Being the third boy in his family to earn admission to Harvard University would be enough of a distinction, but 17-year-old Reed Colfax did it without attending school.
Like his older brothers, Grant and Drew, Reed was taught exclusively at the family ranch five miles from Boonville in Mendocino County.
His mother, Miki, 50, is a former high school English and creative writing teacher. His father, David, 52, earned a doctorate in sociology from the University of Chicago.
The Colfax boys learned math when their parents built a house and science while raising livestock.
“When we started out here, we did hard physical work outside, or we did schoolwork, so schoolwork was always a break for us,” said Reed, a long-distance runner, jazz enthusiast and guitarist.
The first formal test the three boys took was the Scholastic Aptitude Test for college entrance. All scored in the 90th percentile.
Drew Colfax, 19, a sophomore at Harvard, is earning A’s and B’s in his bioanthropology major.
Grant, the oldest son, was the focus of international attention when he was admitted to Harvard five years ago. He graduated with highest honors last year and has been awarded a Fulbright scholarship to study in New Zealand.
“When Grant was accepted, the story was bumpkin goes to Harvard,” said David Colfax, who serves on the Mendocino County school board. “Now the hook on the whole story is what are we doing right that the public schools are not. It raises a lot of questions about education in America that the media does not want to tackle.”
Miki and David Colfax taught their children from math, science and English textbooks ordered from publishing houses. They would buy a dozen different books, and the family would decide which one it liked best.
But the children’s constant tutor was the 47-acre homestead itself, where they learned geometry and algebra while building their own house and genetics and embryology while raising and slaughtering pigs and sheep for market.
“I think the four of us know more about the anatomy of an animal than anyone at Harvard,” said Drew. “I just had a white rat dissection lab that was so boring. It was, ‘Here’s the stomach and here’s the heart.’ ”
By the time Drew was 12, he was building telescopes, and Grant had immersed himself in the study of American Indians, drawing from the family’s library of 8,000 books.
“We did what you would do with a child you wanted to be a concert pianist or artist in the older days,” said David Colfax. “You don’t feel they have to follow a certain curriculum because they have other talents. That is lost in contemporary education, which doesn’t take into account individual differences.”
David Colfax said his sons are not geniuses; rather, they are highly motivated and enjoy learning. Reed, who is black, and another son, 12-year-old Garth, an Eskimo, were adopted. That appears to confirm that the family’s teaching methods account for the boys’ success, Colfax said.
He believes that despite his children’s unconventional education, all students could benefit from more books and less television and from parents who are willing to spend time teaching.
“You have to be confident that you, as a parent, know best.”