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The Best of Colfax Corner

by David and Micki Colfax

David and Micki Colfax have been well-known in many homeschooling circles since the mid-1980s for having been the parents/teachers of four boys, three of whom attended Harvard for undergraduate work and then either Harvard or Yale for graduate degrees. All of the Colfax boys have gone on to earn their livings in public-conscience-related work. To update their lives, Grant the oldest, and the original news-making graduate of Harvard, is an M.D. working as the Director of AIDS Research for the city of San Francisco with an Adjunct Professorship at the University of California at San Francisco. He is currently testing vaccines for AIDS.

Drew, the second oldest Colfax son, is a death-row appeals attorney in Montgomery, AL.  As part of his work, he reviews cases of “railroaded” convictions. These are inmates on death row who have been unjustly convicted – and often proven innocent! If this weren’t enough to keep him busy, Drew is also a full-time student at Harvard Medical School!

The third-oldest Colfax son, Reed, is a housing-discrimination attorney in Washington, D.C. He is the lead attorney for the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights.  His wife is an environmental attorney in D.C. They have 2 children, a daughter, Bailey, 4 and a boy Justice, 1-1/2.

Garth Colfax, the youngest, is working with the developmentally-disabled in Sacramento. He is also an all-around computer expert, being able to repair the computers themselves and also design websites. Garth has been married 7 years and has a little boy, Jared, who is 7 months old.

Dad, David Colfax, is a county supervisor in Mendocino County, California. According to Micki, he loves his job as one of five supervisors.  Mom, Micki Colfax, is working as a Mental Health Consultant, currently evaluating a crisis-intervention facility in Napa, California and enjoying her work as well

As many of you veteran readers may recall, David and Micki wrote a regular column, The Colfax Corner, in The Link for a couple of years. However, David and Micki’s duties as noted above, preclude them from writing at this time. Especially for the benefit of our newer readers and those new to homeschooling in general, we wanted to reproduce some of the best from those columns. At the end of this column we have included information on the Colfaxes’ book, “Hard Times In Paradise” which can only be obtained from them.

Dear David & Micki:

You homeschooled four boys and from your books it is clear that they helped each other in their schoolwork and various projects. I have one child, a five-year-old, and I have some reservations about homeschooling an only child. Your thoughts?  -- N.A., Willits, CA

Dear N.A:

We can’t speak from experience, here, of course, but after talking with many parents of a homeschooled only-child, we do have some thoughts. On the face of it, homeschooling one child should be easier than trying to cope with three or four (or more) homeschoolers – especially on those long, gray days of w inter when everyone has a head cold. But of course, your child (and you) will not have the support that brothers and sisters can provide each other, and s/he will not have the satisfaction (as older siblings do) of teaching a little brother or sister to read or do math or even more satisfying, helping an older sibling with a problem. And your child will have the advantage of being able to call upon you for help without having to contend with demands upon your time and patience by brothers and sisters. Some parents of an only child have told us that they have gone through a phase where the child had become overly-dependent upon and very demanding of a parent – invariably the mother – and it was something they had to guard against. And parents of only children can sometimes invest a great deal of emotional energy in the child and over time become anxiously overbearing, simultaneously indulgent and demanding. These patterns can be seen in non-homeschooled families, as well, of course, but because homeschooling provides parents with more time to interact and work together with their children, the intensity and scope of such relationships may be heightened. But creative homeschooling parents who make use of community resources, who expose their children to people, organizations and institutions that can inspire and support their child’s educational growth and development, need not concern themselves with how to deal with some kind of “homeschooled-only-child” syndrome. In a sense, all that is required is openness to new ideas and experiences, an openness that would benefit every child, homeschooled, only-child or not.

Dear David & Micki:

My 13-year-old son was doing very well in school until this year. Now his grades have slipped and he’s barely passing several of his courses. We can’t understand what’s happened to him. Should we consider homeschooling? – M.D., Bowie, MD

Dear M.D:

We’ve always found it interesting to observe how little attention school authorities pay to this phenomenon. There should be a term for it, a kind of “hitting the wall” or “bailing out”, that happens so often at about this age. Bright kids, often those who learned to read at the “right” age, were near the top of their classes, and who never presented any kind of problem for their teachers, who suddenly lose all interest in school. Part of it is often due to hormonal changes at the onset of puberty, to be sure, but part of it can usually be attributed to the very simple reality that in the middle school years – roughly, between grades 6 and 10, learning comes to something of a standstill. Here, subjects which were fresh and challenging the first time around are represented in a more systematic but relatively undemanding and less-than-intellectually-engaging fashion. The reasons for this are varied and range from the “dumbing down” of the conventional curriculum to the inability of many students to handle the higher level concepts and abstractions they might encounter at higher grade levels. Exposed to what is, for all practical purposes, an organizational “holding action”, many brighter students lose interest in its bleak and uninspiring educational agenda. Some recover, but many do not. For the most part, this does not become a problem for homeschoolers. Because homeschoolers generally proceed at their own individual rates, there is no need to rehash old materials; their progress is determined by their own interests and abilities rather than on the basis of what is possible for a given age cohort of students of widely varying interests and abilities. Homeschoolers have the luxury of slowing down and of even abandoning subjects if interest wanes, without being penalized for not “keeping up.” And homeschoolers can pursue new interests in a wide range of subjects not available to be typical middle school student.

For these, among very many other reasons, we feel that homeschooling is a very real option for young people who have hit that middle school years wall. But, as always, we would urge parents who find themselves in this situation to talk it over in great detail with the child before committing to what in all probability will be a long transition period in which results may not become immediately apparent. We would suggest that your son spend some time reading Grace Llewellyn’s The Teenage Liberation Handbook: How To Quit School and Get a Real Life Education. It’ll be a big step in the right direction.

Dear David & Micki:

My homeschool son is 15 and isn’t interested in going to college. Where can we find out about apprenticeships? – B.Y. Albuquerque, NM

Dear BY:

Apprenticeships are appealing to homeschoolers for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that they provide young people with an opportunity to participate in a meaningful way in the real world of work, and to learn about themselves, and the world, in the process.  John Taylor Gatto, teaching in New York’s schools, found that his students who were given an opportunity to work in a variety of commercial and industrial settings, usually as unpaid and short-term apprentices, almost invariably acquired a wide range of valuable skills and attitudes. Many homeschoolers have part-time jobs or make it part of their educational program to work on a voluntary basis in places such as hospitals, senior centers, fire departments and radio stations, not only to learn new skills but also to see if they might be interested in working in these fields. If you are interested in along-term, more intensive apprenticeship, the best thing to do is to contact people who work in the field to find out what is available and what the entry requirements are. Those interested in the more traditional crafts should contact the unions directly, which are listed in the yellow pages under “Labor Organizations”. Don’t be disappointed if they don’t seem very encouraging, however, for many of the few programs now available want applicants who have completed a high school industrial arts program. I’d suggest that your son make an appointment with the folds in charge of the programs he’s interested in and be prepared to convince them that he’s a quick and independent learner and therefore a better choice than someone who may have gone through a conventional high school program.

Dear David & Micki:

I consider myself to be one of those rare birds, something of a liberal, and many of my friends are liberals. So what do I tell them when they say that I am being an elitist by teaching my kids at home? They argue that we’re depriving the public schools of the presence of our bright, highly motivated daughters, and that we should be trying to change the schools, not abandoning them. Should I become a conservative? – R.D., Berkeley, CA

Dear R.D:

Ah, liberals. You are obviously hanging out with the kind of people who have made P.J. O’Rourke and George Wills, who write bad things about them, very, very rich men. If your friends are of a historical bent, you might suggest that they familiarize themselves with the history of the public schools, and examine whose interests they serve, and when and how. If they are of a philosophical turn of mind, point them in the direction of our friend, John Taylor Gatto. But perhaps the easiest way to counter their misplaced populism is to suggest that the next time their children need to see a doctor that they be sure to go to the worst one in town. After all, he probably could use the business and think of how much better he might become if given an opportunity to practice on their children. Or when they have a legal problem, that they make sure that they consult with the most inept law firm around, in order to help it become better at what it now does so badly. If your friends point out that their children would almost certainly get worse care or that they’d probably lose their case were they to follow your suggestion, urge them to consider the larger good they’d be serving, how they would be enhancing the noble institutions of law and medicine. Surely, they would not want to be accused of putting the needs of their children and themselves above the well-being of their new doctor and lawyer friends? With a little luck, your friends might get the point. But maybe not. Perhaps you will, after all, have to make new friends.

Dear David & Micki:

I have heard you speak at homeschooling conferences about college admissions, where you’ve said that at some point it becomes necessary for the homeschooler to find out what is required to do well on the admissions tests and to spend a lot of time preparing for those tests. Isn’t that a repudiation of what homeschooling is all about? We’ve homeschooled our children right through college and wonder why you didn’t do the same. -- A.V., Vancouver, B.C.

Several good points are raised in this question and we’ll try to do it justice, starting with your last point. We suppose that if our boys had not left home at 17 or 18 and (instead) continued to live and work on the ranch, reading, writing and talking for the next four or five years much as before, they might have learned as much, and in some ways more, than they would at college. Indeed, if they hung around for another few years, they almost certainly would have learned infinitely more than they would have in most contemporary graduate programs in sociology or English! And that’s why we told each one, as he headed off to college, that his education was done, that now he was going off to get credentials. And among other things, the fact remains that college and university programs are, for the most part, credentialing, certifying or pre-professional operations; a mix of channels and barriers that regulate the flow of people into certain sectors and occupations in the work force. Of course, most people don’t need these credentials in order to find work of one sort or another, but as one critic has observed, we are becoming an increasingly “credentialized society,” and since our children were interested in going into occupations that require those kinds of credentials, college was an appropriate option. And while it is still possible to be a journalist or a farmer, for example, or to engage in thousands of other occupations without credentials that are backed by the full force of law, it is not only difficult but illegal to practice law or medicine – and thousands of other occupations – without possessing the kind of credentials that homeschooling parents, however competent, cannot confer.

Which takes us to the first part of your question: Being prepared for a world in which tests – however silly, invalid or demeaning – may make sense in one situation and no sense whatsoever in another. And while we like to think of homeschooling as an enterprise in which learning is meaningful, satisfying, and its own reward, we live in a world in which these considerations are scarcely honored, if at all. If one is to live in such a world – which is not to say that there are not a multiplicity of strategies for challenging the absurdities of that world – it makes sense to develop the kind of skills that allows one to cope effectively with its demands. Like it or not, it isn’t possible to practice medicine or dress hair without the proper licenses, and there is not much the homeschoolers can do about it.

[To obtain the Colfaxes’ excellent book, Hard Times in Paradise, send $19.95 + $2.50 p&h to Mountain House Press, POB 353, Philo, CA 95466. (This book is not available anywhere else, by the way.)]

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