Colfax Video: How Children Learn From Everyday Life and Work

Micki and David Colfax delivered the opening keynote at the Growing Without Schooling 20th anniversary conference: How Children Learn From Everyday Life and Work. John Taylor Gatto delivered the closing keynote.

The Colfax family became controversial and famous not just because of the success of Homeschooling for Excellence, which they wrote after their oldest son, Grant, got into Harvard after raising dairy goats for a lot of his youth. Their second book, Hard Times in Paradise, details the real effort and physical work that made their small farm survive, largely because of the ideas and help of their children. It is an honest portrayal that Micki and David do not detail in their first book. As this speech makes clear, the boys' education was never pre-planned; events, classes, and conversations were handled as they emerged from their lives, not from a list of learning objectives designed by someone who knows nothing of the lives of the children he or she is putting educational hurdles before on their race to the top of the education heap. The fact that Grant got into Harvard, went to medical school, and then two of their other boys went to Ivy League schools (they tell all in the speech) caused a lot of homeschooling critics to blanche, particularly given the boys unschooled upbringing.

Besides being outspoken unschoolers, the Colfaxes are also concerned about helping all people learn, which is why David is a school board member (for 15 years as of the taping of this speech) and hosts a radio talk show about education. Their keynote is full of unusual and keen observations about unschooling, politics, education, and conventional schooling. Micki and David spoke about how their boys, biological and adopted, all flourished by living and learning-by-doing on their farm, never following a fixed curriculum and using their wits and initiative to forge their lives. Their boys, particularly Grant, were minor celebrities in the eighties when they were accepted into Ivy League Schools—the National Enquirer ran a story about Grant headlined, "Goat-boy gets into Harvard." The Colfaxes were featured in People magazine, and Johnny Carson interviewed Grant on The Tonight Show.

After Pat Farenga's introduction, Micki speaks, then David, and then, together they answer questions from the audience.

Micki starts by discussing the history of slavery, work, and education and how they are inextricably entwined and cause much confusion in our conceptions of schooling. She then shows how homeschooling is able to reunite living and learning through real work and the politics that prevent this from happening.

Micki analyzes how education became separated from work—indeed how education demeans most work—and cites many historic examples to support her points. She then takes issue with descriptions of her family's unschooling as a sort of "physical work program" that was imposed on her family. She notes, "Work is not construed as a means to, but an end in and of itself, as we and our children are shaped by the work we do." She discusses Illich's Deschooling Society and Holt's work and how "we do not need to make special arrangements for learning."

Then Micki talks about how play is the work of children and how it isn't necessary to seek work for children in order to fill up their days. She further explores the nature of work as an ordeal and the types of work her children did as youngsters and teenagers. Micki wraps up her talk by describing how none of the activities, work, and play that her children did could easily predict what they would be or do as adults. For instance, she and David long felt Grant would be an archaeologist, but he became a doctor and medical researcher. Micki then hands the microphone to David, who starts by discussing the paradigm shift that homeschooling is causing in society.

David's discusses society and the credential business, including how "homeschoolers, unschoolers, family-centered learners, whatever" need to reconcile the world in which we have the freedom to be and the freedom to learn at an early age with the rest of society that does not do this. Is there a point at which we need to integrate our educational views with a world that is based on education credentials? Do we want to prepare our children for the world of work that is out there now or are we prepared to transform that larger world into something different for our children? David explores these ideas in detail.

David concludes by noting how lacking the words unschooling and homeschooling are to describe what we are doing with our children and how we need to come up with more precise words that do not use "the two most polluted words in the English language: school and education." Then Micki and David take questions from the audience.