Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Jonathan Kozol

As In so many other areas of the economic and social life of American citizens, there is a large and growing disparity between the quality of education afforded to those who happen to grow up in households of significant means and those who are in families struggling to survive.  In spite of the mandate for public education, millions of children are deprived of the kind of quality education so vitally important in the twenty-first century.  Jonathan Kozol has been an outspoken critic of this grievous imbalance for decades.


Jonathan Kozol was born on September 5, 1936 in Boston Massachusetts.  He graduated from Harvard University in 1958 with a degree in English Literature.  He was subsequently awarded a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford.  He did not complete his studies at Rhodes, however, but journeyed on to Paris in search of his dream of becoming a novelist.  He ultimately published his one and only work of fiction entitled, The Fume of Poppies

Following his graduation from Harvard and on his return from Paris, he began to tutor children in Roxbury, an economically depressed and racially segregated area of Boston, and eventually began to teach in the Boston Public Schools.  He was profoundly impacted by his experience teaching in a segregated school.  As he describes, "I had begun to teach in 1964 in Boston in a segregated school so crowded and so poor that it could not provide my fourth grade class with a classroom.  In the spring I was shifted to another fourth grade class that had had a string of substitutes all year.  The thirty-five children in the class hadn't had a permanent teacher since they entered kindergarten.  That year I was their thirteenth teacher."

He was so appalled by these conditions that he attempted to introduce material to the children that might inspire their interest.   He awakened them to the poetry of Robert Frost and Langston Hughes.  He was fired on this account, for it was the school's determination that, "…the poets he chose were too advanced for children of that age…" for Hughes was considered to be too inflammatory.  He subsequently went on to teach at a prosperous school in the Boston suburbs.  He was impressed and appalled by the stark difference in the quality of education available to those children born into families of means as compared to their underprivileged counterparts.  This set of experiences made him acutely aware of the issues of civil rights and social justice.


Jonathan Kozol has been an unfaltering advocate for the education of poor and underprivileged children for over forty years.   He has written numerous books on this issue including, The Night is Dark and I am far from Home, Savage Inequalities, Ordinary Resurrections and Amazing Grace.

In the fall of 1988 through 1990 he visited students throughout the United States.  He was struck by the extent of racial segregation and the stark differences that existed regarding the quality of education provided that was wholly dependent upon the racial character of the neighborhood.  In his experience, most of the urban schools were predominantly non-white.  This was particularly troubling, since the historic Supreme Court decision regarding Brown versus Board of Education was made some thirty-five years previous in 1954.  In that decision, the Court proclaimed that the argument posed by segregationists that education should be "separate but equal" was untrue and, more importantly, unconstitutional. 


In his book, Savage Inequalities, he describes his experiences visiting the public schools that serve poor and minority children in such diverse places as Illinois, New York, New Jersey and Texas.  He presents in vivid detail the environment of East St. Louis in Illinois.  At the time, this book was written (1991), the city was 98% black and in the author's words, "…has no obstetric services, no regular trash collection, and few jobs.  Nearly a third of the families live on less than $7,500 a year; 75 percent of its population lives on welfare of some form.  The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development describes it as, 'the most distressed small city in America.'  Nearby, Pfizer and Monsanto have chemical plants severely impacting air quality.  As a consequence, East St. Louis has one of the highest rates of child asthma in the country.  This city lies on the floodplain of the east side of the Mississippi River opposite St. Louis.  The concentration of black communities in lowland areas susceptible to flooding seems to represent a pattern within the United States."  As an example, Kozol compares East St. Louis to the Mississippi delta town of Tunica, Mississippi in the black community of Sugar Ditch where the residences live in close proximity to open sewers and incidences of liver tumors and abscesses found in children are remarkably high.  The devastating and disastrous impact of hurricane Katrina on the black communities living close to the Mississippi River also attests to this pattern.

Amid this backdrop of appalling social conditions, Kozol draws the reader's attention to the condition of the public schools.   The following are some examples of what he found –

"The science labs at East St. Louis High are 30 – 50 years out of date.  John McMillan, a soft-spoken man, teaches physics at the school.  He shows me his lab.  The six lab stations in the room have empty holes where pipes were once attached.  'It would be great if we had water,' says McMillan.

"The biology lab, which I visit next, has no laboratory tables.  Students work at regular desks.  'I need dissecting kits,' the teacher says.  'The few we have are incomplete.'  Chemical supplies she tells me, in a city poisoned by two chemical plants, are scarce.  'I need more microscopes,' she adds.

As part of Kozol's investigation, he also interviewed students to gauge their feelings and analysis regarding the environment in which they were expected to learn.  The following are comments made by such students:

"I don't go to physics class, because my lab has no equipment."

"The typewriters in my typing class don't work."

"The women's toilets…I'll be honest, I just don't use the toilets.  If I do, I come back into class and I feel dirty."

The following statements clearly show that the students are also very aware regarding the broader socio-economic issues that confront them.

"Well, the two things, race and money, go so close together – what's the difference?  I live here, they live there, and they don't want me in their school."

"On one side of us you have two chemical corporations.  One is Pfizer – that's out there.  They make paint and pigments.  The other is Monsanto.  On the other side are companies incinerating toxic waste.  So the trash is comin' at us this direction.  The chemicals is comin' from the other.  We right in the middle."


Even though these observations were made in 1991, the city of East St. Louis continues to suffer from the catastrophic hardships that are a direct consequence of severe economic devastation.


In his travels, Kozol discovered and reported on similar conditions in the inner-city and minority rural communities that he encountered.  He was profoundly touched by these stories and has devoted his life to bringing these situations to the widest possible audience through his books, lectures, speaking tours and conversations.  He has left an undeniable impact, but there is so much more that needs to be done.

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