Before he arrived at Park School for sixth grade, Eugene Provenzo attended public school “rather unsuccessfully,” he recalls. “I was a very bright kid, but bright in ways that people did not necessarily understand. I was very creative. When I got to Park, there were people who said, ‘Yeah, being creative is a good thing.’”
He laughs when recalling that Park made him repeat sixth grade. “I was upset when they put me back, but now I think it was a very wise thing for them to do. It gave me a chance to kind of catch up and mature.” There has been no holding him back since. Provenzo skipped a year of college at the University of Rochester and two years of graduate school at Washington University. He is the author of more than 100 books, including one, “Video Kids: Making Sense of Nintendo (1991),” that is considered by many to be the book that founded the field of video game studies.
Provenzo has worked as a professor at the University of Miami since 1976, earning the rank of full professor in 1985. In addition to teaching, he has served as the research coordinator and then as associate dean for research for the School of Education. His primary focus, he says, has been on education “as a social and cultural phenomenon,” including “the role of the teacher in American society, as well as experimental education.”
It is very challenging to try to describe his wide range of academic interests and accomplishments. His research on computers and video games have made him a sought-after interview subject for the news media.
Provenzo spoke one late-winter afternoon from the 1866 home he shares with his wife, Asterie B. Provenzo, in Staunton, VA. He was on sabbatical from Miami, though by no means idle. Provenzo was in the process of launching a new university press, which will publish its first books this summer. “And then I am starting another press, which is going to deal with local history and Civil War history,” he said.
“I’ve been passionately interested in history partially because of my father; he was a social studies teacher and he went on to become a principal. Essentially it was pushed much further by Bill Hoyt [at Park School]... That was my favorite class.” Other Park teachers summon fond memories, too.
“In terms of English and composition Allen Thomas probably taught me the most about writing. And I worked with a wonderful science teacher, Ed Barnes. He taught biological sciences and he got me into writing and creating notebooks and I think it was a part of learning how to write books.”
Mr. Barnes had a somewhat unorthodox approach to education in which he stressed learning by doing, Provenzo said.
“I think one of the important things about Park for me was within the structure of a serious disciplinary approach, he did a lot of messing around–which consisted of experiments and trying different things, researching a topic from different ways. I think what that did for me was it created in me the means by which to approach a problem and encouraged my natural curiosity.”
Provenzo’s mother, Therese M. Provenzo, was also a major influence in his life. She taught at Park from the early 1960s through the mid-'80s, also serving at various times as Head of the Middle and Lower Schools. Eugene Provenzo wrote the preface to the 2011 edition of An Adventure with Children by Park founder Mary Hammett Lewis. In his preface, Provenzo reflected on his mom’s commitment to Park’s educational philosophies. Terri Provenzo passed away in December 2008.
“If she were here now, Terri would ask, ‘What is the relevance of learning that is not meaningful to the child and his or her life?’ Like [John] Dewey and Lewis, Terri fully embraced the idea that schools should be places where children live their lives, not just simply prepare for the future.”
Provenzo’s multifaceted career is difficult to summarize in a few words. In the education field, you might describe him as a professional iconoclast.
“In my field in general, we are sort of the people who put the whole educational picture in context, and we are almost by definition critics of the school system and universities. That makes us a little unpopular.” His career as an educator, researcher, experimenter, author, and artist has been all of a piece with the start he got at Park.