Homeschoolers Are at Home at Harvard

Reed N. Colfax '92 and J. Drew Colfax '90

He was just about the only member of the freshman class to appear on "Good Morning, America" this fall, but Reed N. Colfax '92 kept quiet about it.

The Matthews Hall resident and prospective Afro-American Studies concentrator has two brothers who attended Harvard, so he was well prepared for the fanfare that would accompany his enrollment.

Reed and his brothers, J. Drew Colfax '90 and Grant N. Colfax '87, are among the approximately 500,000 students who are taught at home by their parents instead of attending regular schools. Their 13-year-old brother, Garth M.A. Colfax, is still at home.

Although "homeschooling," may be more and more popular around the country, it hasn't yielded many Harvard students. Dean of Admissions William J. Fitzsimmons '67, says he would not comment specifically on the Colfaxes but adds that about five to 10 homeschooled students apply each year to Harvard.

And Fitzsimmons says that, on the whole, homeschooling is an educational asset that Harvard considers favorably when making its admissions decisions. "One often sees a self-reliance and independence, as well as intellectual curiosity in people with unusual educational experiences," Fitzsimmons says. Homeschooled students, he says, "do just as well as most all students who come here do."

The Colfaxes, who live on a ranch in California and are largely what they describe as "self-taught," have had almost no formal education. So the experience of Harvard classes, dorm life and homework assignments seemed almost foreign to the brothers when they arrived here.

But homeschooling certainly hasn't handicapped the Colfaxes' intellectual achievement. Grant is currently in New Zealand on a Fulbright Scholarship and plans to attend Harvard Medical School in the fall. A magna cum laude graduate in biology, Grant won a Hoopes Prize for his thesis.

And Reed says he took three Achievement Tests and scored 1310 on his SATs.

While homeschooling hasn't affected the Colfaxes' academic performance, it doesn't seem to have hindered their social development, either. Reed, for one, says he is adjusting well to the rigors of Harvard life.

"I was surprised by the mark of maturity in Reed," says his proctor, J.B. Schramm, a third-year student at the Divinity School. "He didn't have the predictable freshman fluster."

Schramm, who says Reed is unassuming about his unusual educational background, concludes, "They must breed them well up in the goat farm."

And Reed says, "I'm having a great time." Life at Harvard is probably easier than life on the ranch, where "we did a lot of hard physical labor and had to get up very early," he says.

The unusual circumstances of life on the ranch meant that the brothers themselves took responsibility for their own educations. Starting in 1973, when the Colfaxes moved to California from St. Louis, Missouri, the boys took on their own projects and helped each other learn everything from basic algebra to plumbing.

The oldest son, Grant, began his education at a public school in St. Louis, but his parents removed him after six weeks when they decided the education there was "very rote and uncreative." Mother Micki Colfax, who has a master's from the London School of Economics, says she was happier with Grant's next school, a private alternative education school, but decided to begin teaching at home when they moved to California.

At the time they moved to Boonville, California Reed was two, Drew was five and Grant was eight. "The [local] school...was notoriously bad," Reed says. He says his parents did not plan to make the homeschooling a permanent arrangement, but "it just kept working, so we kept doing it."

When the family moved to California, the land consisted of 40 acres of woods, with no house, electricity or running water. Everyone, including the young sons, helped to build the house, as well as smaller barns and sheds.

The family raises sheep, goats, chickens, pigs and other animals to sell to San Francisco restaurants. They also raise show animals.

"We were all learning new things together," Micki Colfax says. "It was a challenge we thought we could handle...If there was something in the day we felt we couldn't master, we would just turn around and try it the next day."

The sons "took an enormous amount of initiative on the ranch" from the beginning, working themselves to the point of physical and mental "exhaustion," Micki Colfax says. She says she still remembers Drew, at age 5, on the roof hammering nails. "He was so small but so anxious to help," she recalls.

As the Colfax family built their ranch from scratch, they evolved their own educational method to handle the boys' education.

Their mother says the children used few "formal" textbooks, but instead read novels and instruction manuals. Their favorite books include Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, Architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks by Donald Harington, The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss, The Double Helix by James Watson and Homer's Iliad.

The family took a "very pragmatic approach" to learning math and science, she says. For instance, Reed and Drew learned about electrical wiring from reading manuals in order to install a phone and a 12-volt system for the family television.

The children taught themselves to a large extent, according to Reed. "After I was about 10," Reed says, "it was pretty much self-teaching. I would order textbooks with my parents, but in math, for example, I don't think either of my parents knew where I was after I was 13."

"Our schedules were very unstructured," Reed says. "Some days we did a lot of homework, some days we had none. It depended on the weather and what had to be done on the ranch." On the average, however, Reed says he and his brothers would study four or five days each week, during the summer as well.

"Maybe we would work three hours in one day," Reed says. "But we would get as much done as you would in an elementary or high school in eight hours. It took a lot of discipline," Reed says of his learning, "but it was easy since it was the only thing we knew to do."

But although the Colfax children spent most of their time working and studying on the ranch, they also participated in some community activities when they were younger. Reed was involved in 4-H, which he describes as "a sort of agricultural Boy Scouts," as well as an adult soccer league and cross-country track races.

Reed now says that those extracurricular activities offered him a chance to interact with others his age, since only a few other children in his area were also homeschooled, and most of them went to school by the age of 12 or 13.

Drew says, "I realized I was missing out on some things, but it didn't bother me that much. I also missed a lot of crap." Drew, who is considering becoming a teacher, says he felt prepared for college life and perhaps had an advantage over his peers who had gone to school.

"Others come to college as superstars from high school and suffer a big blow when they get here," he says.

The family never regretted homeschooling, Micki Colfax says. "I think my sons are creative and bright and highly motivated. I think they are highly motivated because they always saw immediate results and got a sense of accomplishment from everything they did."

When asked whether they would also home-school their own children, both Reed and Drew say it would depend on where they were living, how much time they were able to spend with their children and how good the nearest schools were. "If I were in the same situation as my parents," Reed says, "I would definitely teach them on my own. I am glad I was homeschooled."

The choice to homeschool their children was an unconventional one for Micki and David Colfax, both of whom went through the traditional American public education track. Micki Colfax says they both found the "normal route" of education "rather static," adding that "things have gotten a lot worse in American education since the '40s and '50s, when they attended primary and secondary school.

Both parents are graduates of Pennsylvania State college. David Colfax, who holds a Ph.D in sociology from the University of Chicago, has written several books. In 1988, the couple published Homeschooling for Excellence, and they are currently writing a second book about homeschooling and "living on the land," Micki Colfax says.

When parents call the Colfaxes for advice, Micki Colfax says they "don't pretend to have any answers. We are uncomfortable with the idea of being experts." Her main advice for parents who want to homeschool their children is that they should relax. "They get too frustrated," she says.

"Any reasonably intelligent parents can homeschool" their children, Micki Colfax says. "It takes a lot of patience...Having a child with you 24-hours-a-day seems to take a lot of time, but to us it just seemed to be the norm," she says.

She says the couple has a "high regard for schools that do a good job." She insists that the decision to homeschool their sons was not a sign of contempt for the American education system.

"We did not move to the land to make a statement about society," Micki Colfax says, "but probably did ultimately by sending three kids to Harvard."