One morning last week, before my kids Desmond and Nini had begun their home-school kindergarten day, they were playing on the floor with a random assemblage of building blocks, figurines and toy vehicles, like a zillion other 5-year-olds around the world. Since I was theoretically in charge while their mother got ready for the day, I surfaced from my cup of coffee and the New York Times sports section to listen in for a few seconds. It turned out they were building a temple for Ganesh, the elephant-headed god who removes obstacles from the lives of observant Hindus. Their construction materials were the columns and blocks from a Greco-Roman architecture play set.
I made some wry dad comment: Hindu gods at a Greek temple, ha ha ha. Literally jumping up and down with excitement, Desmond set me straight: “We’re playing ancient times, Daddy, when there was trade between Greece and India! They traded stuff, and they traded ideas!”
Now, I’m not vouching for the soundness of Desmond’s scholarship. Ancient contact between Greek and Indian civilization is plausible, according to historians, but entirely hypothetical. Furthermore, if it did happen it almost certainly did not involve motor vehicles. See, the way elephant-headed Ganesh and blue-skinned Vishnu are incarnated in Nini and Desmond’s game, they look an awful lot like little die-cast metal cars. Specifically, they look like Snot Rod and Doc Hudson, two supporting characters from the Disney-Pixar “Cars” universe.
In a perverse way, that’s highly appropriate. Our kids know about Ganesh and Vishnu — along with Isis and Osiris, Orpheus and Eurydice, and a few dozen other mythological figures — thanks to a pre-K and kindergarten home-school curriculum designed on the fly by my wife, Leslie Kauffman. (She calls it “Meet the Ancient World.”)
Leslie is definitely drawing on some of the alternative educational theories that inform the home-school movement. These include the ideas of “unschooling” guru John Holt, the literature-based approach identified with 19th-century English educator Charlotte Mason, and the “classical education” model popularized in bestselling books by Susan Wise Bauer and Jessie Wise. But it didn’t start with them, or from some highfalutin desire to read our kids “The Odyssey.” It all started with the hero of “Cars,” Lightning McQueen.
As I wrote in the first installment of this series last month, home schooling sneaked up on us, or at least on me. It’s true that Leslie knew about the rapidly expanding world of urban, mostly secular home schooling through online parents’ groups, and was already drawn to alternative educational approaches. But right up until the moment she quit her lefty-nonprofit job early in 2007, when our twins were 2½, we were a pretty typical big-city, middle-class family, with two kids, two incomes and a full-time nanny.
One of the numerous screwy things about raising children these days, especially in a hotbed of social-Darwinist parenting like New York, is that by taking time off to hang out with a couple of toddlers, Leslie became a home-schooler by default. Neither of us completely understood this until it happened. But in an economy that essentially requires all able-bodied adults to work outside the home, and an environment where preschools for 3-year-olds have an intensely competitive application process (and can cost $15,000 a year), you can’t opt out without making a statement, whether you intend one or not.
When Leslie started hosting a playgroup for preschool-age kids in our Brooklyn, N.Y., backyard, there was no major-league ideology attached. She was thinking she’d attract a group of like-minded moms and dads who were skipping official preschool for a wide range of personal reasons. As it turned out, those personal reasons dovetailed to a remarkable degree. Everybody who showed up to let their kids smash melons and chase bunnies in our yard was already opting out of the mainstream system, at least temporarily, which involved some sacrifice: time or money or both.
Almost all of them had either decided to home-school already (at least for a while) or were right on the cusp of that decision. Although the methods they chose as they moved forward with home schooling are all over the map, their reasons for doing it are roughly similar. They didn’t feel comfortable about sending their kids to “school” at the age of 2 or 3, and wanted them to have much more open-ended, free-form play than most preschools and pre-K programs allow.
So at least for a while, the bunny chasing and melon smashing, and the trips to the Bronx Zoo and the New York Hall of Science, were free of any explicit educational intentions, beyond the universal goals of all exhausted parents of small children: to get through the day without unacceptable acts of violence, while demonstrating that the world is full of cool and exciting stuff. But as the months rolled on and the 3-year-olds in Leslie’s group turned 4 — the age when most public-school kids head off to pre-K — their parents began to face the inevitable question: What do we do now?
We had always read tons of books to Desmond and Nini, and they were picking up letters and numbers more or less on schedule. But we weren’t unschoolers, who resist all attempts at formal education and allow children to decide for themselves, within certain broad parameters, what to do and when to do it. We also weren’t the kind of home-schoolers who were going to take someone’s prepackaged curriculum — there are a great many available, in every cultural and ideological flavor you can imagine — and implement it on a regular and rigorous schedule.
Leslie experimented with some pre-K workbooks from a teachers’ supply store, and they weren’t exactly a smash hit. Desmond liked them pretty well — he’s a task-oriented kid who loves structured activities — and Nini largely ignored them or responded to them by hopping up and down and telling stories about the silly animals in the pictures. (This is her standard modus operandi at all times.) As Leslie read and thought more about home schooling, she began to ask herself a basic question: What are our kids most excited and most passionate about? As she wrote in her blog recently, an answer quickly emerged:
One day last winter, when my twins were 4½, they were fighting back exasperation as they explained to their obviously dense mother the differences between Radiator Springs McQueen and Cruising McQueen, two [nearly identical] die-cast metal toy figures from the movie “Cars” … Like many kids their age, Desmond and Nini had developed a fascination with the world of the Piston Cup and Radiator Springs. They had an encyclopedic knowledge of the movie’s characters and personal histories and had developed the discernment to pick out small differences between the many versions of each. The characters loomed large in their imagination and play life.
Well, I thought, if they can have this complex connection to Lightning McQueen, Doc Hudson, and Tow Mater, why not to Isis, Osiris, and Anubis? Or Zeus, Athena, and Aphrodite? At a time when they were so clearly eager to learn about the world around them, might it be possible to introduce them to its history in an age-appropriate and systematic way?
For weeks after that, Leslie did research online late at night, or at the public library, in search of books, resources and materials for teaching an introductory approach to ancient history (including paleontology and archaeology) to young children. What followed, as she led Nini and Desmond through a pre-K year that encompassed dinosaurs, the rudiments of evolution, early humans and the Ice Age, ancient Egypt, the Old Testament and ancient Greece, came as an extraordinary revelation to me. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve read the kids dozens of books and dished out hundreds of PB&J sandwiches, serving as a combination of substitute teacher, teacher’s aide, librarian and cafeteria lady. But the conceptual heavy lifting has been Leslie’s.
As a basis for an early-education curriculum, the ancient world is especially ingenious. There are any number of stories to read, which tend to converge in a fascinating way, and to form patterns and archetypes we can see all around us in modern life. At age 5, our kids have already grasped, without much prompting, that stories about floods and quest-adventure narratives show up all over the world. After we read Beverly Cleary’s “Ribsy,” a book about a dog who gets lost at a suburban shopping center and has to find his way home past many dangers, I asked them if Ribsy’s long adventure reminded them of anyone else. They thought about it for a minute and seized on the answer with big, beaming smiles: “Odysseus!”
But it isn’t simply that Nini and Desmond are enjoying themselves, have learned a bunch of names and stories I didn’t know until I was much older, and may, just possibly, have received a basic foundation in cultural literacy that I’m not quite sure I possess now. They love it. They’ve devoured it all voraciously and begged for more. They demand stories from “D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths” over and over again — Hades and Persephone, Jason and Medea — and howl when it’s time to close the book and go to bed. They recount their own versions: I remember one gruesome bathtub tale about Osiris’ Hall of Judgment, where the hearts of recently deceased Egyptians are weighed against the Feather of Truth. (Nini takes particular glee in the crocodile monster, who stands ready to eat your heart if you’ve led a wicked life.)
They’ve built Mesopotamian ziggurats out of mud in our neighborhood park and repurposed Fisher-Price Little People to serve as the Olympian gods and goddesses. (You can easily acquire plastic figurines of the Egyptian gods, maybe because they’re such striking human-animal hybrids, but Greek gods are in short supply.) As we’ve moved on to India and Hinduism in their kindergarten year, they used one of those plastic Barrels of Monkeys to build the monkey-bridge by which the hero of “The Ramayana” reaches the demon-island of Lanka. They know a lot more about Hindu theology and mythology than I do: “Daddy, Hanuman the Monkey King is really an incarnation of Shiva,” Nini informed me the other night, as if it were only common sense.
She also told us recently that the Metropolitan Museum is one of her favorite places in the world — along with the playground across the street from our house and Storybook Land, a 1950s-era amusement park on the New Jersey shore. Nini and Desmond and their friend Benny were regular visitors in the Met’s Greek and Roman wing last spring, and even elicited some smiles from the notoriously grumpy guards. There just can’t be that many people who show up there in costume. (Nini goes as Demeter, goddess of the harvest, in a crimson holiday dress and golden sash. Desmond is Hermes, messenger of the gods, in a pair of winged hightop sneakers. Benny gets to be Zeus, complete with painted cardboard thunderbolts.)
Now, look: Our kids aren’t geniuses or prodigies, and their understanding of the ancient world based on a year-plus of reading storybooks and going to museums is a miscellaneous highlight reel, extremely vague as to chronology and context: Sue the famous T. rex, woolly mammoths frozen alive, Moses among the bulrushes, a few dozen mythological deities and their stories. As Leslie puts it, “Small children have no preconceptions about ancient history, no notion that it might be dry or remote or inaccessible. They also, however, have no real conception of time — certainly not of millennia or centuries or even decades … Teaching ancient history to small children, in my experience, involves not trying to explain historical causation or even spending much time discussing historical change: It’s a matter, instead, of making introductions to the marvelous, beautiful and fascinating civilizations of long ago.”
I should add that Leslie’s also been doing an hour or two every day of more conventional kindergarten stuff. Our kids are fast-improving readers, and they practice handwriting, do art projects, sing the occasional cacophonous round of “Puff the Magic Dragon,” and so on. If we do absolutely nothing more than we’ve done already — if Leslie packs up the whole project next week, next month or next year and ships Nini and Des off to whatever school will take them (and believe me, we have those days) — she’ll have done something amazing. She’ll have implanted in them a ferocious appetite for learning, and the idea that it’s full of wondrous discoveries. They have absolutely no idea that some children experience schoolwork as thankless drudgery, or human history as a tedious assortment of facts, dates and dusty objects in vitrines.
After my earlier article, a bunch of people wrote me with variations on the question: Well, OK, tough guy, but how in the hell are you going to teach them calculus? I can promise you that neither Leslie nor I will be teaching them any such thing, and about the only thing to say is that we’re well aware that eventually they’ll need or want things we cannot provide. There certainly are home-schoolers with an ideological opposition to formal schooling, but that doesn’t describe us or most of our peers. On balance it seems unlikely that we’ll home-school Nini and Desmond all the way through high school. (Anyway, that decision will end up being as much theirs as ours.)
My perception, at the moment, is that whatever they do and wherever they go down the line, Nini and Desmond will be better off with the tremendous start Leslie has given them. We may be stuck with them for a while — I suspect they’d be monumentally bored by first grade if we closed down our home-school program next year — but there are worse problems to have. Right now, I have to go watch the story of how Ganesh got his elephant head (after losing his human one in an unfortunate misunderstanding), acted out by a couple of little kids with toy cars.