During my homeschool research 11-odd years ago, I read the second edition of The Well-Trained Mind. To say I fell in love with the mother-daughter duo who authored the book, Jessie Wise and Susan Wise Bauer, would be an understatement. Though I do not always agree with them, I have yet to find a school structure (which I follow loosely) that works with my personal educational values and homeschooling goals more than theirs. To be fair to them regarding their presentation, the authors have said themselves the book is more overwhelming than they intended or than it should be in practice, because their publisher required that they include information like amounts of time spent on subjects and other minutiae/stuff that adds to the mental workload of homeschooling parents. That should be shouted from the rooftops: the authors of the book do not intend that you do everything they say. I find this, in and of itself, incredibly freeing.
The component of TWTM that has stuck with us the most and that I believe in the most is the four-year history cycle. With this method and using Susan Wise Bauer’s Story of the World series, students cover ancient history in 1st, 5th, and 9th grades; medieval history in 2nd, 6th, and 10th grades; early modern history in 3rd, 7th, and 11th grades; and modern history in 4th, 8th, and 12th grades. (We have used SotW for 1st-8th grades; this fall our oldest starts 9th grade, and we will use the first volume of Bauer’s more advanced series with her.) The idea is that by going through a historical period three times during one’s schooling, students gain not only a chronological understanding of history but the repetition and diversity of historical information needed to grasp world history.
For those who educate multiple children and want to work through history together, I can attest that keeping everyone on the same schedule works well; our children are on the same schedule and will begin working through ancient history this fall even though they will not all be in 1st, 5th, or 9th grades (in fact, only two of them will be in any of those grades). A few years ago when I had fewer children and far more energy I briefly considered covering a different history cycle for each child from 1st through 12th grades but realized quickly that would be too much for us (me). We have spent eight years with the four-year history cycle, and even though only two of our children have started 1st grade with ancient history, everyone is doing fine. The sky has not fallen.
My one major issue with the books is that they are not exactly chronological for non-Western, non-modern history; unfortunately when Susan Wise Bauer tries to cover several countries or parts of the world, she also tends to write about their history in large time periods rather than covering them exactly chronologically. She might spend a little time on 500 years of pre-Columbian America in the middle of discussing medieval Europe. As great as I think these books are, they are still predominantly Western historical narratives with non-Western segments crammed in. In 2017, this might be as good as we can find for now in a nice, neat set, especially one aimed at children. I supplement freely with other books and historical information, including documentary films. Finding good historical books aimed at children is difficult enough; finding the same that are published in English is even more difficult. This will get better as time passes, I hope. In the meantime, the internet and film have done a good job at helping supplement our children’s historical knowledge. Whether we discuss war in ancient China or women in renaissance Europe or apartheid in South Africa, this approach gives many ignored portions of world history due time and opens ears to many voices heretofore unheard. Nothing but good can come from that.
If all of this does not sound like a drastic departure from the way most of us were taught history, think back to when you were in school. Do you remember covering some aspect of American history every year of school? Probably. In fact, that American history likely overshadowed everything else you studied in social studies classes through eighth grade, if not even through high school. Considering the country was just over 200 years old when I started elementary school in the mid-80s, this seems myopic as well as excessive. During high school the most modern history we covered was the Bay of Pigs, more than 35 years before I graduated high school. Anything I learned about the mid- to late 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s was through family discussions, my own reading, and paying attention to the news and current events during my life. I cannot tell you how frustrated it makes me to think of children not getting an understanding of our modern context because schools do not cover modern history, let alone adequately cover anything but American history (when they are able to do that). Add to that the overwhelming lack of historical coverage of anyone who was not white or male, and the grasp of history the average American high school graduate has is wanting. Take heart, though; this is really not the school’s sole responsibility, even if your children are not homeschooled. Like math or language arts, a child’s enjoyment of history generally starts at home. Parents who attempt to learn from history and discuss social issues raise children who want to learn from history and discuss social issues. It is not too late for you to learn to enjoy it; you simply must find resources that appeal to you.
One complaint my children have had over the years is that history is sad. Yes. Yes, it is; however, we can learn from it. When we learn from something (even if that thing that happened was awful), we are making something awful into something beautiful. Another person or people’s pain does not have to be in vain. We may be better people by learning the mistakes of the past and vowing never to repeat them. In fact, I believe we must do so.