Breakfast of Champions

He scaled an intellectual Everest at age twelve. What's he like at sixteen? Meet George Thampy.

TIP isn't the only place where the concept of intrinsic motivation is touted early and often. Another prominent source of such vernacular is the homeschooling movement.

Brian Ray, president of the Salem, Oregon-based National Home Education Research Institute, is familiar with George Thampy.

Jennifer Silverberg
Bee yourself: George Thampy toughs out the 2000 national competition
Bee yourself: George Thampy toughs out the 2000 national competition

"Most people I've run into in homeschooling have heard the name," Ray says. "Geography, spelling, homeschooling -- they're like, 'Oh yeah, I wouldn't want to meet that guy in an academic alley.' You're bound to have children like that from the homeschool world. Best I can see based on my research is that there are a disproportionately high number of homeschool graduates who are going to win things."

If the Scripps Howard Spelling Bee is any indication, Ray has a point. In the 2000 tilt, for instance, homeschoolers took first, second and third places. Why do homeschoolers thrive in such a cutthroat environment? Intrinsic motivation, says Tamra Orr, a resident of Portland, Oregon, who has authored several homeschool books.

"Whatever [homeschoolers] are really interested in, they pursue it with such passion, whatever it may be," says Orr, a former community college English teacher who recently delivered a guest lecture on homeschooling at the St. Louis Public Library's Schlafly Branch in the Central West End. "It's not a drill, it's not agony, it's not something I'm going to get tested on every day. It's something I'm interested in, so I'm going to get good at it."

Orr says that fifteen years ago, when she'd talk about homeschooling, "Nobody had any idea what I was talking about."

Today, though, the homeschooling movement is a political and educational force to be reckoned with. State laws vary and not all homeschoolers are required to register with government entities, but most estimates put the number of homeschoolers at between 1.5 million and 2 million nationwide, and growing at a steady rate of 20 percent per year.

In Missouri there are an estimated 30,000 homeschool students. While state law requires homeschool parent-teachers to maintain records of their children's educational machinations and mandates instruction in the fields of reading, math, social studies, language arts and science, it does not require parents to submit said records to any government entity, nor does it require the parent-teachers to have achieved any particular level of formal educational training themselves. And if a homeschool purports to subscribe to a particular strain of religious doctrine, it is essentially exempt from any oversight whatsoever.

"That is incredibly loose," says Rob Reich, author of Bridging Liberalism and Multiculturalism in American Education. Reich, an assistant professor of political science at Stanford University, points to New York state's stringent monitoring of homeschools as a polar opposite example.

The most common criticism of homeschooling is that it fundamentally restricts a child's exposure to kids from diverse backgrounds and retards the student's worldview. As depicted in Spellbound, the awkward eleven-year-old Thampy could be a poster boy for this argument. But as the Internet has taken flight, so too have homeschool networks and support groups, allowing homeschools to organize joint excursions outside the home environment -- a phenomenon Orr says exposes the homeschool student to an even more diverse array of individuals than he would encounter in a traditional educational setting.

"Unless you have a family who is extremely focused on protecting children from the world -- which tends to be more Christian fundamentalist families -- socializing is never a problem with homeschoolers," argues Orr. "Most of our kids are in Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, 4-H, etc. Instead of spending your day around 30 twelve-year-olds, you're out in the real world talking to five-year-olds and fifty-year-olds. For people who've never met homeschooled kids, it can be a little shocking, because they don't have the eyes-down, Hello-Mr.-Jones philosophy. They're more likely to look you in the eye and say, 'Hi, my name is George.'"

But Stanford's Reich is concerned by the balance of influence over a child in a homeschool environment. Reich, who in August 2001 presented to the American Political Science Association a paper on homeschooling that garnered national attention from advocates and foes alike, argues that every child has a right to autonomy -- something that can be irrevocably breached when parents maintain sole jurisdiction over education. In his paper, Reich urges states to play an engaged, watchdog role by instituting sensible regulations and standardized-test benchmarks.

What Reich thought to be a moderate position was not well received among staunch homeschool advocates. Two years after his paper was published, the Stanford prof still finds himself inundated with acerbic e-mails.

"My paper is mainly an effort to say what the moral boundaries of parental authority are," says Reich. "I go out of my way to say that homeschooling should be legal. I suggest some regulations. I view the position as a moderate position. I had no idea the paper would be received so widely and touch such raw nerves. Now that I know more about the homeschool community, it doesn't surprise me."

What Reich knows now is that the homeschool community is overwhelmingly Christian -- 75 percent Christian, by Brian Ray's estimate -- and highly organized. To these folks, the threat of government involvement smacks of interference and is to be avoided at any cost.

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