The speaker was Susan Wise Bauer, who has written numerous works that are popular in the homeschooling community. Among these is the book The Well-Trained Mind, which she wrote with her mother, who homeschooled her. This book lays out the ideas behind Classical Education--what is it? What does it attempt to do?--and gives a great deal of guidance and helpful advice regarding the application of the theories and ideals of Classical Education to home school settings. It has become something of a Bible among a certain segment of the Homeschooling population (although it's apparent from her talk that she doesn't particularly want her books being treated as holy writ).
The seminar was the 5th Annual Seminar of the Classical Christian Home Educators association, which has branches all over Northern California. Check the link if you want more information.
If you're at all interested in any of these topics and you have the chance to hear Ms. Bauer speak on them, I highly recommend that you go see her. Tonya and I learned a lot. We have read The Well-Trained Mind, and much of what she talked about is covered in that book, but there was a large amount of new material as well. And it is of course helpful after reading a book to be able to ask questions of the author.
I noticed shortly after I entered college that I started encountering people that made me think, "What the heck have I been doing with my life?" I mean, here I am--say, 22 years old--and I'm just mucking about in college, while so-and-so is only 21, and already has his Masters' degree, has hiked the Himalayas, and has founded his own company that's going public in another month! I'm a total failure! Of course, this kind of thing happens more and more as you get older, because everyone else has had more time to do the amazing things with their lives that you haven't done yet. By the time all of us mere mortals reach the mid-to-late thirties, we notice that nearly all of the players in the NFL are younger than we are; that there are plenty of guys in congress that are younger than we are; that most Air Force pilots our age have already been flying the not-so-friendly skies for the last ten years! And we think to ourselves, well, I've finally mastered the art of one-handed diaper changing. That's got to count for something, right?
So, Ms. Bauer is one of these people that makes me think that way. She's a little older than I am, and a little younger than my bride--late thirties. She is a mother herself, with four children; and her books were written to chronicle the theory and curricula that she uses as she homeschools them. She also is a professor of literature at William and Mary, where she has been teaching since the early nineties--before I got my first job out of college. What have I been doing with my life?
Fortunately, she comes across as a thoroughly normal human being, which is all the more amazing seeing as she was homeschooled herself. ;)
She shared this story about how the publishers at Norton (same ones that do the Norton Anthologies) had heard of Classical Education in homeschooling and were interested in publishing a book on the topic, so she and her mother had to fly to New York to meet with the executives. The meeting went very well, but after the meeting someone made a comment along the lines of "we had expected you to be grim and joyless." She is in fact a very good speaker, and handled some very tough questions from the audience with good information, leavened with a healthy dose of wit and humor.
She was also aware of what was appropriate to the audience. There were things she was willing to tell us, but that she didn't want to go into the official recordings, because they were about her family; and she didn't want these family details going out on the internet. I can see how this would be an issue for a famous homeschooler, who wants to pass along examples of what has and has not worked in her homeschool, but at the same time wishes to maintain some privacy. I think she handled it well.
I think the most important point I came away with, which Ms. Bauer hammered over and over again, is the need for the homeshooling parents to take care of themselves physically and intellectually. A few examples:
- She strongly suggests that you set some "off duty" time. For instance, set a "wake up" time before which the kids are not allowed out of their rooms. Then, schedule a nap from 1:00 to 3:00 in the afternoon; then enforce a reasonable bedtime. Doing this gives mommy (since it is usually mommy who's the primary home educator) time to herself, to get some rest, so that she doesn't burn out.
- If your physical needs aren't met, you won't be able to teach well. And if your kids' physical needs aren't met, they won't be able to learn well. So she shared this strategy: if the student and/or the teacher are at the point of tears over a lesson, don't immediately throw out the curriculum and find another. First, stop. Then go get a sandwich (either for you or the child, or both, as appropriate). If that doesn't cure the problem and make the lesson go better, then stop again, and take a nap (again, you or the child, or both, as appropriate). If that doesn't cure the problem, take a bath. She said that by the end of the bath, ninety percent of the problems will have gone away. If the problems are still there after the bath, then you can consider whether there's a problem with the curriculum.
- One of the whole points of Classical Education is that it's not supposed to end at the classroom door. The classroom is only the beginning; we're supposed to keep learning to the end of our days. This especially goes for homeschooling parents. Two reasons (among others) immediately come to mind: first, we need to model behaviors that we want our kids to emulate. If they see us continually learning, continually looking things up that we find interesting, occasionally poring over Plato or Aristotle or Augustine, they will grow up thinking that this is a normal and worthwhile thing to do. Second, familiarity with the great ideas and great writers of history gives us an ability to answer the tough questions that our junior high and high school students eventually throw at us. I mean, what do we do if our kid says something like: "Y'know, Plato is saying things here that contradict the Bible, and Plato is making a lot of sense." It especially helps if we ourselves know what Plato said. But to do that, we can't let our own continuing education slip.
She spent a lot of time on this last point. It is in fact the point of her companion volume to The Well-Trained Mind, entitled The Well-Educated Mind. We have not read the book yet, but we did pick up a copy at the seminar. It appears to be a guide for adults to give themselves a classical education just as the previous volume is intended to help us give one to our children.
Ironically, the conference had effects on Tonya and me that were totally different. I tend to be the idea man of the family, who comes up with all kinds of great schemes to save the world or fix the plumbing, in which I leave all the hard work "as an exercise to the reader." So after listening to all the details Ms. Bauer presented about learning all these different subjects at all the different educational levels, and how the students make transitions between those levels, I came away with a sense of, "Good grief, we've bitten off something huge here! How are we going to get all this done? How are we going to keep all this information straight?"
Tonya on the other hand is a very pragmatic, very left-brained person, who sees all the problems the moment you present her with The Plan, and doesn't relax about it until she can see how all those details are resolved. (I rather see her as the Gromit to my Wallace. And I don't think this is insulting in any way--Gromit was always smarter than Wallace anyway.) She had been worrying about how we're going to apply all that good advice in The Well-Trained Mind, before we went to the conference. Now that we've been there and heard Ms. Bauer, many of the gaps Tonya had been seeing have been filled in, and she feels like she knows better how to "get there from here", so to speak.
As I said, we're glad we went, and if anyone interested in Homeschooling or Classical Education has the chance to go see her speak sometime, I would highly recommend it.