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Urgently Recommended: Books by Jonathan Kozol

By Alan Nicoll

Written in 1992, with an afterword 9/25/01. See news about new Jonathan Kozol book at the bottom of this page.

America is probably more addicted to escapism than any other country. We escape into movies, novels, television, drugs, sports, cars, nature, psychotherapy, hobbies, religion, pseudo-sciences, fads, and, when all else fails, we escape into our own minds by "going blind." This is a very human failing, not limited to the United States. But we have the most distractions, the most and best ways to escape. Regrettably, this is destroying us. We would rather escape our problems than solve them, and now our problems threaten to overwhelm us.

Fortunately, we have a few who are willing to show us the unpleasant truths of our society, and Jonathan Kozol is one such. I was fortunate enough to hear Mr. Kozol speak at the University of Southern California. His subject was the same as that of his book, Savage Inequalities, and that subject is public education.

He is a passionate, moving, effective speaker. There is no doubt that he feels deeply the plight of children in poverty, and deeply the injustice and immorality of our society's indifference to their plight. Since I had read his book before attending the lecture, most of what he said was not new to me. Even so, I found myself moved near to tears by his words and his emotion. I must tell you that he often seemed near tears himself, which could be called unprofessional or excessive in a public speaker; however, I have no problem with his unconcealed emotion, because what he describes demands an emotional response, and action. Though his words, in writing or at the lecture, are clearly committed and said from the heart, they are never sentimental or hysterical.

Jonathan Kozol is a gadfly of American society. He exposes and criticizes what the establishment least wishes to have exposed and criticized: the very un-American nature of the American way of life. In Savage Inequalities children are revealed as victims of class and race prejudice; the poor children of today will be the poor adults of tomorrow, because our educational system ensures that they will be unable to compete with the better educated children of the wealthy. His main point is that the children of the poor receive a poor education primarily because of inequities in funding between the schools in poor neighborhoods and those in rich neighborhoods. Furthermore, he contends that racial segregation in schools today is as profound and widespread as it ever has been. (And how long has it been since you've heard the word "busing"?) I don't wish to give a full review of Savage Inequalities. My purpose here is to encourage you to seek out his books and read them.

In other books he has examined illiteracy, homelessness, and the welfare system, but education has been his special focus ever since his first book, Death at an Early Age, for which he won the National Book Award. Perhaps too predictably, many college students majoring in education are not exposed to his books or his ideas. As he pointed out in another book, The Night Is Dark and I Am Far from Home, our educational system is not in the business of changing society, but rather the opposite.

During his lecture, Mr. Kozol had harsh words for President Bush and the Secretary of Education, among others. The current issues of "choice" and national educational standards he says are all well and good, but they ignore the fundamental and far worse problems he describes in detail in his books: leaking roofs, broken plumbing, no lab equipment, no books, too few teachers, a nightmare list of disgraceful conditions. These are mostly problems of underfunding. These conditions exist, however, only in the poorer neighborhoods where property taxes are insufficient to provide adequate funds for education, despite the higher tax rates in effect in those neighborhoods. He also stressed that "more data" isn't needed; we don't use the data we have. In particular, it is well known that Headstart programs are very effective and cost efficient, yet three quarters of the children who need Headstart cannot get it because it hasn't been funded. He did have kind words for some of our elected representatives, however, and urged the audience to write to them in support of equity and justice in our educational system.

Applause greeted his musing on the possibility of his becoming Secretary of Education. Given the power to accomplish them, he would enact five programs: immediate, full funding for Headstart; a maximum of twenty children per class; equitable teacher salaries; a federal school construction bill; and an end to the idea that the whim of charity can act as a substitute for governmentally-insured equity in funding (this last is a criticism of George Bush's "thousand points of light"). He also pointed out that poor children actually need higher levels of funding than children of the wealthy, as they have greater educational needs.

There was time for a few questions, the most interesting of which was, in effect, considering the inequities in all areas of American society, how much difference can be made by equity in education? In response to this question Mr. Kozol said he thought that a good education could do wonders, for the poor and for society as a whole. He believes in the power of education to transform society.

I've read five of Mr. Kozol's books, and all were very well written, even beautifully written. Here are some of my reactions to four of them:

Death at an Early Age: The Destruction of the Hearts and Minds of Negro Children in the Boston Public School. First published in 1967, this was Mr. Kozol's first book and it won him the National Book Award. It describes his year of teaching in the Boston Public School System, and the generally deplorable conditions he found there. After rereading it this year, I made the following note: "Excellent book, but old. As I read it I wondered how things are today in Boston's schools. This one quibble aside, a book well worth rereading (and I've read it twice now). Will also make you think about the schooling you received." I can add to this that Mr. Kozol now says that conditions have not improved in the twenty-five years that have passed since he entered teaching.

The Night Is Dark and I Am Far from Home. This book was originally published in 1975, and apparently has been out of print until it was reissued in 1990 with new material by the author. An important and disturbing book that shows how our educational system helps to sustain our unjust society by making sheep of us. Reading this was necessary but unpleasant and disturbing. I plan to read it often--and seek the courage to take action. The often intemperate language in the body of the book is repudiated by the author in the introduction and afterword. However, the anguish and outrage the author apparently felt when he wrote the book will very likely become your own when you read it. I can't agree with everything he says, but there's plenty here to make one think a second and third time about what kind of society we have. Be forewarned: this book is very much a call for action. More comments about this book below.

Rachel and Her Children. This one is copyright 1988. The book describes life on the welfare system, and how the system is destroying lives. Here's what I wrote immediately after reading this book: "The most heartbreaking, infuriating, and terrifying book I've ever read. I don't know what to say or do. The situation Kozol describes is intolerable. How can one go back to "business as usual" after reading such a book?"

My immediate reaction on finishing Savage Inequalities was as follows: "Another powerful and disturbing book by Jonathan Kozol. He demonstrates in depressing detail how the rich ensure that their children succeed at the expense of the poor--and it makes me think that we're all going down the tubes together, and that we deserve it. Somehow, equity and justice must prevail . . . but how? A brilliant, moving, and horrifying piece of work. Rachel and Her Children was even more moving, but the story of Savage Inequalities is more distressing. In Rachel, he shows how we refuse the help the helpless--in Savage, he shows how the innocent are destroyed, seemingly an even greater crime."

If you've never read Jonathan Kozol, I urge you to do so, but I also warn you that any of his books may change your life. And that's just what this country needs.

Additional comments, 9/25/2001

Since writing the above, I've also read Kozol's Amazing Grace. Here's the review I wrote at the time (1996):

Interesting and affecting picture of life in New York's poorest areas. Quite good, though not as moving as his Rachel and Her Children. Occasionally tedious due to lengthy theologizing by one youngster. Most scenes are not especially vivid. Generally quite depressing, though he makes many tries at finding rays of hope, while simultaneously suggesting it's hopeless. Reread.

More than once I thought this would make a good selection to read to a class. I still think so, though it would require careful handling on all counts. The Bernardo Rodriguez story was most affecting.

Kozol's latest book is Ordinary Resurrections, a follow-up to Amazing Grace. It's probably his most personal book, though as usual the focus is on others. I enjoyed it a lot. Sorry I don't have more to say about these two, but it's been some time since I read them.

The following were moved here from my Short Reviews of Education Books.

Free Schools

A passionate and gutsy book, dedicated to helping ghetto children survive. Contains devastating criticisms of some "open classroom" practices as well as practical advice about starting a free school . . . worth reading and rereading for either purpose. Also contains an extensive, annotated list of resources. Kozol is a national treasure. 10/13/97

The Night is Dark and I am Far From Home

Important and disturbing book that shows how the education system helps to sustain our unjust society by making sheep of us. Reading this was necessary but unpleasant and disturbing. Read it often---and seek the courage to take action. 4/21/91

Reread 12/16/97, further comments: What do encyclopedias say about poverty, hunger, economic exploitation? There seems to be a conspiracy of silence . . . in the mass media and the middle class re these subjects.

Chapter X convinces me that teaching in public school is and must be supporting an evil system. It is not possible to reform from within, is it? Some hard thinking is needed on the morality of teaching!

It isn't possible, therefore, it isn't necessary, to fix everything---but it is necessary to do something . . . a lot.

The consensus view of morality [a concept I have been working on] is false because it assumes a free and open society, not a society of manufactured consensus. See chapter XII.

Highlights: p. 170-172 awesome; 219 "Nations . . ."; 226 "The school . . ." Malcolm X, Gandhi, St. Francis [persons to read up on]

On Being a Teacher

An excellent book that confronts the moral dilemmas of teaching in an unjust society. Perhaps too idealistic---one gets the impression that teachers don't---or oughtn't---have families dependent on their income. Otherwise, really good. Didn't read part 2. Reread this---should be required reading for all teachers. 2/16/97

If you'd like to know more, a good place to start is the Wikipedia entry for Jonathan Kozol

Jonathan Kozol has written a new book, scheduled for release on September 13, 2005. It's called The Shame of the Nation. It's a shame indeed that such books need to be written, recalling us to our noble ideals that we seemingly don't bother trying to live up to.

“The nation needs to be confronted with the crime that we’re committing and the promises we are betraying. This is a book about betrayal of the young, who have no power to defend themselves. It is not intended to make readers comfortable.” (From the inside front flap of Jonathan Kozol's The Shame of the Nation).

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