From Home Instruction to Harvard University

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

WHEN Grant Colfax was growing up there were lots of questions about why he didn't go to school. Now that he's graduated from Harvard University and is completing his second year at Harvard Medical School, people have stopped questioning his home-based education. The Colfaxes of California are one of the most celebrated home-schooling families. Along with Grant, their oldest son, David and Micki Colfax have taught three other sons at home on their ranch in the mountains of northern California.

``It wasn't a specific decision; it just sort of evolved through time,'' Grant says of his family's experience with home schooling. ``We were up on this place in the middle of nowhere. We had a lot to do and we would learn a lot as we worked.''

So the theory went. And sure enough, the three oldest sons learned enough to gain admission to Harvard. Reed is a junior, Drew graduated in 1990, and Grant in 1987. Fifteen-year-old Garth is still on the ranch.

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In their book, ``Homeschooling for Excellence,'' Mr. and Mrs. Colfax tell about their experiences. David, a former college professor, and Micki, a former schoolteacher, expected their children to go to college.

But ``Harvard was never in the picture,'' Grant says. ``It was always assumed that I'd go to Berkeley or at least one of the UC [University of California] schools.'' Recalling his days on the ranch, Grant characterizes his parents' approach to education as ``very informal.''

``We were really able to explore our own interests,'' he says. ``School yanks you away from pursuing your own interests.''

In the Colfax family, kids learned at their own pace. Grant started reading at a later age than most children. ``I never felt like I had any need to read until I was nine,'' he says. Once he realized that he should learn to read, Grant made rapid progress. ``In a year and a half, I went from reading Dr. Seuss to the encyclopedia.''

Reading then became Grant's avenue to education. ``We didn't have television so we would sit and read. You have a lot more time to read if you're not doing busywork in school. And you can read what you want to read.''

ALTHOUGH he criticizes the rigid structure of traditional education, Grant has accepted the importance of fulfilling institutional requirements. He describes his undergraduate years as a ``good experience'' but not a particularly enjoyable one. As a pre-med biology major, he encountered plenty of difficult courses. But, he says, ``academics were not a big deal. Someone gives you the books to read. So you read the books. And then you take these silly exams.''

Such comments reveal a strong anti-establishment attitude that lurks just beneath the surface of this bright, average-looking young man. He admits that he may well have to send his own children to school if he finds himself working fulltime as a physician in an urban area. But, nonetheless, he hasn't embraced the traditional structure of today's schools.

``All school is about is controlling children, teaching them what rank they fall in society, teaching them to obey orders. For the people at the top of the ladder, the school system works. That's why they're at the top. But it destroys a lot of kids' inherent creativity.''

At the same time, Grant has some concerns about certain segments of today's home-schooling movement. ``A lot of home schoolers play school in their house. I don't think having a blackboard in the kitchen and teaching your kids how to read that way is very productive.''

Grant also disagrees with parents who choose home schooling to protect or isolate their children. ``The worst thing that you can do is want to home-school so that you can have more control over your child's life. You should view home schooling as a way of the child gaining control of his or her own life.''

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