Putting the Joy Back into Egypt

Published by Hodder and Stoughton, Auckland, 1983, 277pp

by Jean Hendy-Harris

Reviewed by Mike Woods

This book is a New Zealand homeschooling classic. First published in 1983, in many ways it was years before its time. In the book’s preface, the writer says “This is a book about an experiment. It concerns a home-based education programme that grew along with the needs of the children it served”. The book is a personal account of the educational experiences of her three children, Daniel, Oliver, and Angharad. It speaks of both successes and failures, freedom and structure, and “building themselves a ‘school’ from the world around them and the opportunities offered them”. The title of the book comes from Daniel’s description of homeschooling as ‘putting the joy back into Egypt’.

Putting the Joy Back into Egypt by Jean Hendy-Harry and Deschooling Society by Ivan Illich are two books that have significantly influenced my own views about schooling and the possibilities that exist outside the institutional framework. I read this particular book at a time when I was a school teacher and finding that the constraints of schooling seemed to deaden the learning experiences of children. The sense of excitement about life conveyed through the learning experiences described in this book, gave another perspective on learning - learning outside of the conventional understandings of society.

Only a few pages into the book we find the first homeschooling experiments - not by choice, but by necessity. Daniel (the writer’s oldest child) and the family were returning to the United Kingdom in the 1970’s by Cargo ship, a journey that takes up to six weeks from New Zealand. Jean Hendy-Harris says:

“We went well armed with workbooks for Daniel, aware that it may well be a year before we returned to New Zealand and ‘proper school’. We were most anxious that he should not fall too far behind other children academically and so each of his shipboard mornings were spend completing schoolwork. I made firm attempts to improve his printing and spelling by embarking upon a rather horrifyingly Victorian remedial programme. Daniel bitterly resisted and the quality of his work did not improve - neither did our relationship. Perhaps it was then that I began to learn how not to teach!”

In the late 1970’s a lot of changes were taking place in New Zealand education. There were a number of experiments under way including the development of alternative schools, mainstreaming of special education students, and new ideas such as the ‘whanau’ concept or a ‘school within a school’ were being explored. At a conference that the writer and her husband attended (in fact, the NZ Association for Gifted Children’s first national conference) one of the speakers who had been doing research into gifted children suggested that “should parents have enough time and energy, they could do worse than keep their young gifted children out of primary schools”. The speaker evidently went on to describe the ‘exemption clause’ in the Education Act. Jean Hendy-Harris says:

“I felt the first stirrings of positive interest and excitement. ‘That’s what we should be doing,’ I hissed at Jack [her husband] and got a grunt in response. I turned to a heavily pregnant woman on my right and said, ‘That’s what I want to do’. She nodded, ‘It’s what we’re going to do with ours. Our elder daughter is nearly five and we definitely don’t want to send her to school ...’ We exchanged telephone numbers and I felt almost cheerful for the first time in months. However, Jack did not think the idea at all feasible. How could we educate the boys? How could we possibly cover all the areas offered by a school?”

It is hard to imagine today how isolated one could feel in deciding to homeschool in the late 1970’s. There are over 5000 homeschooled children in New Zealand today, but there were but a handful in the late 1970’s. Today we have support groups and regular activities. Homeschooling is becoming increasingly accepted as a valid option for those families able to survive on only one income!

Nevertheless, the continuing problems that the writer’s family were having with schooling for their two oldest children did eventually lead them to apply for an exemption from attendance at school. They made the application to the right authority and had an unexpected telephone call from a senior inspector. He indicated that he needed to ‘formalise the exemption’ and asked ‘when would he be able to come?’ Remarkably, the writer said ‘Oh come now, I don’t need time to prepare - come and see us as we really are!’. I find this quite extraordinary, given the fears that most homeschoolers (and particularly un-schoolers) have in relation to officials prying into their affairs!

The inspector arrived 15 minutes later and asked a few questions, got her son to read from a book, and then enjoyed a cup of tea and homemade biscuits.

“As he left, he explained that he could not actually sign the exemption certificate as this had to be done by a State Primary School headmaster, but he would pop in to our local headmaster and ask him to sign the document and send it out to us. I thanked him profusely, almost weeping tears of gratitude. Within three days, our certificate duly arrived, signed by the local headmaster, who had never met us and would not know Oliver if he passed him in the street. ‘Extraordinary,’ Jack said.

The rest of the book tells the story of learning experiences, for Oliver and later Angharad, in their home and community. It traces rock pools, organs and violins, the ancient Egyptians, electronics experiments, a trip to Europe, mathematics, pets, parts of speech, poetry, criticism from friends and acquaintances, imaginary worlds, exploring the forest, drama out the back, and all the other things that ordinary homeschoolers still experience today.

Jean Hendy-Harris concludes her book with the following:

“No matter how strong our desire to conform is, we are all different in thousands of small ways. If this were not so, we would be living inside a social structure as drab and uninspiring as a world without sunshine. Some of us like to make our own clothes, others want to grow their own vegetables... Jack and I like to educate our own children! What is more, the educational alternative we have devised for our children is working. We are all enjoying it.”

I think this sums up the views of any homeschooler. If we are not ALL enjoying it, we would have to ask why we are bothering!

I would recommend this book to any homeschooler, but especially to New Zealand parents because it provides a unique insight into the exploration of alternatives to schooling. It is a very personal and honest account of learning outside the confines of school and this makes it a very satisfying read.

Posted by Mike Woods on February 11, 2002