Susan Wise Bauer’s "Rethinking Education: How to Take Charge of Your Child’s Education"
By Brian Phillips
Susan Wise Bauer, a longtime champion of homeschooling, may also hold the title of most prolific writer in the realm of classical education. The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home (co-authored with her mother, Jessie Wise), is now in its fourth edition and its companion volume, The Well-Educated Mind: A Guide to the Classical Education You Never Had, has recently been expanded. Her publications also include curricular resources like the Writing with Ease series, the Writing with Skill series, the Grammar for the Well-Trained Mind series, the four-volume history curriculum The Story of the World: History for the Classical Child, and three expansive works in the History of the World series.
And now Bauer has recently released Rethinking School: How to Take Charge of Your Child’s Education (W.W. Norton & Company) which, like several of Bauer’s other works, attempts to arm parents with the information and understanding necessary to navigate some of the common hurdles in the K-12 school system.
The book is divided into five major sections:
- Part I. The System — Introduces and describes the current American educational system
- Part II. Mismatches – Explores mismatches between the system and the way children learn
- Part III. Taking Control – Offers strategies for “dealing with those mismatches” within the K-12 system
- Part IV. Rethinking the System – Thought experiments about what education could look like
- Part V. Opting Out – How to turn the thought experiments of Part IV into a reality
Masterfully blending statistical research, personal accounts from parents, and her own close observations of American schooling, Bauer powerfully argues for an approach to education that values the child over the system. She sets the tone with strong words in the opening chapter:
“School has no body. Schools serves a Platonic child, one who doesn’t suddenly melt down, or get overwhelmed by a tidal wave of hormones, or unexpectedly need fourteen hours of sleep.
By ‘school,’ I don’t simply mean the buildings where children go to sit in a physical classroom and learn.
I mean our entire K-12 system, the one that we tend to think of as normal: Classify yourself by the month and year in which you were born; group yourself with those born within twelve months of you; study seven or eight unrelated subjects in blocks, four or five times per week; do this for twelve or so years, but not usually during the summer; at lease once a year (usually much more often), fill out lots of bubble sheets with a #2 pencil; after twelve years of this, go away and live in a group home with others born within four years of you, while attending lectures and choosing a major that doesn’t necessarily line up with any particular adult pattern of life.”
And, if a child’s behavior or learning preferences do not match what schools prefer, the child is marked as the problem. Schools, Bauer argues, are not made for children; rather, it is demanded that children fit the system:
“And in this lies the problem with this particular artificial system: When children
struggle with it, ‘school’ pushes us, with overwhelming force, toward fixing the child –
figuring out what’s wrong with that little psyche that’s causing them to feel humiliation,
fright, discouragement, boredom, disengagement – rather than questioning the
The greatest accomplishment of Rethinking School lies in the great clarification Bauer provides for numerous misconceptions many parents have about their children and the educational system. In one short chapter, three common “myths” are swiftly put to rest: “My kids should attend an accredited school,” “My child has to take English, math, science, and social studies every year,” and “My high-school student needs to earn a diploma.”
She then goes on to explain that our age = grade-level system is established, not on a sound educational philosophy or understanding of children, but rather on an early 1800s Prussian military model designed to restore national pride and will to fight. That system was adapted for use in the United States (particularly in areas facing large influxes of immigration), and gradually applied throughout the nation.
And no topic is off-limits for Bauer. Addressing what is, for many, the elephant in the room, she discusses the common labels applied to children who do not fit the system: “disorders,” “disabilities,” and “differences.”
Disorders are conditions that can be diagnosed medically, such as seizures, allergies, vision or hearing problems, cerebral palsy, and more, that can affect a child’s academic life. These conditions can be mistaken for academic problems, but may simply need medical treatment.
Disabilities are not related to a physical disorder, but manifest themselves as dyslexia, dysgraphia, auditory processing issues, and more. Disabilities can generally be improved through adjusted pedagogy. (Note: Bauer includes a very helpful chart on learning disabilities that define and describe them, while also providing common therapies to treat them.)
Finally, children with learning differences simply have “a preferred way of collecting and processing information that doesn’t line up with his or her learning environment.” While Bauer admits the line between learning disabilities and differences can be fuzzy, it is a helpful distinction to make, particularly for parents who are searching to find answers for their child’s needs.
Like many other books on education, Rethinking School provides an honest assessment of the K-12 system and where it fails. But, it goes far beyond criticism, providing specific guidance to parents who know something is wrong, but do not know what to do about it. Bauer answers common questions, supplies help for those new to homeschooling (or even the idea of homeschooling), gives suggested teaching strategies for instructing children with learning disabilities or differences, and even addresses how to properly structure a homeschooler’s transcript.
Bauer calls parents to remember what is so easily forgotten: “Education is intended to benefit the child, not the other way around. Don’t panic.”