather than on community life, to shape their spiritual disciplines. Yet God’s salvation must be lived out in a community of believers. As Robert Godfrey of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals writes in “The Electronic Church”:

The necessity of the local church is clearly taught in Scripture and is indispensable for the Christian life. … God’s saving work…is not concerned with individuals in isolation. Rather, God is redeeming a people whom he calls the Body of Christ, the church. … The Bible is clear that Christians are also required to be part of the institutional church’s life, particularly the life of the local church, which God himself has brought into being and structured by his Word.

Yet American Christians, Godfrey warns, tend to prefer individualistic freedom:

The care Christ and the apostles took to provide us with officers and an institutional church should make a great impression on us. Christ and his apostles established an institutional church to help us in our need and weakness. Elders are appointed for our sakes, and we need to submit ourselves to their authority in the local church if we are to be obedient to the Lord and his vision of the Christian life. Submission to elders is closely tied to the question of church membership. Some people today object to the idea that Christians must be church members, suggesting that such a requirement is unbiblical. But surely Christ established eldership in his church. Elders are necessary to teach and admonish and discipline us. But how can elders carry out that work unless we submit to them? What is church membership but to join our local congregation and submit to the elders’ authority? … Many people do not like the idea of a disciplined church. They believe they should be able to do whatever is right in their own eyes. Such an attitude reflects the militant individualism of our society. But it does not reflect Christ’s teaching about the life of his church. Proper discipline by the officers of the church is necessary for the well-being of individual Christians as well as for the church as a whole. Such discipline can take place only in the context of membership in a local church.

If the authority of the local church is so important to the Christian life, how can it be any less important in Christian education?

The Well-Trained Mind is not a book of science, a book of history, a book of literature, or a book of theology. It is an overall plan for education, laying out an entire curriculum for the home educator. This overall plan for education must have a theological center which encompasses every single subject. But who is responsible for providing this theological center? Should my mother and I lay it all out for you, so that you can give your child a godly education?

Think again about the requirements of Christian education. Dozens of classical educators have written definitions of “truly Christian” education; consider, for example, Doug Wilson’s “The Biblical Antithesis in Education,” which points out that Christian education is primarily a matter of discipleship: God has given to parents the responsibility of educating their children through training in God’s ways.

This is not a responsibility which can be assumed by any other party. Wilson’s particular complaint in this essay is that parents are too ready to let the government, “the guarantor of ‘quality’ in teaching,” take on the role of determining what is right and true in education. “But God has placed the responsibility in one place,” he writes, “and to move it to another for the sake of ‘quality-control’ is abdication.” The responsibility for teaching truth to children belongs to believing parents who are faithful members of a local church. If you should not abdicate this responsibility to the government, why should you abdicate it to curriculum writers or religious book publishers? You cannot see our lives; you cannot determine our faithfulness to our local church; you cannot see the fruits of our lives. We can provide you with a good plan for teaching grammar and math, but I do not believe that we should usurp the job of your believing community by explaining the ways of God in history to your children. The Christian narrative that gives shape to education must, in the final analysis, be provided by parents who are guided by faithful pastors.

I believe that Logos School, the original Christian classical academy, recognizes this when they write, in their foundational documents:

Every school must teach on the foundation of some kind of worldview. That worldview may be boldly stated, or it may be implicit — but, it is always present. At Logos School, our foundational worldview is the unchangeable Word of God — the Bible. Because God created the world and everything in it, all creation is subject to Him. Because God revealed Himself in His creation, in the Bible, and in His Son Jesus Christ, we may confidently teach all subjects in the light of His Lordship. This, in turn, affects more than mere academics. We strive to practice biblical living and teaching everywhere, not only in our curriculum, but also in our administration and our staff.

Logos recognizes the shaping role of the believing community in the teaching of worldview. For the home educator, the church must act as this believing community. The gospel is understood within a faithful believing community, not alone with one’s Bible; and gospel-based education is formulated and applied within a faithful believing community, not alone with one’s Bible and a copy of The Well-Trained Mind (or any other homeschooling book).

Why Don’t We Recommend More Religious Curricula?

Logos School appeals for charity in inessentials: “We are absolutely committed to the central principles of the Christian faith,” read the foundational documents, “but allow for a variety of convictions on secondary doctrinal principles.”

We feel the same way: our readership includes many different groups of faithful Christian believers. But religious curricula inevitably bear the stamp of particular cultural expressions of Christian: Baptist, Mennonite, Reformed, Catholic, and more.

So we were faced with a practical problem: Whose curricula should we recommend?

In reviewing religious curricula for The Well-Trained Mind, I continually found myself dissatisfied with their content and wishing that I could teach (for example) history without continually explaining to my son that our local church sees American history quite differently than a “providential” history text, well-intentioned though it is. I found myself continually feeling that these curricula were usurping a teaching position that belonged to our church, my husband, and myself.

Consider the example of grammar. When my oldest son was in the elementary grades, I used A Beka Book grammar, which I thought was the best available. Yet when using the third-grade A Beka Book grammar text, I found myself continually encountering a particular view of salvation which I thought was limited and (in the end) wrong. The exercises continually refer to “getting saved” and “accepting Jesus” as though the central event of salvation is a single point in time during which the child is instantly transformed from pagan to Christian in the blink of an eye. Yet our worshipping community is centered around the reality that belief in Christ is an ongoing discipleship of obedience, not a split-second decision, and that “being saved” is only a partial description of salvation.

Furthermore, the exercises continually refer to children who invite other children to church and then lead them to Christ, apparently independent of family, worshipping community, or any other group of God’s people. “Keith asked his friend, ‘Have you accepted Jesus as your Savior?’ The boy answered, ‘No, but I would like to.'” Salvation is thus shown to be a point in time, something to which children can arrive at independently with the help of other children — and that’s all that’s ever presented in this book. “All Christians should be happy,” read another exercise, leaving me to wonder whether A Beka really sees no difference between the emotional state “happy” and the spiritual state “joyful,” and if they really saw the Christian life as a perpetual tiptoe through roses.

I also found myself disagreeing with the continual identification of America as God’s promised land. Apparently the A Beka curriculum writers see nothing incongruous with juxtaposing (as they do, in one exercises on plurals) the two sentences, “No man can serve two masters” and “Many soldiers laid down their lives for American freedom.” There’s nothing wrong with either sentence, of course, but by interlarding Biblical commands with paens to the perfection of America, the text reveals an uncritical view of America’s roots that I personally do not wish my son to imbibe. “Mr. Vincent sang ‘God of Our Fathers,'” reads another exercise, which has a child ringing the bell in the church tower in order to start a patriotic church service during which the song “America” is the call to worship.

We much prefer, when possible to recommend good and thorough resources which do not teach doctrinal and sanctification issues that we feel should be entrusted to the worshipping community.

I made this point to a Reformed believer who was very concerned that our book did not specifically teach Christian doctrines; I used the A Beka exercises as an example of why we were reluctant to recommend Christian curricula. “But I would argue that this error in presenting salvation makes it an academically inferior curriculum,” he protested, comparing it to a phonics program that taught specifically Reformed doctrines. His point? The Reformed program was academically superior because its doctrine was Reformed. Yet faithful Eastern Orthodox believers find Reformed history resources (which often leave out the role of the Eastern Orthodox church) unusable for their children.

Wilson’s “The Biblical Antithesis in Education” lays out an either-or argument which, given the main point he is arguing in his essay, is justified: that there is no neutrality in education, and that education is either for or against Christ. He writes:

About a century before anyone was listening, R.L. Dabney described the impossibility of neutrality in education this way:

The instructor has to teach history, cosmogony, psychology, ethics, the laws of nations. How can he do it without saying anything favorable or unfavorable about the beliefs of evangelical Christians, Catholics, Socinians, Deists, pantheists, materialists or fetish worshippers, who all claim equal rights under American institutions? His teaching will indeed be the play of Hamlet, with the part of Hamlet omitted. [1]

Concerning the question of origins, he asked if a scientist could give the “…genesis of earth and man, without indicating whether Moses or Huxley is his prophet?” [2] The answer of course is that directionless, nonaligned education is by definition impossible. Certain worldview assumptions must always be made. They will either be based on biblical truth, or they will not. A certain direction must be chosen. It will either be the way God says to go, or it will not. There is no neutrality.

True enough. Yet there are many educational issues (as there are worship issues: exclusive psalm singing, head covering, use or avoidance of certain translations) which must be tackled in the context of the local worshipping community. When these issues are taken on by publishers, it is unfortunately far too easy for the word “heresy” to enter the debate. (And there is no possibility of looking at the life of the person making the argument to determine their faithfulness to God’s ways.)

Truth is important, of course; I do not want to fall here into the anti-intellectual trap of saying that doctrine is unimportant, that (for example) Roman Catholic and Reformed believers are bickering about inessentials and should just agree to teach their children that Jesus is God. But I am making a plea for intellectual humility — a plea which can very easily be mistaken for a claim that truth can never be known. I believe truth can be known; I believe God has laid down very clear guidelines for the life of godliness. What I am less sure of, given my own theological journey, is that I always have a clear view of those “secondary doctrinal principles” that Logos School mentions. And in the curricula I review, I am continually reminded of this failing when I see other believers interpreting matters of secondary importance and making them central to Christian education.

A prime example of this has been the young earth/old earth debate taking place within creationist circles. I have found (to my distress) that even mild suggestions I have made about beginning the study of history in 5000 BC have been attacked with great vehemence by some who hold to Bishop Ussher’s dating of creation at 4004 B.C. Although this has become a minority position even among young earth creationists, it was once dogma. Some years ago, I published a critical review of a Christian biology text which, in my opinion, dealt with evolution by putting up straw men and then knocking them down. I was immediately attacked as “unwilling to admit the truth of creationism” and thus contributing to a “secular” world view. Yet I had not questioned God’s creation of the earth, merely this writer’s interpretation of certain scientific details claimed to support it.

No doubt the writer, Bishop Ussher, and I could all say together in our worship, “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.” Yet that central affirmation of God’s ultimate creatorship of everything that exists is not presented in most curricula, which instead hold (and make central to salvation) a particular stance on how and when God made heaven and earth. Fruitful discussion on this topic is sadly lacking from the Christian community.

In recommending a science curriculum, then, how should I proceed? My own study of Genesis 1 and 2 (done under the guidance of my local church) has convinced me that I do not yet understand everything implied in these two stories of creation; I do not see here a Scriptural mandate that should tie me to either a young earth or old earth creationist position. So should I recommend to home schoolers — who belong to communities of faith that are seeking for the answer to this very question — a biology text that may contradict their own church’s teaching on the subject?

Let me repeat: I am not saying that truth is unknowable. Instead I am saying that we should approach claims on the part of a textbook and curriculum publisher to know the truth with great, great caution (not to say suspicion). God has not revealed His truth through publishers. He has revealed it within the context of a faithful, local worshipping community.

If we ever come to a meeting of the minds over how to view the ways in which God created heaven and earth, it won’t happen by the divine intervention of textbook writers, or a particularly convincing article; it will come through the work of the Holy Spirit in the place where He chooses to work, the gathering of His people. I believe that God gives wisdom in these secondary principles to his faithful worshipping communities — not to writers of how-to books on home education.

Is The Well-Trained Mind A Christian Book?

In the end, I fall back on a definition that I have used in reference to my other writing. When people ask whether I write Christian novels, I answer that I write novels, and because I am a Christian, all of my writing displays who I am and what I believe. I don’t believe that a book can be “profoundly Christian,” only the people who read it; in the same way, I feel that truly Christian education is that education carried out by Christians for the sake of the kingdom of God, not education that uses (or avoids) certain books.

Some parents will find that this Christian education requires the use of theologically specific resources. Other parents — such as myself — will find that they are doing thoroughly Christian education using a world history text such as the Kingfisher History Encyclopedia along with plenty of discussion.

In the end, Christian education is that given to children by Christian parents who are in obedience to the elders of Christ’s body, the local church. It is our hope that The Well-Trained Mind will make this task easier without usurping — as books too often do in evangelical America — the authority of those elders.

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Posted in Reflections on education | 30 Comments

Life on the border (a cross-post from my personal blog)


Just finished two days of conferencing in which I talked non-stop about books, teaching writing, history, grammar, literature, my publishing company...and a thousand other things book- and learning-related.

I then slept for fourteen hours and just now woke up. This was a rough week. It started with a bad cold; then I spent three days with my father while he had emergency surgery (he’s much better, before you ask–home and recovering nicely), then got on a plane and went to a conference center, which (inevitably) produced bronchitis. I did the whole conference with almost no voice. The CDs of the talks sound like Gollum Does Grammar.

I spent a lot of time at this conference talking to parents and giving them personalized advice on how to get past particular educational challenges with their kids. I’m not concealing the fact that I get paid for these appearances, and that selling books at them helps keep my boat afloat. But believe me when I say that if it were just a matter of money, you couldn’t PAY me enough to do what I did this weekend. I like teaching. I like teaching writing. I love history. I want people to read more history–world history in particular. I am a Writing Zealot out to convert writers to good prose style and a History Emissary out to convince readers that they should know what’s going on in both southeast Asia and Europe during the Renaissance.

And in the middle of all this, people would come up to our booth and say, “Are you aware that other speakers are telling people in their workshops that Dr. Bauer is out to remove all Christianity from homeschooling and that’s she’s not even a Christian and that we shouldn’t buy any of her materials?” This was accompanied by Facebook and blog pots with big WARNING! headlines, explaining how I was part of a plan to destablize the kingdom of God.

Oh, good grief.

Stay with me for a little while here, because I want to say something about that.

First, for those of you unfamiliar with the home school world, let me give you a quick orientation.


There are thousands and thousands of home schoolers who teach their children at home primarily because they want to instill their faith in their children, and they are concerned that a classroom will actively discourage and destroy that faith.

There are thousands and thousands of home schoolers who teach their children at home for other reasons. Their school options are poor; their kids have particular needs that can’t be met in the classroom; they’ve had bad classroom experiences and are trying to recover; they’re travelling, or military, or just generally peripatetic; they like the flexibility and freedom of not being tied to a school schedule; they think they can do a better job than the available classrooms. (The latter two would be me. My kids are going to learn to WRITE, darn it, and I’m going to make sure they do.)

Although homeschool parents of both kinds attend education conferences, the conferences have historically been weighted heavily towards speakers and materials that teach particular forms of Christianity along with the academic subjects.


Anyone who digs around in my website will quickly notice that I’m a minister’s wife. Yes, this means that I’m a Christian. (I guess that’s not always a given. But I am.)

This simple fact has opened me up to a ridiculous level of bashing from people who can’t see past it. Here’s an example. In The History of the Ancient World, I use stories from a number of different religious traditions–Sumerian, Egyptian, Indian, Chinese–in an attempt to reconstruct very early political history. This isn’t a perfect method, but since these texts are the only ones we have, I thought it preferable to simply ignoring very ancient political history altogether. I was pleased with the result. It’s highly speculative, but I point this out in the preface of the book; and it did produce a compelling, logical narrative for the very earliest years of recorded history.

Yet as soon as readers see anything from the Pentateuch–even though it’s nestled in there with stories from the Sumerian and Egyptian worlds–they go into high alert.

Let me quote from a couple of Amazon reviews (because those are always a great source of intemperance).

Then I got to the Hebrews in Egypt. With growing amazement I began to realize I was being treated to the story of Moses, lifted right out of the Bible, as though that were some sort of HISTORICAL document…..After having recovered from the considerable shock of seeing a supposed “historian” go to considerable length to throw her own credentials out the window, I radically revised my estimate of this book…I would obviously not be wise to trust this author with her gargantuan biases, and I would suggest that anyone actually interested in HISTORY find some other introduction to the ancient world.

Apparently he didn’t notice that Ra and Shamash make appearances in the same section.

Um, hey lady: the stories of Moses and the Old Testament have no place in a book about world history, as these things never happened. Some scholar of History you are.

(I have a book on punctuation for this guy.)

I have another book of hers on how to analyze classic literature and its fairly good but I briefly wondered if she was an idiot, just from some of the comments she made. This solves that mystery.

Oh. Well, good. (I’ll send you a copy of the punctuation book, by the way.)

What lies behind this level of invective?


To be a Christian in America, particularly a Christian with any evangelical associations, is to be associated with a specific form of Christianity. Allow me to oversimplify (I highly recommend this and this for un-simplification, should you be interested). This form of Christianity has long been focused on one particular calling: converting other people.

Rescue the perishing, care for the dying,
snatch them in pity from sin and the grave;
weep o’er the erring one, lift up the fallen,
tell them of Jesus, the mighty to save.
Rescue the perishing, care for the dying;
Jesus is merciful, Jesus will save.

–Fanny Crosby, 1820-1915

Of course, it has long been part of the Christian faith that Christians should tell others what they believe. Early Christians did a lot of it.

But then came nineteenth century revivalism, in which “telling others what you believe” was transformed into “convert as many people as possible as quickly as possible because that is what God wants.”

And in order to convert as many people as possible, as quickly as possible, you have to use the proper methods.

Charles Finney stands at the beginning of this shift, but Dwight Moody, a businessman who brought business methods to evangelism, is probably the central figure. Let me quote from Paul Chilcote’s study of American evangelism:

Revivalism in many respects systematized the process of evangelism and conversion….Among the New England Calvinists of the First Great Awakening [1730s-40s], the means for revival rested with God. Evangelists might preach for revival, Christians might unite in ‘prayer concerts’ beseeching God to give revival, but ultimately only the sovereign God could grant the outpouring of revivalistic zeal….

By the Second Great Awakening of the nineteenth century, evangelists such as Charles G. Finney condemned those Christians who waited for revival while thousands remained unevangelized. Finney wrote that a revival

‘is not a miracle, or dependent on a miracle, in any sense. It is a purely philosophical result of the right use of the constituted means….There may be a miracle among its antecedent causes, or there may not.’

D. L. Moody, the great evangelist of the late 1800s, elaborated on Finney’s views regarding the means of evangelism. He urged any method which would lead to the conversion of a person, insisting, “It doesn’t matter how you get a man to God, provided you get him there.” Moody and company refined Finney’s new measures so that techniques for mass revivalism and personal witnessing were carefully systematized. Revival campaigns were planned in detail and Christians taught how to share their faith with “inquirers” before and after the nightly meeting.

Paul W. Chilcote, ed., Study of Evangelism (2008), p. 104

Let’s put this in context. By the beginning of the twentieth century, Americans had fallen in love with systemization–arranging an activity into a logical, standardized set of steps that were always carried out in the same way. Systematization was producing the factory method of manufacturing, the rigidly enforced system of K-12 grades in education, the standardization of medical licensing so that all doctors would receive more or less the same level of training, the current structure of the U.S. military.

And Dwight Moody’s method of evangelism, which so influenced American Christianity that we’re still living with it today.

This method has two presuppositions:
1. If you do everything right, people will convert.
2. The more people you convert, the better.

What’s wrong with that?

Well, I’m happy that all of my father’s doctors, this week, received the same level of medical training. But there are two big problems with standardized evangelism.

1. It’s impersonal.
2. Its success depends on getting everything exactly right.

Those two presuppositions, I think, account for both the invective I get whenever I dare to mention the Bible in my work, and for the invective I got from other speakers at this home school convention.


Let’s start with the invective from the secular side. Why did those Amazon reviewers (who are, unfortunately, representative of quite a few readers) react so strongly to my use of the Pentateuch and not even register a blip at my use of Sumerian myths?

Because they know I’m a Christian. An American Christian. An American Christian with an evangelical background. And so they assume that all of my work has a single purpose: it’s out to convert people.

In this context, every use of a Christian source takes on a sort of ominous quality. The assumption is that I’ve got an unspoken agenda. I’m not just writing a history of the world, I’m out to push a particular worldview on them, preferably without their noticing, so that they’ll be ready for conversion.

Why do they resent this so much?

Because it’s so impersonal. Were I trying to convert them (which I’m not; I was just trying to write ancient history), it wouldn’t be because I have a deep personal concern for their souls. It’s because I’m part of a movement that’s out to convert as many people as possible, by whatever means are necessary. That’s so…depersonalizing. And manipulative.

Thus the strong emotional reaction.

Now for the invective from the Christian side. (That would be, “Dr. Bauer is out to remove all Christianity from homeschooling and she’s not even a Christian, so don’t buy any of her materials.”)

Why on earth would this even matter to someone who’s buying a grammar book?

See Dwight Moody, above. The most important task for all Christians is to convert as many people as possible. Conversion only happens when all of the conditions are right. Influences which are not explicitly Christian (that would be me) mess up the conditions. Take that down to the unexpressed but logical conclusion: I am blocking the work of God.


Really? I didn’t know it would be that easy.


Dear reviewer: You’ve got it wrong. I’m not out to convert you. I’m not stealth-bombing you with Scripture. I’m just doing my best to write a good ancient history.

I don’t feel any need to stealth-bomb you with Scripture, because so far as I can tell, my faith doesn’t call me to convert as many people as possible. It calls me to live in love, compassion, grace, and forbearance. That’s what I’m doing down here in Virginia. I’m not plotting the most effective way to get you to be a Christian. Not my job. Hope you can relax and read my history now. But if you see any love, compassion, grace, and forbearance sneaking into the text, you can write another nasty review.

Dear worried speakers who don’t want parents to buy my writing and history books because I’m not using them to evangelize: You’ve got it wrong. If God can only reach people if all the conditions are right, he’s not much of a God. And if my grammar book can stand in the way of the kingdom of God, it’s not much of a kingdom. Please consider spending your time and energy talking about what you do and what you believe, rather than desperately protecting God from anything that might damage him.


Now I will return to doing what I do–writing the most honest and accurate history I can, helping teach kids how to write, and trying to live in love, compassion, grace, and forbearance. That’s a pretty full plate, and things are always falling off the edge.

Usually the forbearance goes first.


If you’re indignant, read this.

Posted in Susan's Blog | 56 Comments

Blog on hiatus…

I’ve been working hard on a new curriculum plus the next volume of the History of the World, and for the next couple of months I’m going to put all my creative energies into those projects. I’ll be back to blogging in the spring.

Be sure to visit my personal blog, which will still be updated during my hiatus here!

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In case you want to join the discussion…

Posts have been infrequent because I’m working hard to finish the first level of our new middle-grade writing and grammar series. (And there’s that whole pesky history of the whole world thing.) However, I wanted to post a link to the following New York Times opinion piece and discussion, should any of you wish to sidle on over there and join in.

Do Home Schoolers Deserve a Tax Break?

The new Republicans in Congress have vowed to challenge the federal role in American public education, and said they will seek to turn more power over to the states on many fronts. But one of their priorities is a new federal rule: to give parents in every state tax credits if their children are home-schooled.

Previous efforts in Congress to adopt a nationwide tax break have failed, and currently only three states — Illinois, Louisiana and Minnesota — allow some benefit for home schooling.

Will the idea succeed in the new Congress, given some conservatives’ longtime opposition, on the grounds that the credits might open the door to more government regulation of education? How would such a system work? Is it a threat to public education, as its critics claim?

Posted in Reflections on education | Comments Off on In case you want to join the discussion…

Merry Christmas!

Hope you’re all taking an educational break. We are too; blog posts will resume after Christmas.

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Classical education on the autism spectrum

I’m always fascinated to hear from parents who are following classical methods with students who are facing particular learning choices. Last week I received the following email from this mother, Annette, who is dealing with a particularly severe challenge. She gave me permission to use the email here, and has invited other parents in similar situations to contact her. She writes, “You may even include a contact for me because for those of us who have to deal with these and similar issues, we feel totally isolated.” You can reach her at black.dirk AT

In your book, The Well-Trained Mind, you mention something about organic disorders in children and being able to read between the ages of 4 and 6.  The exact sentence is “Between the ages of four and six, any child who has been read to since toddlerhood and is not suffering from an organic disorder can learn to read.”

I have a daughter, 6 years old, who has been on and off the autism spectrum more times than I can count.  All we know for sure is that she has sensory issues.  She is both under-responsive and over-responsive to specific stimuli.  For instance, she does not know her place at any given moment in the world:  she doesn’t know if she is upside down, spinning, or lying prone.  

The way it has been explained to me is that she is missing certain key chemicals in her brain, or has a reduced amount of these chemicals and this causes her to be confused about her body position on all 3 axes.  The bigger problem here is that her behaviour has deteriorated as she has gotten older.  She is heavily resistant to transition or change, easily frustrated with herself, others, and things that don’t work “right”, she throws countless tantrums that can go on for longer than they should, and she has a tendency to scream.

Her brain is unable to process the information it receives from all 5 senses and the 3 motion senses.  It all becomes jumbled and confused on her highways and byways through the brain.  This is why we have trouble with hot and cold, force recognition, and weighted objects.  Even after all the therapy we have gone through, she will still come up to me and ask me to hit her on her back because it feels “good”.

However, in spite of these challenges, something else became apparent with her.  She loves language.  She loves and is fluent in Spanish and English.  We are learning to read in both languages at the moment.  She loves to listen to Middle English when I read it to her.  I also have her learning Mandarin and the teachers tell me she is coming along.

Everyone in the school systems has told me again and again that she belongs in Special Ed classes, but I have come to know with certainty that there is nothing wrong with her mind and teaching her as if she was deficient in that area would only be a disservice.  It is the way that she learns that bothers most people.

When I first read your book and talked to some people in the area about it, at first I thought we would not be able to do it because of her disorder.  She does have an organic disorder.  There is no getting around that.  But from talking to all the parents I have run into at therapy (and some of these kids struggle mightily with their issues), I still believe that on some level, most if not all kids even with an organic disorder, can learn to read and would be able to follow the classical curriculum probably at a slower and less strenuous pace.  There just have to be some adjustments made.

I don’t know how extensive your experience is with autistic children, children who are on the autism spectrum, or children who suffer from the attendant disorders that can accompany autism, but a lot of them have a tendency to chant.  When my daughter began to do that, I gave her something to chant.  It was a long process, but eventually she only chanted “The Lady of Shalott” by Tennyson and to this day, it remains one of her favourite poems.  I figured if she is going to be repeating language, what I can do is give her some of the best our language has to offer.  She seems to crave the cadence and natural rhythm that occurs in all languages.

And so, we listen to Enya and Loreena McKennitt extensively and calling upon my own degree in romantic poetry, I have introduced her to some of the best poems ever written in English.

As we have gone on from day to day, I have had to make adjustments to the curriculum you have laid out.  We can only do reading, math, and Spanish right now because the therapy is a huge time commitment.  Our main problem right now is not getting overwhelmed with too much text or problems on a page.  

We have to go at a painfully slow pace at times, but we are moving along.  She is reading Dr. Seuss at a pace of about 10 pages a day, but a year ago, I was told she would probably not read for another few years.  She is sounding out words wherever she finds them.  Writing is more difficult because we have a fine motor skill deficit, but even there I can see huge improvement over the last year.  Writing the Mandarin characters is proving to be very helpful for that.

We will start history and science possibly at the beginning of the year.  I found a programme called History Odyssey and Science Odyssey that I am going to use.  It removes the religious aspect from the coursework and it uses The Story of the World in more digestible chunks for my daughter.  I have to add things in slowly, so as not to upset the transition for her.

Posted in Guest posts | 5 Comments

College admissions: is early decision a good idea?

In my college admissions workshops, I’ve generally advised students not to go out of their way to complete early-decision applications–particularly those that require a binding early decision.

Definitions, for those of you who haven’t started on the college-applications road yet: Generally, colleges require applications to be submitted by a late winter deadline (often January or early February), and make admissions decisions in early spring. If you apply early-decision, you complete your application in November and receive word on admissions by December or January. Most early decisions are binding–the college requires you to make a firm commitment to attend, no matter what other schools may admit you later on.

(The College Board page on early decision/early action may be helpful.)

Early-decision admissions have been a contentious issue in higher ed. Early decision tends to benefit the college more than it benefits you, because it allows the school to firm up its freshman class (and the freshman financial assets) earlier in the year. This is good for the bottom line; if you have a certain number of fairly well-to-do freshman already committed to attending, you know how much financial aid you still have available for remaining applicants.

Several years ago, Harvard shook up the college app world by discontinuing early admissions, saying that it did “more harm than good.” Vanderbilt, Princeton, the University of Florida, and several other major schools followed suit. (An interesting PBS interview on the topic is found here.)

The New York Times reports this week, though, that there may be advantages in applying early decision (read the whole piece here):

A report released Wednesday by an association of guidance counselors and admissions officers could be worth a look. It provides new evidence for those who believe that applying to college early in the academic year — or, more specifically, submitting applications under binding early-decision programs — increases the likelihood of acceptance.

Nearly three of every four students who applied last year under such programs, which are offered by many of the nation’s most selective colleges, were accepted, compared with just over half who applied to the same colleges in the main application round, according to the annual report, “The State of College Admission,” by the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

All told, the percentage accepted last year in the early-decision round, in which those accepted are compelled to withdraw all other applications and enroll, was 15 points higher than in the main phase. And that gap is rising, the authors said. In fall 2006, 61 percent, on average, were accepted early, compared with 53 percent in the regular pool.

Critics of early-admission programs argue that they represent a way for well-off and connected high school students to game the system. But colleges that offer them counter that the acceptance rates are often so high because the quality of students is particularly strong.

The report suggests that these figures “may rekindle debates about the effects of early-decision admission, particularly as it relates to access for underrepresented populations.”

I’m offering you the information mostly because I’ve spent a good deal of time saying that it doesn’t matter how you apply. If that’s not always the case, you (and I) should be aware of it.

Three considerations, though:

1) Statistics are never simple. I’d like to know details about how the percentage of super-high-achievers in the early decision group measured up against the percentage in the regular decision group. Kids who are so anxious to get into a particular elite university that they’re willing to make a binding early decision tend to be highly motivated academically, which means they’re more likely to have good grades, full transcripts, and impressive test scores. (“But colleges that offer them counter that the acceptance rates are often so high because the quality of students is particularly strong.”)

2) The opportunity to improve your chances by applying early decision feeds one of the unhealthiest phenomenon in higher education–the illusion that there is ONE UNIVERSITY that will give you a better education than any other. I repeat this in my workshops again and again: There are HUNDREDS of good schools out there. Don’t get fixated on a name.

Getting into one particular college is largely a matter of chance. Yes, you can improve those chances with high grades and good test scores. But particularly once you get up to the Ivy League level, admission/rejection/wait-listing can be arbitrary. Every year, Ivy League schools turn down scores of kids with perfect GPAs, almost-perfect SATs, and impressive resumes. The same is true at good state universities. You can’t predict an admissions decision; allowing a student to develop the mentality of “Getting into X College will set me on the right course for the rest of my life” is deadly.

In addition, the education you get at a “name” college isn’t necessarily better than the education you’ll get at a smaller or state school. And going into debt for the sake of a “name” degree is always a mistake.

An excellent piece on this topic by a guidance counselor is found here; read it. My favorite quote:

I tell families to stop obsessing about campuses with marquee names. I’ve visited dozens of little-known schools where professors are far more engaged in teaching than members of Ivy League faculties. Also, in this economy, I can make a strong case for going to community college, mastering a trade or taking a gap year to earn money.

Above all, I urge parents of high school juniors and seniors not to see their kids as SAT and ACT scores and G.P.A.’s, but as creative, unpredictable, unprogrammable teenagers with their own gifts.

3) Even if early decision does improve the chance of admission to a particular school, I still get hung up over the undeniable fact that early decision is better for the school than for the student. Early decision, after being given a black eye, started to make a comeback during the recession–because it helps the school’s bottom line. Check out this piece from Inside Higher Ed; the most relevant quote is below.

Most critics said that early decision favored wealthier students, who are more likely to have started the college selection process early and to be in a position to commit to a college without comparing all financial aid offers. Many admissions officers say they agree with the critics, yet can’t resist a tactic that allows them to fill a larger share of their classes earlier in the year.

Yes, it’s an advantage for the student to do whatever she can to increase the chances of admission. But I’m just temperamentally unhappy with choices that are dictated by an institution’s finances, rather than by a student’s needs and desires. (And just to play devil’s advocate to myself, here’s an opposing point of view.)

(And here’s a question that I’d love a college admissions officer to weigh in on: What actually happens to you if you make that binding early decision, and then change your mind?)

Posted in Preparing for college | 15 Comments