Life is Unfair

I have been trying to wrap my brain around that thought this week and hope to connect some seemingly unconnected thoughts and ideas on this page.

We are putting the finishing touches on “REBIRTH: New Orleans,” our 1-hour film about schooling there since Katrina and the flooding. We’ve dedicated the film to the kids who were shot to death with handguns during the years we filmed there. That casualty list includes a young girl who is in the film. Christine Marcelin was just 15 when she was murdered.

When you meet Christine early in the film, you learn that she wants to go to Princeton and become a veterinarian. She was killed last spring in an act of senseless violence, shot by teenagers who apparently feared that she might know something about a murder they had committed a few days earlier.

Life is tragically unfair.

Here’s another example: This week the obituary page of the New York Times reported the news of the death of 82-year-old Olen Burrage, a long time member of the Ku Klux Klan and owner of the Mississippi farm where the bodies of three slain civil rights workers, James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, were found in 1964. Burrage died in Meridian, Mississippi.

The Times article comes as close as it can to declaring, “Burrage was guilty” without saying it. It points out that he had built a dam on his property and offered it as a burial ground. “An F.B.I. agent, John Proctor, claimed to have learned from an informant that Mr. Burrage had said something quite different, telling a roomful of Klansmen discussing the arrival of the civil rights workers, ‘Hell, I’ve got a dam that will hold a hundred of them.’”

To further convince the reader of Mr. Burrage’s guilt, the obituary includes a version of events described by someone who was convicted: “The Klan had arranged for the bodies to arrive at Mr. Burrage’s property at midnight. Mr. Burrage was waiting in a 1957 Chevrolet to direct Klansmen to the dam site. After the bodies had been buried, the top of the grave was bladed off so it looked undisturbed.

Mr. Burrage and several other Klansmen then went to his trucking company garage, and Mr. Burrage filled a glass gallon jug with gasoline, to be used to burn the civil rights workers’ 1963 Ford station wagon, which had transported their bodies. He said he would pick up the men assigned to do the burning in a diesel truck as it would be a normal vehicle to see on the highway late at night.”

As a final bit of damning evidence, the obituary notes: “Many who have studied the case have noted that Mr. Burrage consulted an agent of the federal Soil Conservation Service about possible subsidies for the dam he planned. It turned out he was eligible for the subsidies. He never followed up.” That sentence just hangs there, letting the reader absorb the implication–he didn’t follow up because…..

But Olen Burrage lived a long and seemingly satisfied life with his wife of 62 years, three children and ‘many’ grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Life is unfair…but, happily, sometimes it’s not.

Some good men and women live long and honorable lives and create living monuments that will improve society for years to come. One such man turns 85 this week. E.D. Hirsch, Jr., the unassuming, proud and occasionally feisty intellectual who created Core Knowledge schools, observes his birthday on March 22nd. Don Hirsch was a widely unknown English professor at the University of Virginia when he published “Cultural Literacy” in 1987. The book’s subtitle–”What Every American Needs to Know”– outraged liberal intellectuals, many of whom, I suspect, did not read the book before condemning Professor Hirsch as an elitist. He is anything but. He’s a proud ‘small d democrat’ who believes that knowing lots and lots of things actually levels the playing field for rich and poor.

Don did not stop with Cultural Literacy, still hasn’t stopped. He created the Core Knowledge Foundation and began issuing curriculum guides, grade by grade. “What Every First Grader Needs to Know,” and so on up the ladder.

Before long there were Core Knowledge Schools, several of which I have visited over the years. I wish his critics would make that trip. The ones I have seen (in several states) have been vibrant places where everyone seems engaged in learning and discovering. On one visit, I selected kids at random and asked them to read aloud from books I knew they had never seen, books that were either grade-appropriate or one step above. All read flawlessly, probably because students in Core Knowledge schools do a lot of reading.

They don’t practice taking reading tests because, as Don wisely observed, “if you want children to do well on reading tests, they ought to read a lot.”

About 800 US schools use the Core Knowledge approach. While that’s not even one percent of our schools, the number is growing. Perhaps someday Core Knowledge schools will be as ubiquitous as Starbucks.

There’s no point to cursing the dark truth about life’s unfairness. It is what it is, and so, while we rage against the dying of the light, let’s embrace each day. Every chance you get, tell those you love that you love them. Because life is unfair, they, or you, might not be around to say those words tomorrow.

And Happy Birthday, Don.

12 Responses to “Life is Unfair”

  1. Paul Gaston 21. Mar, 2013 at 12:55 pm #

    Bravo for your recognition of Don Hirsch. My only qualification: E. D. Hirsch was by no means “unknown” prior to 1987. He had not yet achieved the broad and well-deserved national recognition that his work on cultural literacy would bring him, but his influential works of literary criticism, Validity in Interpretation and The Aims of Interpretation, had brought him considerable recognition in literary studies and in philosophy. Also, to his students at UVA he was very well known as a genial host and master gardener.

    • john mockler 21. Mar, 2013 at 1:26 pm #

      Don is a wonderful human being who advanced the notion of quality instruction more than any single person in our history. thanks for taking notice of his work John Mockler

    • john merrow 21. Mar, 2013 at 4:40 pm #

      He was well known in English department and other academic circles, and that’s not small potatoes, but most of America, even most of educated America, had not heard of him. I meant no disrespect.

  2. Charles Dey 21. Mar, 2013 at 3:38 pm #

    John, a fabulous email on E.D.Hirsch. Kudos.

    Doc

  3. Joe Nathan 22. Mar, 2013 at 2:24 am #

    Thanks for this essay, John, and for pointing out the passing of a man who did great evil. One of the world’s ironies is that it sometimes takes great evil to help produce progress.

  4. Lewis Bernstein 22. Mar, 2013 at 9:34 am #

    Thanks you for your articulate and sensitive sharing of the contrast in a life fulfilled with one cut short…

    Much appreciated,

    Lewis

  5. Kathie K 22. Mar, 2013 at 9:40 am #

    Thank you for your post on E.D. Hirsch. I taught for 3 years in a Core Knowledge school. While no scope and sequence can turn around a school, a scope and sequence, grounded in complex topics, taught by strong, dedicated teachers can help close the achievement gap for all children!

  6. Educator 29. Mar, 2013 at 5:45 pm #

    Sorry for being off topic but I was afraid you might not see this if I posted in an older blog post.

    Mr. Merrow,

    Could this be what D.C. is afraid of? (Atlanta schools chief indicted.)

    http://blogs.ajc.com/get-schooled-blog/2013/03/29/indictments-about-to-be-handed-down-in-aps-cheating-case/?cxntfid=blogs_get_schooled_blog

  7. James W. Loewen 04. Apr, 2013 at 11:43 am #

    The NESHOBA DEMOCRAT, the newspaper in Philadelphia, MS, published two stories on the death of Olen Burrage. See http://neshobademocrat.com/main.asp?SectionID=4&SubSectionID=299&ArticleID=28547 for example. Neither even MENTIONED Burrage’s role in the murder of Mickey Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman. This shows, first, that Neshoba County is still not over these deaths, or at least its newspaper isn’t, since it cannot even print the known facts about the case. Second, it’s another example of the unfairness of life. Burrage gets sent off by the local press with such accolades as: “he founded Burrage Trucking, Inc. which became one of the top 150 companies of the nation” and “He was a Shriner, a Mason and longtime member and deacon of Fellowship Baptist Church.” The universe is not moral. Nor is it immoral. It just is.

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