Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the name of a North Carolina-based home education movement. It is Classical Conversations, not Classical Conversions.
At dusk on a farm near the confluence of the Chickahominy and James rivers, about 26 miles west of Williamsburg, home-schooling pioneer Susan Wise Bauer is out raking manure.
She cleans her sheep pens, douses her four horses and her donkey, Athena, with bug spray, and fills water troughs for her goats. It had been 103 degrees that afternoon, but the setting sun has brought in a breeze to cool the tomato fields and peach and apple groves on Peace Hill, a property that has been in her family for several generations.
“I love livestock,” says Bauer, 44. “There’s something about animals: You just feed and water and clean them, and then they are content.”
The farm offers Bauer a respite from battles she has fought with her detractors in America’s increasingly diverse home-schooling community.
The English professor, historian, author of 18 books and holder of a doctorate in American studies from the nearby College of William & Mary is one of the forces behind America’s burgeoning home-schooling movement, which is growing about 7 percent each year. The National Home Education Research Institute estimates that there were 2.04 million home-schooled children in the United States as of 2010, about 4 percent of the nation’s school-age population. That’s almost double the 1.2 million home-schooled children in 2000. A June article in U.S. News & World Report said that home-schooled children graduate from college at higher rates than their peers, earn higher GPAs and are better socialized than most high school students.
Bauer is best known among home-schoolers for “The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home” — writtenwith her mother, Jessie Wise, a former teacher — which has sold more than half a million copies since its first publication in 1999. Classical education focuses on the great books of Western civilization, Latin, and lessons about morality and virtue, and is based on the medieval European curriculum that divided learning into the “trivium”: grammar, logic and rhetoric. The concept of fusing classical education into modern teaching was popularized by a 1947 essay by British author Dorothy Sayers called “The Lost Tools of Learning.” But it was Bauer and her mother who provided parents with a template.
“Susan is very well known and popular,” says Anne Miller, president of the Home Educators Association of Virginia. “When she wrote ‘The Well-Trained Mind,’ no one had put feet to Dorothy Sayers’s ideas.”
“Well-Trained Mind” was followed by “The Complete Writer: Writing With Ease,” a series of textbooks that covers writing skills for first- through fourth-graders and has sold 100,000 copies. “The Story of the World,” a children’s world history series published in four volumes, has sold more than 900,000 copies — not only to home-schooling parents but also to private schools, public charter schools and parents of public-school children who wish to supplement their kids’ education.
Bauer also teaches English at William & Mary and runs her own tiny publishing house, Peace Hill Press, which distributes her books and lectures as well as those of a few other authors. She has just completed the third book of a multi-volume world history that encompasses 235,000 words, 808 pages, with a 45-page bibliography, an effort aimed more at adults than at home-schooled students. In 11 years, she has covered the ancient world through the Renaissance. She gestures toward a sculpture of a sinking Titanic on her desk. “That is a picture of my working life,” she jokes. “My ability to get this world history project done made me feel as though I was always sinking.”
Her career is definitely still afloat, though the seas have been so rough lately that she’s considering changing course.
The Bauers’ living room in Peace Hill’s 90-year-old red farmhouse has a comfy lived-in-ness: antiques, books and various computers for Christopher, 21; Ben, 19; Dan, 15; and Emily, 11, all of whom were home-schooled. The oldest is at the University of Virginia, and the 19-year-old is attending Thomas Nelson Community College in Hampton, Va. A Shakespeare quote is stenciled on the wall above the kitchen stove: “Tis an ill cook that cannot lick his own fingers.” One floor below live Bauer’s parents: mother Jessie and James Wise, a retired pediatrician.
Jessie had begun home-schooling Susan and her two siblings in the 1970s at the farm because she thought the local schools were full of sloppy teaching and rowdy behavior. Susan was reading at fifth-grade level by age 5 and learned Latin at 10. At 17, she attended Liberty University in Lynchburg, finished her bachelor’s degree in English in five semesters, did a summer stint at Oxford University in England, then was off to Westminster Theological Seminary outside Philadelphia. It was there that she met Peter Bauer, 27, a fellow student. She was 19.
“Every guy in the school was following her around,” remembers Peter, now pastor of a small evangelical church at Peace Hill. “She wore flowing long skirts, had curly dark hair and large brown eyes.” They went on a date where he had to jump-start the car. Months later, she invited him to a barbecue. “I don’t know why,” he muses. “I was a disaster. I had no money. I was a dopey kid with broken glasses that had to be taped up. I didn’t cut a very classic figure.”
Four months later, they were engaged. They married in January 1990 and moved back to the farm to live with Susan’s parents 18 months later. Babies started to arrive. As eldest son Christopher approached kindergarten age in the mid-1990s, Susan approached her mother about how to teach her growing family the way she had been taught. The two women wrote a home-schooling manual focused on classical education. They wanted to produce a book that was informed by their Christian beliefs yet used secular resources that would be acceptable to nonreligious home-schoolers.
A book agent said editors at Norton were interested but wanted to meet with them “to see if you’re marketable.” Susan’s grandfather pulled out a credit card and told them to “go to Richmond and buy some New York clothes.” Attired in new suits, Jessie and Susan went to New York in 1996 to meet with Star Lawrence, then Norton’s editor in chief, and his staff.
The Norton editors grilled them for an hour. “You know, you’re really nice people,” a man told Jessie afterward.
“They expected us to be weird,” Jessie says. “They had never met any home-schoolers.”
Lawrence was impressed. “Most of the home-schoolers were doing it for religious and social reasons, and the textbooks were weighted in the direction of Christian teaching,” he recalls. “Susan and her mother wished to redress that imbalance.”
But trying to maintain that balance has wearied Susan Bauer over the years.
In the 40 years since Bauer’s mother began teaching her to read at age 3, home-schooling has gone from a mostly religious fringe activity to a chic trend with numerous conferences, publishers, methods and factions focused on theological views, organic living, parenting styles or various stances on homosexuality or same-sex unions.
Bauer has been a fixture behind the lectern at state and national home-schooling conferences for years. But this past spring, she announced she would sit out the conferences next year because of rifts in this once seemingly monolithic movement.
“For a number of people involved in it, their primary focus is not educating kids but a lifestyle,” she says. Whereas early home-schoolers were a freewheeling bunch forced to stick together against a hostile world because of their aversion to public schools, now it seems as if there are litmus tests for acceptance into the community.
For example, she says, Peace Hill Press came under fire from home-schooling creationists — at conferences, on the Internet and via e-mail — for publishing the work of scholar Peter Enns, who argues against a strict literal reading of the Book of Genesis.
“Susan got really beat up by inappropriate behavior,” says Leigh Bortins, founder of Classical Conversations, a North Carolina-based home education movement. “In many ways, home-schooling has grown up, but people don’t always act like grown-ups.”
Bauer’s disagreement with home-schooling proponents who say the public schools are hostile to Christianity also has become a point of contention.
“I’ve been told if I say anything supportive of public schools, even charter ones, I’ll lose my speaker’s fee, and I don’t get my expenses reimbursed,” she says. “Of course, I tell them I won’t come.”
Bauer has been asked “to swear I won’t bring certain books for my book table; to mention certain words,” she wrote on her blog in April. “None of which, I should say, have anything to do with what I normally talk about: grammar, history, writing, reading, learning. I have been told that I am not welcome, in some cases, because I talk too much about the psychology of learning, and not about the Bible. Or because I have a theological degree and am obviously pushing a Christian agenda. Because my ‘professional associations,’ however loose, are too liberal, or too secular, or too Christian.”
She got 69 comments on that entry, including: “My husband and I ultimately decided against homeschooling after a few years because it was so incredibly difficult to build/find a community and we found the experience horribly, destructively isolating as a result. We were either too Christian or not Christian enough, or not the right kind of Christian, too structured or too unstructured, too egalitarian in our marriage or too husband-led.”
Mark Reynolds, the new provost at Houston Baptist University, who has home-schooled his four children, believes the annual home-schooling conferences have moved to the right.
“A more fundamentalist minority has seized control of the conferences,” he says. “Fewer people are attending them, because most of the information you used to only get at a conference you can now get online. I think Susan is right. What’s happened to her says that the national organizations are irrelevant to home-schoolers in the United States.”
Ann Clay of Manassas, a board member for the Organization of Virginia Homeschoolers who has used “The Well-Trained Mind” to home-school her two sons, also sees splintering among home-schoolers.
“I’ve had Christian friends who didn’t attend conferences because they were not the ‘right’ kind of Christians,” she says. “There is something going on out there. Susan’s stuff is not real preachy, and it doesn’t teach evolution or creationism. She kind of glosses over it.”
Not everyone agrees that the movement has become more polarized. “Frankly, I think they’ve always been that way,” says Tim Lambert, president of the Texas Home School Coalition . “There’s always been a debate between the religious right home-school friends and the ACLU home-school friends, and even within those circles.”
Nevertheless, Bauer is moving on. She plans to devote 2013 to starting an agritourism business where would-be farmers could stay at a bed-and-breakfast within walking distance of her farm and learn to cultivate land and tend animals. She’ll be on leave from teaching; as for chronicling world history, she hasn’t decided whether to write more books.
“I think that this is partly a mid-career writer thing,” she blogged. “I have been startled recently by how many writers, fifteen or twenty years in, go and farm or raise livestock or start organic gardening or do SOMETHING that involves doing rather than writing about doing.”
Lawrence doubts that Bauer will truly take a rest.
“I look forward to what she turns to next,” he says. “I don’t think she’s going to sit there and watch the zinnias grow.”
Julia Duin teaches journalism at Union University in Jackson, Tenn. To comment on this story, send e-mail to email@example.com.