Interview with the Colfaxes
by Mary Leppert
For those of you who don't know David and Micki Colfax, they are real pioneers of homeschooling. They have four boys and in the early 1980s they bought a piece of property in northern California with virtually nothing on it and took the boys there to live. Homeschooling evolved from there. The Colfaxes became famous for their experience because three of their completely homeschooled children went to Harvard and then on to Yale and Michigan Law school and Harvard Medical School. The other child is an international chef. All four children have turned out happy and successful. I have heard David and Micki Colfax speak many times. They have spoken at our The Link conference two times and I have listened to their tapes many times. I love hearing them talk about their experience homeschooling their boys. David & Micki have authored two books about their experiences homeschooling: Hard Times In Paradise and Homeschooling for Excellence Early in my homeschooling years I read Hard Times In Paradise and kept their experience in a neat little corner of my psyche for the times when people would criticize or warn me about the ill-effects of homeschooling. I wanted to interview either David or Micki because I have never really understood what they did every day. That was my main reason for this interview. Like many of the good things in life, what I started out doing was not what I ended up with. Therefore, I hope that the readers of The Link enjoy this conversation as much as I did.The Interview
Mary Leppert: As a homeschooling mom, I would like to know what exactly did you and your wife do on a daily basis with your children as they lived the homeschooling experience?
David Colfax: The answer to your question is, we did as little as possible and we did as much as possible. I think that most people are uncomfortable with that kind of answer. It sounds like a statement in which we are trying to be evasive, but that is really at the heart of it. That is one of the things that we try to convey to parents in our very short conversations with them. If you come into homeschooling with an ideology of education that is fully fleshed out, I think you are going to have some very serious problems at some point in your later educational endeavors.
ML: So when you say you did as little as possible and as much as possible, describe the "much".
DC: Well the "much" was to provide the kids with a sense that there is a world of possibilities out there. In life, you are going to be dealing with people who have theories, ideas and concepts, who have views that make sense in certain contexts; some that make no sense in certain contexts, and some stuff makes no sense at all. Basically, I think what we tried to do is give them a sense of the fact that the world is filled with theories, the world is filled with things to do, and there are millions of lives you can create and carve out.
ML: Within your own life?
DC: Within your own life. In other words, there is a world of endless possibilities.
ML: So, did you try to expose them to as many different ideas and theories as possible; is that what you are saying?
DC: Well, it's not so much that we tried to expose them, but it's just a process of discussing and debunking, if you will - nowadays, the academics would call it "deconstructing reality."
ML: So looking at a reality and going backwards with it?
DC: Basically, being very radical, in terms of looking at the systems of thought. One of the things that Micki and I are very, very unsympathetic to are the grandiose theories, theories of history, theories of art, theories of religion and of interpersonal relations and so forth. The old phrase that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed in your philosophy is kind of a bellwether. The point was to go into these different realms and feel free to pick up any book and get what is good out of it, but don't pick up anything with the idea that because it is a book it has certain value or because somebody has said this or that, that they, by publishing this or publicizing that, gives it any authority. The ultimate authority resides in you and what you know and what sense you are able to make of it.
So, in some sense, we anticipated educationally, I think, a lot of the stuff that is now being taught at the university level. It's not surprising because we have come through the same generation and the same kinds of events. We operated under what is called deconstructionism; that is, you have to look at things in the context in which they happen, you have to be able to be highly critical, you have to make meaning out of what is perhaps meaningless, etc., etc. That's not the sort of thing you can get across to people when they say, "What should I be teaching my 12 year old?" But it's rather an orientation and we present that to people, more in the context of, "Relax! It's not that serious! It's a serious business, but you don't have to be deadly serious about it. The kids will do all right as long as you are showing them that you are concerned and providing them with opportunities and so forth. "That's what it evolves into, but, as you probably well know, we are very reluctant to recommend one system or another. We are very reluctant to recommend what we even did, on the grounds that you know your kids better than we do, and we don't know you as well as you know your kids. So don't come to us asking for clarification, guidance, or expertise. We can say, "This is a good book. We thought it was great, but be prepared to say, 'I didn't get anything out of it.'" Be prepared to say "This might work for the Colfaxes, but, it sure doesn't work for me." We're saying - "Good! You're not afraid. You're not buying into our system." Don't buy into anyone's system! Create your own system. Be yourself.
ML: Did you have a plan then?
DC: We were constantly revising, from our perspective, at least. It's almost as if we reinvented the curriculum every day.
ML: I see, so it's just life in general, right?
DC: Well, yes, but let's say, you pick up the paper and you read about someone who just died and one of the boys says, "He was pretty interesting." But another says "That guy was a real bum and why is the newspaper celebrating someone who did more damage or harm than good," and so we have the makings of what becomes a history lesson or that becomes the lesson on the way the media distorts rules, or it becomes a lesson in newspaper economics or an opportunity to talk about ideology. You can take off on that and be talking about it in a dozen different categories, just talking about somebody's obituary that you happened upon on a given morning. On the other hand, one of the boys may walk away from the whole thing and find a dead bird outside and that becomes his concern for the day.
Now if you have a curriculum and you say, okay, put the dead bird down and forget about what we were talking about, you have to get onto your "real" studies, you are really saying to them that experiences and concerns are not as valuable as having a structured environment. I know for most people, having a structured environment makes them much more comfortable and safe than being essentially out there, in the open.
ML: For example, if one of the kids brought in a dead bird and wanted to talk about it the rest of the day, or find out why the wings were a certain way, then what would happen? Would you and Micki take the time to research that at a library?
DC: Yes, more than likely, it would depend on how old they were. We would say "What books do we have on birds, back there?" And someone might say, "Well, there is nothing in them, let's not bother. "And that would be the end of it. We would not say, "Oh, here's a great learning opportunity."
ML: You wouldn't say that?
DC: No, that's what we call the overbearing homeschooling parent or the didactic homeschooling parent, where the child can't have an experience without having it turn into an "educational experience," an objectification of every experience.
ML: So, if they didn't go back and find a book, then what, would you just drop it?
DC: Generally, yes. Just because they found a bird that died in the backyard that morning did not have to mean they were going to sacrifice building a telescope or finishing a novel. So by having certain freedoms and allowing priorities to evolve in a child's mind naturally, you're not saying "What you are doing right now is not as important as what may come up immediately", what you are saying here is, "You are going to have to make these choices, we are letting you make these choices. Here is a wonderful opportunity here, a woodpecker just died in the backyard. Let's dissect the thing and take the feathers and let's start making Indian baskets with it." If you do that, what you are saying in effect is: "If this bird had not died and we had not found it, you would have been doing something less important, less significant." That demeans the ongoing process. There is real tension here between being open to new experiences and still taking seriously what you are doing. I think we lose sight of that fact, because we regard ourselves as teachers, and maintaining the equilibrium is difficult.
ML: So then, you think that each kid has a path within the environment, and if you leave them alone they will follow it in a real way?DC: It's not "leaving alone." This is where you get people who say, "Did you let them just grow up, like Topsy?" And the answer is - "No." What we did was interact with them. It doesn't mean that they had total access to us at all times, that we just sat there and said, "Do you have a question?"
ML: But you did things with them.DC: We did things and we disagreed with them and they knew that they could disagree with us. We wouldn't say, "You don't know what you are talking about." We didn't just tell them to shut-up and go read, but we might suggest that "Maybe what you need to do is read more and talk less." We had that kind of dynamic. The lack of dynamism concerns me about some of the stuff that is going on in the homeschooling movement. I think there is a tendency to rigidify and to buy into theories and methods and styles. Micki and I believe that you are engaged in a constant dynamism in the learning process. There is a tendency also to say, "Well, then you just lived your life." Well, yes. . . and no.
ML: You had to have structure everyday to do what you were doing on the farm, right?DC: Right. As I was saying we were living our lives, but at the same time, we were also bringing up children, we were educating, we were in the process of preparing children for the time when they would no longer be with us and that is something that has to be made clear to anybody who is trying to figure out what we were doing. We didn't just come here and raise some chickens and some ducks and say, "Well, if you learn something that's great, and if you don't, that's okay too."
A very big part of our experience was that we had a very clear sense of our responsibilities to our kids to make sure that they learned how to be critical, to interact, to raise tough questions. These are the things you have to do in order not to accept conventional notions. In one regard here, I think that is why our kids are in very conventional professions, but at the same time are unconventional within those professions. I think the reason is because we said, "Hey, listen, this is the real world out there. You want to talk about what it is like to be a sociology professor, I'll talk about it." But also, "Let's also talk about what it is like to be a sociology professor in a context in which you don't accomplish very much, or in a context in which the university makes sure that the sociology professors don't teach sociology. Big difference."ML: So, you tell them the truth.
DC: A big part of it is truth telling and the other side of it is, they have a kind of critical edge, a critical view. We felt that our job was simply to present a view when it was called for. "What is good about this? What is bad about this? Is this truth, or is this somebody's ideology? Is somebody's value system being presented as if it were some timeless verity?" So, our boys have very little tolerance as adults for grand theorists. They tend to be — I don't think they would put it in these terms, but I would — they tend to be pragmatists. Micki's signaling me that I'm getting too abstract. But you see, this is abstract. I think it's involved in everybody's way of looking at life. They are told that they have to categorize, they have to compartmentalize, they have to arrange information in hierarchies.ML: And the same thing is done with subjects. And so the whole thing with subjects in school and what we are supposed to learn, that's the whole thing we are talking about. Isn't that whole thing a marketing illusion?
DC: Yes, absolutely. It's something that has a very strong historical basis. This is the marketing of education for 150 years. There is no reason why we have to be thrown into this but on the other hand, here is the other unfortunate part: The whole culture is organized in this fashion today. The whole large of our society is compartmentalizing, categorizing, hierarchializing.ML: But do people really live real lives within that realm? It seems that society is numb after work, because their lives are so fake.
DC: Again, that is why we have the commercialization of modern life. If you buy your entertainment or you purchase it in blocks, you mostly spend most of your time doing work so you can buy whatever products are out there. We are a little bit reluctant to get out too far, because — I think it came out in our second book, "Hard Times in Paradise", — where we came across, some of the reviewers said, as self-righteous and arrogant. Well, gee, if we did, I'm sorry, but the fact of the matter is we did what we were doing. And we told how we did it and why we did it. It wasn't all homeschooling, but we were trying to get more control over the way we lived and not be subject to larger blandishments of the society. It's very compelling. We didn't have television and it's not because we dislike television as such, but rather because of the insidious aspects of how television came to be and what kept it going and what mind set the kids fall into. We would become uncritical, not because of television, but because there is no reason to become critical of T.V. if you are a kid, unless you have a frame of reference — and most kids do not have that frame of reference. We have to be careful — I have to be careful - about becoming way too abstract about this. It's not something we talked about on a daily, weekly or monthly basis, or sat down and worked out a philosophy, but basically, our philosophy is one of going against the grain.ML: But I think it can appear to be abstract simply because it is not the norm. You can be called "arrogant" when you are just doing something different than what everyone else is doing and you are confident.
DC: For example, we have a group of parents we're in contact with, who are homeschooling their kids and they are getting harassed by the county building department, which is telling these parents who meet once a week in a house, "You can not have your kids in your house because that does not meet the school standards."ML: Oh my gosh!
DC: From my perspective it's a wonderful opportunity for the parents, the kids and everybody involved to get to talking about the nature of government and civil rights, talking about constitution and politics. But in this case, some of these parents are conservative and they have good jobs, they are professionals, they don't want to talk about authority or the abuse of authority.
ML: Is it because they are Christians?DC: No, not at all. They just want a quiet life and challenging even illegitimate authority is not their style. But when you take that kind of perspective, what kind of response can you make to abusive authority? Our kids would have grabbed hold of it and said "Let's see where this takes us."
ML: This is the real world, let's see what is going on?DC: "That's the real world. Put down your crayons and put down your history books and let's see where we go with this." I'm not saying that these folks are being unresponsive. It's just that they are not approaching education as being potentially a very subversive activity. True education is truly subversive. I think that if you understand that it subverts a system that functions on the basis that it is made of a whole set of untested assumptions and ideas. If you are not prepared to examine each and every aspect of these things in the course of your day-to-day activities in life, then you are not making full use of your faculties, as it were.
ML: So where do the three R's fit into this; it's a really small part of your education, isn't it?DC: Yes, basically. It would go something like this: The guy across the road, who is a hippie, believes that he read a book once and didn't like it. He thinks that sitting under a redwood tree gives you more knowledge and information than anything else does. So, you are 7 or 8 years old, and told to go sit under a redwood tree and see if you have the same feeling?
ML: And if you do?DC: If you do, okay, fine. But when you discover that you want to do something, that you want to know more about Indians, I guarantee you that redwood tree is not going to be able to give you that information. It may make you feel the way they felt, but that is not going to give you the kind of information that you are seeking. Perhaps your friend across the road does not really care about history. Now that you are asking about history, you are talking about literacy. You have to learn to read. We're not going to be your research assistants. We live in a literate society and if you are not literate in the society, then you are going to have more problems than you can imagine and it doesn't take much to learn to read. Reading is a simple process, if you don't allow it to be turned into something more frightening or overwhelming. The same with math. You don't need to know much math, most people know very little math. You have to add, subtract, divide and multiply and that's it. You learn your multiplication tables to the tens; no big deal.
ML: So you didn't make your kids do that, right?DC: Sure, they did it because - there again, I don't know what you mean "make." I think we made it clear, "If you're not interested in this, fine. But at some point you are going to come up against it. When you do, you can either cram and be ready for it or simply say 'I never bothered to learn that.' But if you say you never bothered to learn it, you had better have a good explanation for why you never bothered to learn that because otherwise you sound like a fool." By the time you're nine years old there are things you want to do that might require a degree of literacy. It's not learning to read or do math that's important, it's what you can do because math and reading are nothing more than tools. Means to an end. So as you say "Well, I'd really like to explore this in more detail or I'd like to talk to somebody other than the people in the neighborhood" you have access to everything that's out there in the larger culture.
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