Jonathan Kozol: Listen to the
by Emily Lodish
The Nation Onine. www.thenation.com/,
December 9, 2005
More than a decade ago, at Saint Ann's
Episcopal Church in the South Bronx, site of a thriving after-school
program that now serves nearly 100 inner-city children, Jonathan
Kozol encountered a 12-year-old boy named Anthony who loved to
read. Anthony had heard that Kozol was an author and announced
that he, too, was a writer. He then showed Kozol his "novel,"
which, at twenty-two pages, Kozol remembers as a "pretty
good read." Anthony went on to graduate from college and
is now pursuing an advanced degree in English. Along with many
others who have been touched by Kozol's motivating influence,
he credits Kozol with "waking us up."
Back at homey Saint Ann's on December
6, Anthony is among those present to honor Kozol, renowned educator,
activist and blue sneaker-clad author, as he is awarded the 2005
Puffin/Nation Prize for Creative Citizenship. The prize, awarded
annually to an American citizen for "distinctive, courageous,
imaginative, socially responsible work of significance,"
is presented jointly by The Nation Institute and the Puffin Foundation,
honoring Kozol for his relentless efforts to expose the educational
and social inequities that exist in contemporary American schools.
Kozol began his career teaching in the
freedom schools of Massachusetts, amid the civil rights struggle
of the late 1960s, and he has been working with inner-city children
ever since. He has written eleven books, and for his latest, Shame
of the Nation (Crown), about the ever-widening racial divide in
American schools, Kozol visited sixty schools in thirty districts,
situated in eleven different states. Everywhere he goes he immerses
himself in the schools and communities, talking to kids on the
playground (when there is one) and staying up late listening to
teachers. Then he resurfaces to tell the world how it is, in books
chock-full of straight-talking observations.
In Shame of the Nation, Kozol recalls one of his first experiences
teaching in Boston: "One windy afternoon that fall, an entire
frame of windows in our make-shift class collapsed. I was standing
close enough to catch the rotted frame before the glass could
shatter on the children sitting just beneath it." Kozol writes
bluntly about poor children's lives; the dire circumstances communicate
Kozol reports what he sees: schools in
utter disrepair, like the high school where "a stream of
water flowed down one of the main stairwells on a rainy afternoon"
and "green fungus molds were growing in the office where
the students went for counseling." He relays what he hears
from children like Anthony, a bright student who nevertheless
did terribly on standardized tests. Anthony said he "felt
beaten down by so much else that went on in the South Bronx...the
test was one more beating." He commiserates with besieged
teachers, like Louis Bedrock, the science teacher at PS30X in
the South Bronx to whom Shame of the Nation is dedicated and who
is also present at the award ceremony. Bedrock is one of the many
who call Kozol at 2 in the morning, knowing he will be awake,
probably working and willing to chat or, at the very least, listen.
The irony of accepting an award for work
accomplished in a realm where the work never ceases is not lost
on Kozol. Nor is the fact that New York City, once the bastion
of liberal, progressive movements in education and where Kozol
stands to accept the award, is now the epicenter of segregation
in American schools. In a country where words like "diverse"
have become synonymous with "segregated" and usually
mean "all black and Hispanic," he speaks candidly about
the segregation of today's schools, worse in New York than anywhere
else in the United States, and worse today than in any year since
1968, the year Martin Luther King Jr. died. And there is not much
of a difference, Kozol says, between the legally enforced segregation
of the Old South and the social and economic apartheid of today.
The reality is the same: It is the children who suffer.
Kozol has spent a lifetime chronicling
the neglect and hypocrisy of public officials who address problems
in education in all the wrong ways, such as George W. Bush's commitment
to testing-obsessed No Child Left Behind legislation. Kozol told
Deborah Solomon of the New York Times that NCLB's "driving
motive is to highlight failure in inner-city schools as dramatically
as possible in order to create a groundswell of support for private
vouchers or other privatization schemes."
The trend toward charter schools, the
effectiveness of which Kozol is highly skeptical, has been highlighted
in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, as New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin's
rebuilding commission has adopted privatization as its reigning
philosophy. New Orleans plans to reopen many public schools as
charter schools, including at least thirteen in the hard-hit and
poverty-stricken West Bank neighborhoods. Nationwide, most charter
schools are in urban areas, and they tend to be "more intensely
segregated than the average public school," according to
Professor Gary Orfield and his colleagues at Harvard University's
Civil Rights Project.
A staunch supporter of integration as
the pathway toward bettering educational systems, Kozol points
to consistently successful programs, like the voluntary interdistrict
transfer program in St. Louis, which is now in its twenty-fifth
year. Today the program buses more than 10,000 mostly black students
from the city to suburban schools. The program is effective: The
vast majority of the minority students go on to postsecondary
schools. Kozol believes, simply, that the world would be a better
place if black children and white children got to know one another
early in life, when they are most open to learning from one another
and their surroundings.
Kozol's critics, like Harvard social
scientist Nathan Glazer, who recently reviewed Shame of the Nation
for the New York Times, accuse him of blind advocacy and of reporting
on resegregation without taking the time to examine why it has
occurred. "He would not be deterred from his support of integration
if no positive effects could be shown," Glazer writes. And
there are others who think he preaches, or rants too much without
focusing on tangible solutions, or draws myopically from subjective,
firsthand experience. Kozol would agree with that last point.
He will be the first to say, "It's true, I write what I know."
Several years ago, Kozol acknowledged
in a New York Times interview that he used to write books with
the hope of sweeping change in mind, but he now thinks he writes
"simply as a witness." "This is how it is,"
he insists. "This is what we have done. This is what we have
permitted." He speaks of the depression he feels in Washington
when confronted with bureaucratic obstacles to getting children
the necessities for their education.
Kozol has been fighting the same fight
for the past forty years, but the fact is, the need for the fight
remains. Ever more so today, when as Kozol looks around a classroom
in the South Bronx, it is difficult to discern whether the landmark
1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision did in fact, succeed
in ending segregation. Kozol may write as a witness, but whatever
pessimism this admission relays is overshadowed by a refrain that
focuses on possibility.
As Kozol states in a Nation forum, "Looking
Back, Looking Forward," after Bush's 2004 re-election: "It
may seem to some beyond imagination, at this moment of defeat,
that liberals can reignite the passion and assemble the resources
it would take to counteract the power of the right-wing juggernaut
in education policy today. But we will never win the victories
we do not fight for."
On this special day at Saint Ann's, Kozol
doesn't want to be gloomy. There are cookies downstairs for the
award reception, he is hungry and he imagines the squirming, "pint-sized
people" before him are as well.
Jonathan Kozol listens to the children.
They have been a source of gold for his books, as well as a target
for some who feel he bases too much of his research on their testimony,
which may be unreliable. In the introduction to Shame of the Nation,
Kozol reminds us that while children may err on the minuscule
particulars of remembered events, they rarely have reason to mislead
us on the big things.
After accepting his award at Saint Ann's
this Monday afternoon, Kozol opens the floor for children's questions.
Most want to know what a puffin is and why there is a colorful
statue of one on the podium. Perry Rosenstein, president of the
Puffin Foundation, explains how his organization got its name:
The puffins were near extinct, he tells the children, until a
few people got together and decided to take action to save them.
When asked, over cookies after the award
ceremony but before they start their homework, what they think
of Jonathan Kozol, several of the children at Saint Ann's say
he seems like a "nice person." A girl named Jennifer
mentions that she is happy he won an award for saving the birds.
Jennifer is off on the particulars of this one, but Kozol's theory
holds true. She gets the big picture: In his way, Kozol does work
to save endangered creatures.
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