Words and Deeds Matter: In Memory of Gene Burkart
Gene Burkart, a lawyer, homeschooler, scholar, and dear friend, succumbed to cancer this past weekend at age 62. He met his death peacefully with his faith, family, and friends supporting him through his final days. Gene was, to me, an unsung hero of homeschooling and local politics in Massachusetts, and his death has left me with an empty feeling.
From the time I met Gene in the early 1980s until he died, he spoke about the work of Ivan Illich with clarity and passion. Indeed, Gene patiently helped me to understand and appreciate Illich’s work over time; like many, I was more confused than excited by Illich’s writing at first, and Gene offered insights and suggestions over the years that eventually led to me share his enthusiasm for Illich. Our long drives from Boston to State College, PA, to spend time with Ivan Illich and friends, were full of memorable conversations; we never put the radio on during those trips. Gene became quite close to Ivan; indeed, the last time I was with Ivan was at Gene’s house, where we had a lovely dinner, just months before Ivan died. Gene went from skepticism about Illich’s ideas to a profound embrace of them, including studying with Ivan Illich in Cuernavaca, Chicago, New York, and Pennsylvania over the years.
Gene was always willing to help homeschoolers, and in the 1980s and 1990s he would draft letters to school districts, represent families in court, and provide advice, often pro bono, for homeschooling families in need. In the past decade, homeschooling became so common in MA that Gene was rarely contacted by homeschoolers, a development he was very happy about. I not only sent a number of people to Gene for help, but I sometimes relied on him to help with legal problems we had at Holt Associates, as well as some state-wide homeschooling issues, and he always rose to the occasion with clarity and cheer.
Gene spoke Spanish and worked often with immigrants; Gene’s people-based practice of the law reflected his integration of mind, body, and spirit. Ideas and beliefs are not to be just mouthed but acted upon in life, and Gene did this with gusto and commitment. He was a cofounder of Waltham’s community gardens, and a long-time advocate for world peace. In 1982 he became an active member of Waltham Concerned Citizens, a group concerned about nuclear weapons disarmament; Gene hosted survivors of the bombing of Hiroshima at his home one year and in 2005 he began a twice-monthly peace vigil in downtown Waltham, holding signs and drawing a crowd to advocate for bringing our troops home from our current wars.
In the last few years, Gene turned to writing and he often shared his work with others and through our local newspapers. For instance, I was pleasantly surprised one morning to read this brilliant, concise letter in the Boston Globe (May 23, 2010):
SCOT LEHIGH’S May 14 op-ed “We need it, but who’ll pay for a longer school day?’’ made me wonder: What was his reaction when he was in fifth grade and the bell rang at the end of the day? Was it, “Gee, I wish I could stay here another two hours?’’ Probably he was like most of us. We couldn’t wait for the doors to open.
Many adults tend to romanticize their school days, confusing schooling with learning. Social philosopher Ivan Illich attributed this phenomenon to what he called the “hidden curriculum of schooling.’’ More than any subject matter, more than the content of what is taught, schools teach above all else the necessity of schools. They instill the belief that only in school does real learning take place.
This causes many to have an inflated sense of the benefit and effectiveness of schooling. They think that more school means more learning. The opposite, however, is true. At a certain point, prolonged schooling becomes counterproductive, actually hindering and stifling initiative, creativity, curiosity, and the joy of learning.
How many students today read a book that’s not on a required list? We need less school, not more.
This year, 2012, Gene started a column for the Waltham News Tribune titled “Second Thoughts.” He wrote fluently about social justice issues as well as how his local community has changed, for better and worse. Here is Gene’s last column, published just about ten days before he died. It is filled with Gene’s sense of concern and justice for the individual and his outrage at the horrors of unbridled progress: Second Thoughts: Memories and the Ethic of Hiroshima.
If you enjoy reading that piece, here is a page that lists all of Gene’s articles that were published by the Waltham News Tribune.
After Illich died, Gene contributed an essay to a book written in Illich's memory, The Challenges of Ivan Illich: A Collective Reflection (SUNY Press, 2002). In his essay, Gene writes how he didn't understand Illich's critique of the modern economy until he had been practicing law for several years:
After a while, I saw the joke. When people asked me, "How's work going?" I would answer, "Never been better. Families are falling apart, so there is plenty of divorce and juvenile delinquency; arrests are up, so I have a lot of criminal trials; auto accidents and injures at work are high, so my personal injury caseload is huge. Business is good." In a strange way all of us in the service economy are feeding off social decay, a kind of cannibalizing of society.
Gene's questioning of his work and life, coupled with Illich's influence, made him realize he could live a good life without selling out his soul or checking out of society. In his essay about Illich's influence on him Gene writes:
I realized that I did not have to quit my day job—I could simply work at it less. I soon began a four-day week, which freed me up to read and study more, and become more active in my community. I did not have to get rid of my car, but I could ride my bicycle to work. I knew I would not be self-sufficient in growing food, but I could do composting and enlarge our vegetable garden. Later, when we had children, it was an easy decision not to put them in school. I also began to see my legal work in a new light. I knew it would not lead to social change (with the possible exception of homeschooling cases), but my clients' concerns were real, they were entangled in a morass or legal and social systems. Perhaps I could be an experienced guide for them through these thickets.
Gene ends his essay by noting his "overwhelming sense of gratitude" to Ivan Illich for all he has given him: "Friendship does not lend itself to an accounting, to economics. The only way I can hope to show my gratitude is to strive to be for others the kind of friend Ivan Illich has been to me." I can say with all my heart that Gene was a kind, great friend and that I am a better person as a result of our friendship.
A memorial service for Gene Burkart will be held at Christ Church, 750 Main Street, Waltham, MA at 11AM on August 25, 2012.