Jonathan Kozol Continues Crusade to Improve Urban Education

When you believe in something so firmly, that you are willing to leave comfort behind, separate from others, perhaps embark on a lonely journey--that is when the world looks at you askance. For Jonathan Kozol, a Harvard-educated social activist, with a keen interest in social inequalities, and the desire to revolutionize America's poorest schools, the first few steps of the journey were far from easy.

The renowned educator, and author of seven award-winning books on educational reform advocacy, spoke from the heart about several very challenging years in his working life on Wednesday, February 10th, at Mount Holyoke College. Kozol's lecture kicked off "Choices and Challenges for Public Education: An Agenda for the Twenty-First Century," the Center for Leadership and Public Interest Advocacy's semester-long series of events focusing on public education.

Kozol wasted no time in identifying his stance--the crusade to improve America's poorest public schools. Throughout his forty years of work to further the cause of quality public education, and to increase awareness of the reasons hampering its progress, Kozol discovered how warm and accessible most public school teachers tend to be. Reflecting on his various teaching experiences, Kozol stressed how much he liked the "avuncular, public-school principals, who stick it out." He added, "I don't usually visit the super-schools, but the ones who are solid and regular, and stick it out for the whole of their lives." He was clearly indignant about the fact that these teachers are often portrayed as mediocre, or even bad, by evaluators of school systems. Kozol's stance was more than clear when he said with great directness, "I wish these mean right-wing people who criticize public-school teachers would leave their executive offices, and try teaching for just one day!"

Kozol himself felt totally unprepared for his very first teaching job- as a substitute teacher of kindergarten kids in a poor South Boston neighborhood. Having grown up in Newton, Massachusetts, then attending Harvard to study English Literature, Kozol had never been exposed to neighborhoods like South Boston. He was also inexperienced with kids. "I had no idea what to do with kids that size," he said of the South Boston class, "they were like gerbils!"

Some years later, during the 1960s civil rights campaigns, he was asked to withdraw from the school for introducing the Third Grade to the works of Langston Hughes, a prominent African-American author. Kozol was criticized for misplaced idealism and enthusiasm, as the school staff saw it, while the local newspapers amused themselves with headlines such as, "Rhodes scholar fired from Grade Three for curriculum deviation!" The 1960s were certainly not on the side of this innovative young teacher, who wished to enrich education by promoting de-segregation at any given opportunity, and was himself an active participant in the civil rights campaigns. It was at the time of the campaigns that Kozol's first book, Death at an Early Age (1967), a description of his first year as a teacher, was published. It was followed by Illiterate America, which helped fire a national campaign against adult illiteracy. In 1991, Kozol wrote Savage Inequalities: Children in America's Schools, which analyzes the disparities within the American public school system.

Kozol's most recent work, Amazing Grace: The Lives of Children and the Conscience of a Nation, was published in 1995, while he was teaching in the South Bronx, one of the poorest congressional areas of the country. At this time, he had several powerful contacts in Manhattan. None of them, however, wanted to talk about segregation. In fact Kozol observed that "they never even used the word `segregation' to describe Manhattan"--only Chicago or Cleveland." This sense of hypocrisy prevalent among those with power, contacts and resources, but who lacked any initiative to make a difference, was an issue that Kozol reiterated throughout his keynote address. He essentially described his own, very personal experiences with children in South Boston and later in the South Bronx, and brought in the issue of gross neglect in public schools at each instance. The South Bronx really brought home to Kozol that "there are many miracles to be discovered in the poorest areas in the country," but that "these little kids don't get too many blessings from America." He described Mario, a Latino boy, "with a face like an olive with a big smile painted on it" as one of the many children he knew in the area with "luminous hearts." This poor, South Bronx student was also one of many who carried around little yellow asthma pumps to combat the breathing problems created by terribly unhealthy living conditions amid dire poverty. Yet, Mario had been the only one to remember Kozol's 62nd birthday. "Everyone else forgot me," lamented Kozol, "my publisher, my editor, my mother..."

But what attention is given to the education of kids like Mario today? Kozol notes with stinging acuity that the taxpayer who wants to know where his or her money is being directed will not find it in funds for public education. For a child like Mario, the allotted amount is about $6,000 a year, roughly the same as some of the richest business leaders in Manhattan typically spend on monthly lunches at restaurants like "Four Seasons" throughout the year. Mario's lack of education and resources means that he runs a high risk of becoming a criminal as an adult. Kozol observes that if this were to happen, the state would have to pay close to $60,000 a year to keep him incarcerated. "What Judaeo-Christian society," Kozol put to his audience, "could justify this sort of inequality? To spend more to penalize a man than to bless him?" It is a system, he concluded, that is "simply unacceptable in any democracy."

Kozol spoke with humor, passion, grace and power to a visibly moved capacity crowd in Mount Holyoke's Chapin Auditorium on Wednesday, February 10. The audience gave him a standing ovation at the end, and many had tears in their eyes. What struck most of us there was the courage and tenacity of this man, who has written and spoken, argued and rallied for about forty years to better the plight of inner-city children he believes, with the right sort of education, could well become "little miracles" rather than the present Right-wing view of them as "little predators." --reported and written by Sumana Bhoothalingam '99 for the Office of Communications

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