Pioneer looks to the future

Mark Oppenheimer / New York Times News Service /

Back in 1993, when Mary Pride and her husband appeared with their eight children in the first issue of Wired magazine, it was hard to say what seemed strangest: that the Prides were Protestants who rejected birth control, that they home-schooled their children or that in home schooling they relied heavily on computer software.

All those choices would have seemed bravely countercultural, or just weird.

“Bill and Mary Pride have eight kids, all of them home-schooled,” begins the short profile, under the headline “Crash-Tested Homework.” The family’s home classroom is “stuffed with a Mac, Apple IIGS, Amiga, a 386 clone, various CD-ROM devices, Nintendo, a Miracle piano system, and so on.”

The small photograph accompanying the article shows Bill Pride, with his beard and wide red suspenders, presiding over a gaggle of children and two stone-age desktop computers.

“In between lessons,” the article continues, “Ma and Pa and their computer-savvy kids have evaluated every piece of educational software known to be on the market. The kids are ceaseless and merciless testers.” Curious readers could find the family’s judgments summed up in “Prides’ Guide to Educational Software,” published the previous year.

Today it is clear that Mary Pride, who would later have a ninth child, was ahead of her time. Not only has skepticism of birth control increased in the evangelical community, but home schooling has become more widely accepted, by Christians and secularists alike.

In 2007, according to the most recent count by the National Center for Education Statistics, a federal agency, 1.5 million children in the United States were home-schooled. And Mary Pride has solidified her reputation as a hero to conservative Christians, a scourge of feminists, and a tribune to all home schooling families.

Prolific author

In 1985, in the first of her 11 books, “The Way Home: Beyond Feminism, Back to Reality,” Pride chronicled her post-college embrace of evangelical Christianity, which led to her repudiation of what she saw as anti-biblical feminist ideals. But most of her books are resources for home-schoolers. She founded and edits Practical Homeschooling magazine, a popular resource for this growing population, and its companion website.

Mary Pride’s beliefs on religion and family life are, to use her word, “old-fashioned”: She believes the man should be the head of the household, and she rejects all forms of birth control.

Yet in her embrace of technology and the Internet, Pride is a total webhead, as befits the wife of a Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate whom she met when both were working “at the key-punch room in Raytheon,” the defense technology company.

On closer look, she is a bit of a cantankerous misfit, both in the world of conservative Christianity and the world of Web-happy distance learners.

For example, right now Mary Pride, who lives with her husband and, at the moment, five of her children outside St. Louis, does not regularly attend any church, although they have regular “home church” on Sunday evenings. She offered many reasons none of her most recent churches had worked out.

“Abusive pastors,” Pride said, a bit cryptically. “And then again,” she continued, “when you have written all these books and have this huge number of children, you cannot visit quietly anywhere. And frankly the way our schedule has been for years, it has been so exhausting that I was never awake on Sunday to go anywhere.”

Raised Catholic

Earlier in their married life, the Prides belonged to the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod, a denomination that was folded into the Presbyterian Church of America in 1982.

Mary Pride was born in 1955 and nominally raised Catholic in Newton, Mass. Her parish church seemed to offer sermons only about the Vietnam War.

“After this went on for months,” Pride said, “I said if they’re never going to talk about God in church, I may as well stop going.”

Pride skipped a grade in elementary school, after she was “discovered reading ‘Jane Eyre’ in first grade,” she said, and later graduated from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., at 18.

She started reading the Bible in college, where she was also influenced by the books of the evangelist Francis Schaeffer, which she was given by students sitting “at the Jesus Freak table.”

Pride is as skeptical of many trends in technology and education as she is of many trends in churches. The early 1990s, she said, were “the golden age of educational software.” It was like Eden before the fall.

“It wasn’t all ‘Let’s find a Hollywood voice actor,’ or ‘Let’s meet the Common Core standards,’ ” she said. “They were being innovative.”

Pride reminisced fondly about games like Rocky’s Boots and Robot Odyssey, “where you solved puzzles by inventing things.”

But now, “education software qua software has pretty much died,” she said. “There used to be this huge thriving market of stuff parents would buy their children, but if you look at Amazon now, it’s a few branded programs, like ‘Blue’s Clues,’ and it’s all very grade-level and organized.”

The choice to home school

Pride initially chose home schooling, in part, because she deplored the liberal trends she remembered from the Newton public schools, where her books often contained what she called “sexually explicit information,” and from gym class, where students were taught “yoga and Transcendental Meditation.”

She said one women’s studies class contained a “very out-there viewpoint” about “worshipping the goddess.” An English class was organized around Marxist notions of “power.”

Yet, like many liberal critics of public schooling, Pride laments teaching materials geared to standardized tests. She misses the earlier more anarchic days of computer software.

And while some Christian home-schoolers fear that the Internet may contaminate their children’s manners and morals, Pride seems unworried. She and her children were beta testers for the first online academies, in the early 1990s, and she is excited by what is developing.

“Distance learning is coming on gangbusters,” Mary Pride said. “EdX will be very interesting. And what Harvard and MIT are doing. And the MOOC initiative ...” And so she went on, sounding like a teenager with a major in computer science and a part-time job at Raytheon.