The Lives They Lived (personal edition)

COVID-19  was responsible for the deaths of hundreds and hundreds of teachers in 2020, enough alone to make the year an ‘annus horribilis,’ to borrow Queen Elizabeth II’s phrase.  But the world of education also lost Ruth Bader Ginsburg, John Lewis, Sir Ken Robinson, Jim Lehrer and Les Crystal of the PBS NewsHour,  the Reverend Darius L. Swann, David K. Cohen, Arnold Packer, and (on the island of Martha’s Vineyard) Nelson Bryant, Lee Fierro, and Dr. Susan Whiting Shanock.

Although they weren’t educators per se, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and U.S. Representative John Lewis contributed mightily to the cause of public education: Justice Ginsburg by the cases she brought as an attorney and the cases she decided while on the Supreme Court, and Mr. Lewis by his work as a student leader and his leadership in the struggle for civil rights as a protestor and as a member of Congress.  Barriers against women, in education and in the workplace, fell because of RBG. John Lewis nearly lost his life on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, but it was that savage beating that led directly to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

I probably should have placed my tribute to Sir Ken Robinson at the end of this post, because I am going to ask that those who haven’t seen his TED talk, the most widely viewed in TED’s history, to please do so.  Viewed by an estimated 380,000,000 people, the short talk is profound. Its message, which is as relevant today as when he spoke, demonstrates how much the world lost when Sir Ken died in August at age 70 after a short battle with cancer.  Knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2003 for his service to the arts, Sir Ken was “named as one of Time/Fortune/CNN’s ‘Principal Voices’; acclaimed by Fast Company magazine as one of ‘the world’s elite thinkers on creativity and innovation’ and ranked in the Thinkers50 list of the world’s top business thinkers,” quoting from an obituary. 

Technically, PBS NewsHour co-founder Jim Lehrer and long-time Executive Producer Les Crystal were not teachers.  However, Jim and Les (with Robin MacNeil and Deputy Executive Producer Linda Winslow) built what began as The MacNeil/Lehrer Report in 1975 into the nation’s most trusted source of news.  While Jim and Les taught me a great deal, more importantly their PBS program educated millions of Americans five nights a week for many, many years….and continues to do so today.

A quick story about the kind of man Jim was: Sometime in 2006 while wandering around Bangkok, I came across a peddler selling tiny vehicles fashioned out of soda cans. At first I saw only replicas of taxi-like vehicles, but under the pile I spotted a bus. I immediately thought of Jim, whose bus collection was legendary.  His office was full of bus memorabilia, some no doubt from the work sites of his father, a bus dispatcher in Oklahoma and elsewhere. What’s more, the basement of the Lehrer home in DC was a carefully arranged display of bus memorabilia that Jim enjoyed showing to visitors.  Even though I spent lots of time in Jim’s office and had toured his basement, I nevertheless bought the tacky, tinny, tiny bus home and later presented it to Jim.  He could not have been more gracious; his words and his smile implied that this piece was the one item he had been searching for, in vain, the world over, and for years!  Odds are, of course, that Jim had been given this particular thing more than a few times….and had been as gracious to the other gift-givers as he was to me. (If you’re not familiar with Billy Collins’ poem, The Lanyard, please click this link.)

The Reverend Darius L. Swann, who died at 96, also contributed to the struggle for equality in education. Although I never interviewed him, I knew his name because his 1964 lawsuit led directly to the 1971 Supreme Court decision known as Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg that upheld busing as a legal means of desegregation.  

The Associated Press reported it this way:  On Sept. 2, 1964, Swann wrote a letter to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board, asking that his son James be allowed to attend Seversville School, two blocks from his home, rather than the all-black Biddleville School, which was more than twice as far away. He was allowed to argue his case at a subsequent meeting of the school board, which suggested that the Swanns enroll James in Biddleville, then request a transfer.

The Swanns said no thanks. “We figured that the system was really protecting segregation,” Swann told The Associated Press in an interview in 2000. “What they wanted to do was decide things on a case-by-case basis, when what they needed to do was change the whole system; there was a systemic problem.”

Enlisting the support of local activist Reginald Hawkins and civil rights attorney Julius Chambers, Swann sued the school system in January 1965. While they pursued their legal fight, the Swanns enrolled James and his younger sister, Edith, in a private Lutheran school. After one year there, the Swanns moved their children to Eastover, a public school in the affluent, predominantly white Myers Park neighborhood.

Chambers continued the lawsuit even after the Swanns moved to New York, where Swann and his wife worked at Columbia University, and later to Hawaii before moving to India, where he researched Asian theater.    …

In 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld court-ordered busing in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district, clearing the way for the use of busing as a means of desegregation. Swann learned of the decision while he was in a mountain village in India and read about it in an English-language newspaper.”

Finally, David K. Cohen and Arnold Packer, two men who contributed mightily to the education of others–and who also shaped my own professional life as much as anyone.   If you are at all wonkish about education, you are familiar with “The Shopping Mall High School,” which David, Arthur K. Powell, and Eleanor Farrar wrote in 1999.   Subtitled “Winners and Losers in the Educational MarketPlace,” the book was reviewed by Albert Shanker, a giant in the world of education.  He called it “A sobering analysis of current conditions in our secondary schools and how they got that way.”

A gifted writer, David was an even better teacher.  (Irony of ironies, David was also my wife’s favorite teacher when she attended the Harvard Graduate School of Education eleven years later.)  David was my doctoral thesis advisor, and a friend for many years thereafter.  He inspired thousands of other students to dig deeper and to ask questions. Moreover, he convinced self-doubting students–like me–that they could swim in a bigger pond, in deeper water.  

Dr. Arnold Packer, known everywhere as Arnie, was an economist, not an educator, and that was part of his appeal.  Plain-spoken and direct, Arnie had little patience for the love of jargon that seems to afflict the majority of educators.  “What does that mean, actually?” he would ask when some cloud of verbiage was filling a room.  He had serious credentials in the world of education because he was the principal architect of what were known as the SCANS skills.

If I may, another quick trip down memory lane: Sometime around 2002, Arnie and I created an interactive curriculum to teach math and writing to HS students. This unlikely partnership between an economist and a reporter came about because he and I sat together at an education conference, an experience that activated the BS detector mentioned above, big time. When the meeting ended, we went to a bar, and–after two or three beers–decided that we could do a much better job than the educators.

And we actually created a plan, first scribbled on napkins at the bar, then in prose, and then in a proposal to the US Department of Education, which was funding innovation in curriculum using technology.  We partnered with Baltimore City Schools and–wonder of wonders–got a multi-million dollar grant (most of it went to the school system).   

The high school English and Math curriculum we created was interactive and computer-based. Working in teams, students had to become merchants who were selling something in a mall. Big decisions about rent, store frontage, what to sell, staffing, loans, etc. That meant lots of math. They also had to write and present their business plan—to real business men and women–meaning writing and public speaking. 

Some English and math teachers teamed, and others did not, meaning we had a natural experiment. It worked, producing statistically significant differences in both subjects, plus improved attendance.  Arnie and I were over the moon, until the system killed it because it was logistically difficult to arrange schedules, or some crap like that. 

The trio—Arnie, John, and beer—cannot share credit equally, because Arnie was the driving force.  Later we worked together to create what Arnie called the “Verified Resumé,” an electronic portfolio that could be updated to reflect newly acquired skills, much more than college credits.  Again Arnie was the driving force, and I was his eager wingman.

Thanks to all of you, and may you rest in peace……

One thought on “The Lives They Lived (personal edition)

  1. Thanks, John, for these stirring, inspiring tributes,


    Gary Gruber

    PO Box 4926

    Tubac, AZ 85646

    From: The Merrow Report Reply-To: The Merrow Report Date: Wednesday, January 6, 2021 at 10:34 AM To: Subject: [New post] The Lives They Lived (personal edition)

    John Merrow posted: ” COVID-19 was responsible for the deaths of hundreds and hundreds of teachers in 2020, enough alone to make the year an ‘annus horribilis,’ to borrow Queen Elizabeth II’s phrase. But the world of education also lost Ruth Bader Ginsburg, John L”


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