Interview with author Jonathan Kozol
by Gordon W.E. Nore
The Progressive magazine
Madison: December 1991
“We should deal with injustice because it’s not just, not because it’s expensive.”
Had fate taken a different twist, Jonathan Kozol might have been a novelist, or an English professor, or a lawyer. Instead, in 1964, he answered a call for volunteers to teach in a summer tutoring program for low-income children in the Boston ghetto of Roxbury. This lead to a job as a “permanent substitute” school teacher–again in Roxbury–a job from which he was fired for “curriculum deviation” for reading the poetry of Langston Hughes and Robert Frost to his students. Kozol’s introduction to US public education would become the 1968 National Book Award winner, Death at an Early Age. There have been eight books since–on the “free school” movement, the politics of education, adult illiteracy, and homeless families. Kozol’s newest book is Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools.
Q: Upon graduating Harvard in the late fifties, you went to Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship; then to Paris to become a writer. Instead you returned to the US and became a teacher. What happened?
Kozol: When I returned to the US, it was with a sense of disappointment that I hadn’t been able to write anything that was worth publishing. By then I was about 25 or 26. I came back to Cambridge and was just about to re-enrol in graduate school.
[When I started teaching] I called in my friends in Cambridge and told them that I was giving up writing. It shows the arrogance of youth that I thought it was important enough to tell anyone that. I solemnly announced to professors that I was giving up literature and going to become a teacher. The irony is that the year I gave up writing was the year I finally found something worth writing about.
The year after I was fired another church in Roxbury hired me to run a freedom school…That was a program which was funded by Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. I’m always amused now when I hear conservatives say, “We threw all that money at the poor, and it didn’t do any good.” They didn’t throw that much money at the poor and it did a lot of good. We ran that program on three thousand dollars a year–that was my salary, the salary of a local mother who became my co-director, and we bought all the books we needed, and we served almost 500 children.
After that, I was hired to teach out in the suburbs in Newton, where I had grown up–ironically at twice the salary I was getting in Boston, and I had almost half as many children in my class in a lovely little school that welcomed innovation. [We read] lots of good poetry. They weren’t worried about Langston Hughes or Robert Frost. In fact we played Pete Seeger’s music all day long in the classroom. The superintendent of the school system–far from viewing me with uneasiness–used to come around and sit on the floor with my kids and spend the morning with us in the classroom. That was my first taste of brutal inequality: In the course of two years I went from the worst to the best school system in Massachusetts.
The one interesting thing I also saw in Newton was the benefits of racial integration, because that year a small voluntary suburban busing program began where black kids from Boston–in limited numbers–rode the bus to a handful of the best suburban school districts.
I saw some of the kids from Roxbury go from the Boston Schools to the Newton Schools. I saw what happened when they went from a class of 34 to a class of 18 or 19 children. I saw what happened when–instead of having a frightened, harassed, overburdened teacher–they had a relaxed, sophisticated, intellectually sensitive teacher. I saw what happened when they were in a beautiful building where there was a lawn outside where they could play. And where–instead of using boring Scott-Foresman basal readers–we had individualized reading, and I could build the whole curriculum around a hundred paperback novels. It was just a joy to be able to teach children individually, instead of making them all sit and use the same page of the same textbook. And I also saw the black kids–the ones who were bused out from Roxbury–thrive in that program. A lot those kids have been successful.
After two years I just felt, “this isn’t my real place.” I’m glad I had the experience because it taught me what a good school is.
Q: In Free Schools you were quite critical of the back-to-the-land movement of the 60’s and 70’s, and of those lucky enough to pull up stakes and leave the problems of city living behind them. Looking back, and looking at the way you live [in rural Massachusetts], would you still say that?
Kozol: I still would. Because it wasn’t just a geographical movement–they left the city to live in the country–there’s nothing wrong with that. It was that they left their politics behind. I don’t feel I’ve ever done that. In a way I moved out here to keep my politics alive. I left Boston because I needed to leave that city. I’d been there [in Roxbury and south Boston] for 18 years. It got to a point where every minor crisis or question that came up in the Boston Public Schools, I would get a call from a reporter wanting to know how I felt about that, or what I thought about that. I felt that I was becoming too facile. I felt that I said everything I knew so many times, I didn’t want to keep repeating myself. And I also felt by that point that I was more concerned with America than Boston.
Perhaps I was a bit harsh on people who just wanted to breathe some fresh air and see some grass. I think I’m a little more gentle now than I was in those days.
When I read those other early books, I’m a bit shocked at how vindictive I sounded at the US. I think it was that in those days, with the struggles some of us had been through–the brutal events like the murders of Medgar Evers and Michael Schwerner, and the other people we admired like Dr King, Malcolm X and Robert Kennedy, the advent of the Nixon era — I think it’s understandable that some of us who had been through those struggles might be embittered. I think one of the problems was in those days, I didn’t know a lot of the good things of America. Since then I’ve spent a lot of time with ordinary middle class Americans all across this country: the lawyer in a mid-west town who picks me up at the airport; the waiter in Des Moines; the librarian in Oregon; the fifth grade teacher in Arizona; the school principal who’s never made very much money but always did the best he could in Dallas. What I’ve learned is that there are an awful lot of damn good people in America. It may be that through the political process they end up indirectly supporting causes that are evil, but they are not evil people. They are good people.
I’m still am a perpetual dissenter. I still criticize a thousand things this country does. I was heartsick about the war in the Persian gulf because I felt it was a terrible misuse of US funds. I kept thinking, “Good Lord, what we could have done with $50 billion dollars in the New York City public schools,” and wouldn’t that really be more to our national self-interest. I think my dissent was not against America; my dissent was as an American.
This is an amazing country. This country can do almost anything it wants to do. That’s why this is so terrible. We can do such complicated things. We can send people to the moon. Surely we can send some books to the Bronx. Within a matter of three months we set up hospitals in the Persian Gulf that are better than anything you’ll find in Harlem. Well why can’t we do it in Harlem?
Q: What did you think about the Gulf War.
Kozol: [The Gulf War] showed that this country is technologically prepared to do anything. That’s why it is gratuitous injustice that we let these kids rot away their childhood in East St. Louis, Illinois, because there is no working sewage system–it is a travesty of what we stand for.
Q: You’ve been quite critical of media handling of education and related issues. A couple of times when you’ve spoken about education reporting, for example, you’ve pointed out that trends that are cheerleaded for today — like mini-schools — are trends that were cheerleaded for 25 years ago.
Kozol: They [journalists] are rediscovering old banalities. I would hesitate to prescribe to journalists how they ought to do it. I do know that I don’t like the way they usually do it. My own belief is that it is utterly irresponsible for journalists to tell the people that something new is happening if, in fact, we are in the presence of an old idea repackaged in new wrappings. It is absolutely essential for the press to tell the public that this is something that was tried before; its worth was proven before; it was never shared with poor children. Why? And why should we have greater expectations now unless we frame the challenge differently?
This is a typical story:
A dynamic, young teacher in the South Bronx has a revolutionary idea: instead of using textbooks, she uses books; instead of teaching the whole class, she teaches each child individually. Further, she believes that children ought to learn to their potential. The principal agrees. The principal has decided to break the schools up into mini-schools…and so forth…
At the end of it all, after you hear six revolutionary ideas like this, you are told that we are turning things around.
Now by telling the story in this way, the reporter leads the reader to think the following: That if we could just replicate what is going on in this one school; if we could find just 3 million teachers like that young teacher, and 90,000 principals like that principal; and package what they’re doing; itemize it; parcel it out; we’ll transform the system without spending money and without embarrassing society by talking about race. I don’t think any reporter does this intentionally.
If journalists had a better sense of history they would be saying it like this:
For the tenth time in 20 years teachers in New York City are rediscovering the old idea of individualized instruction. Principals are re-discovering the concept of mini-schools–first discussed by Paul Goodman in 1968. Both ideas have never been adopted because they are expensive. So I am going to tell you this story again, but don’t raise your hopes to high; its never been replicated before beyond a handful of model school and won’t be again, unless there’s a political demand for certain widespread changes which are going to cost society a lot of money.
Because of this ceaseless recycling of the same models education writing is so boring. People just get tired of hearing that “we’re turning things around with school-based management and mentors.” It’s what Paolo Friere called, “narration sickness.” It quite a trick to write an education story for a big city newspaper in America and say everything except that these kids are the victims of crushing racism and obliterating penury. But since you can’t say that–since you can’t say what’s at the centre–everything you write is out at the circumference. That’s why it’s dull. Newspaper editors would never allow their sports writers to turn out the kind of boring stuff that education writers turn out.
Q: In your newest book, Savage Inequalities, you examine, among others, the schools of New Jersey and Texas, whose education systems have been successfully challenged in the courts, but not Kentucky, whose system was ruled unconstitutional in early 1990. Is there any significance to your selection?
Kozol: It was pure chance. I’d already talked to a lot of people about what was happening in New Jersey and Texas by the time the Kentucky story hit the newspapers. But I just thought that a reader can only absorb so many instances of the same story. Perhaps it was partly that I didn’t feel I could absorb a story like that. After Chicago, New York, Camden, Patterson, Washington, and San Antonio, I was drained. I was exhausted. There was a certain point at which I just had to come home and take a walk with my dog and pick black berries.
But look, let me tell you something: When this book comes out, I’m sure the news angle is going to be something of this sort: “This is a timely book because we’ve just had three important cases in the US — Kentucky, New Jersey, and Texas — in which the school systems have just be overturned in the courts, and there are some 20 more similar cases that are now pending. The courts are likely to overthrow school funding systems throughout the us in the next couple of years. And so…this book comes out at an ideal moment, as this issue is at national attention.”
That is superficially the ‘news peg,’ but on a deeper level I don’t think the funding system is the ultimate issue. That’s just the instrument. The ultimate question is the unresolved issue of whether or not Americans really believe in equality. Most people, I suspect, want their children to have a better-than-equal chance–a better-than-equal chance of being born alive, of having good medical care in, of preschool opportunities, and a better-than-equal education.
I think–while the immediate problem, the tactical problem, is 200 odd court battles, which will be fought and fought aggressively–the ultimate issue is far less tactical and one more a matter of philosophy or even religion, and that is a deep down ethical decision as to whether we really do believe in playing on an even field. That is the ultimate question. That’s why I spent a little time [in Savage Inequalities] explaining the court cases. I didn’t spend alot of time on them because I felt what was going on in the courts was less important was what was going on in the hearts of these children, and on the streets, and in the schools in which they are entrapped.
Q: That raises another question about this book. In some of your more recent books–in particular the 1990 reissue of The Night is Dark and I am far from Home, you speak of writing in a quieter and more tolerant voice than you did before. Is this book an expression of that voice?
Kozol: For me, it is a quieter voice. It is quieter than the way I was writing 25 years. It will still be too loud a voice for many of our literary critics in the U.S., I’m sure. I find over the years that no matter how I moderate my voice the major critics say, “He sounds too angry. Why can’t he be controlled like us? Why can’t he contain his passion like we do?” I always feel that they’re giving themselves credit for more passion than they have. What they call self-discipline is really inadequacy. They make a virtue of what they don’t have.
And so my voice–no matter how moderate it seems to me–seems much too shrill to them. I sometimes say to them: “If you don’t like the way my voice sounds, just wait till a thousand poor kids burst into your city room and stand around your desk, you won’t like their voice any more than mine. This much anger cannot be contained forever. In America, as everywhere else, the retched of the earth are going to made their voices heard.”
The last thing I want to see is a wave of violence in our big cities. Nor, however, do I see much likelihood of a mass protest in the near future, unfortunately, because the spirits of poor people are so broken right now.
Q: At one time, when you spoke about illiteracy, when asked to discuss the consequences of not addressing the problem, you suggested four outcomes: a passing on of the problem from generation to generation; a threat to democracy; a threat to culture; and, finally, an undermining of our competitiveness with other countries like Japan. On the last point you seem to have recanted somewhat. Is this true?
Kozol: No. I haven’t recanted on that. I still think it’s probably true. Put it this way: it certainly can’t be good for American competitiveness to have millions of people who are at very marginal or low literacy levels, because there aren’t many jobs left that require no literacy. I simply find that issue tiresome. For years now I have done what many other advocates have done in areas of housing, education, health care–essentially to say to business interests in America: “This issue is important because it’s costing you money, and that’s why you should deal with it.”
I still think in long run that’s true. But I think of that as an unworthy argument which debases the one who makes it and the one who hears it because the reason we should deal with injustice is because it’s not just, not because it’s expensive.
The best reason to give a child a good school with a teacher who is confident enough to be relaxed and pleasant in a cheerful building with a green playing field outside is so that child will have a happy childhood, and not so that it will help IBM in competing with Sony, or GM in competing with Toyota. I still think the [economic] argument is a legitimate one, but I think there is something ethically embarrassing about resting a national agenda on the basis of sheer greed. It’s more important in the long run, more true to the American character at it best, to lodge the argue in terms of simple justice: It ain’t fair the way it is now.
Gordon W.E. Nore © 1991