City Journal

Sol Stern
America’s Most Influential—and Wrongest—School Reformer
The nation has eagerly swallowed all of Jonathan Kozol’s prescriptions for what ails the schools. It’s a cure that has made public education less healthy than ever.
Winter 2000

School reformer Jonathan Kozol likes to present himself as a prophet without honor in his own country, a heroic explorer of America's slums whose painful discoveries about the institutional racism that stunts poor children go unheard and unappreciated. Pure nonsense, of course; the capitalist society Kozol so disdains has rewarded him richly, turning him into a cultural icon. The Ford, Rockefeller, and Guggenheim Foundations have showered him with grants; colleges and ed schools nationwide have made his books required reading. When his Savage Inequalities appeared, Publishers Weekly—unprecedentedly—dropped five pages of paid advertising to run excerpts, printing on its cover a plea to the president to pour billions into the nation's inner-city schools.

Far from having no influence, Kozol's best-selling books have defined today's education-policy orthodoxy. They have convinced many Americans that inner-city minority children are languishing academically only because their schools are segregated and starved for resources by a heartless society, and that therefore teachers should turn their classrooms into agencies for social change. The education establishment has converted these wrongheaded and damaging ideas into action—with disastrous consequences for the very disadvantaged children that Kozol claims to champion. Kozol's mistaken but hugely influential diagnosis leads education advocates to keep proposing still more of the wrong cure, while the real causes of school failure—the monopoly public education system, the teachers' unions, and the ed schools—go on wreaking their damage unimpeded, and inner-city schools keep on failing.

Kozol made his mark on educational policy with his very first book, Death at an Early Age, which set the stage for the nation's catastrophic experiment with court-ordered busing. Written when Kozol was barely 27, Death at an Early Age recounts the author's six-month teaching stint in one of Boston's allegedly segregated public schools. Instantly acclaimed as a classic of urban poverty literature, the book provided authentic, personal witness to the notion that de facto segregation in Northern schools was as evil and deep-rooted as de jure segregation in the South, and only radical surgery could root it out.

The young author had come to write such a book by a circuitous route. The son of a prominent Boston-area doctor, he had gone to prep school and had graduated with honors from Harvard, his father's alma mater. After a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford, Kozol spent a few years in Paris working on a novel. Returning to Boston in 1964, he decided to try his hand as a substitute fourth-grade teacher at a run-down school in the largely minority Dorchester district—only to be fired after six months. The charge: that he had departed from the official curriculum by reading the poems of Robert Frost and Langston Hughes to his students. When the Boston papers picked up the story—HARVARD MAN FIRED FOR TEACHING LANGSTON HUGHES POEM TO BLACK CHILDREN—the public school authorities appeared terminally stupid.

The Langston Hughes episode had given the first-time author advance publicity and instant credibility, and his slender book is artful, engaging the reader with flesh-and-blood characters and tales of good and evil inside a school that Kozol paints as a racist hellhole. Reviewers praised Kozol's unsparing exposé of the "destruction of the hearts and minds of Negro children in the Boston Public Schools," as the book's subtitle put it. Death at an Early Age won the National Book Award and went on to sell over 2 million copies.

The book's key idea is that institutional racism, embodied in segregated schools and hateful white teachers, is the sole cause of the failure of black children. For Kozol, no other explanation is worth considering—not family breakdown and not underclass culture. Indeed, Kozol justifies the self-destructive behavior of black youngsters. After one of his students is accused of stealing, he writes: "I do not think that he had stolen anything, but I would consider it quite understandable and almost natural if he had. Any Negro child who stole anything movable out of any home or Boston schoolhouse would not have stolen back as much as has been stolen from him." As the mantra of the time had it, we mustn't blame the victim: the environment we create for him is the root of his flaws.

The book movingly sketches black children whose radiant souls and unrealized potential shine out from their impoverished circumstances. They suffer a continual assault on their spirits, as their teachers belittle their aspirations and abilities. Typical is the "Art Teacher," who shows her black pupils work done by the school's previous generation of white students. "These are the kinds of pictures that children who came to this school used to do here," she announces. "You children couldn't do it." When Kozol tells her that he has visited the home of one of the black children and found that it was "nice," she replies: "I wouldn't say that it was a nice home, Johnny, if you know what I mean. . . . I would say it was a nice Negro home. The two things are not the same." And of course she would never go to see for herself.

In Kozol's telling, not one white adult—except him—exhibits a flicker of sympathy for the black children or teaches them anything useful. For all my criticism of public school teachers in City Journal, I couldn't imagine such a school as Kozol depicts, where not a single teacher was accomplishing anything of value. We will never get to hear from those accused teachers, however—because they don't exist. "With the exception of certain named public figures, characters in this book do not have counterparts in real life," Kozol acknowledges in a "Note to Readers." "Nevertheless, important attitudes, character traits, acts or stated viewpoints ascribed to faculty, administration and pupils in this book accurately reflect the author's experience in the Boston Public Schools." In other words: Don't pin me down with nitpicking questions about whether my school's teachers actually said everything I attribute to them.

To Kozol's admirers, Death at an Early Age revealed the grim truth about the segregation and racism that were damaging black students. At almost the same moment that it appeared, President Johnson's Kerner Commission was concluding that segregation in the North as well as the South was driving America "toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal." White liberals were searching their souls, and powerful voices in Boston, ranging from the Boston Globe to the NAACP, began pressing for judicial intervention. Kozol's indictment gave these forces another weapon in the ensuing school wars. Kozol himself would later write that "Death at an Early Age appears to have had some effect in heightening the pressure that would lead in time to the court-ordered integration of the Boston schools."

A few years after the 1967 publication of Kozol's book, federal judge W. Arthur Garrity issued his draconian decree, which caused thousands of black students to be bused halfway across the city every day, while thousands of white students unwillingly made the reverse trip. Most of the white liberals who cheered Judge Garrity's decision didn't enroll their own children in the public schools, of course; nor did the childless Kozol. But the white, predominantly Catholic, working-class families of the city who did send their children to the public schools eventually voted with their feet. "In just four years, Boston's schools lost nearly 20,000 white students [out of a total of 54,000 white students]—to parochial schools, private academies, the streets, or because their families had left the city altogether," wrote Anthony Lukas in Common Ground, the most detailed account of the busing wars.

Busing thus achieved the very opposite of what it was meant to do, leaving the Boston schools more segregated than ever. Kozol's Dorchester school was about 60 percent black at the time he denounced it as "segregated," but Boston soon had not a single school with a 40 percent white enrollment. Eventually, even Kozol had to acknowledge that forced busing "may prove at last to be a Pyrrhic victory. Today we see an integrated underclass in Boston in the process of gestation. Poor whites, poor blacks, and poor Hispanics now become illiterate together." All the energy and resources and passion that had gone into the busing effort were worse than wasted.

Death at an Early Age left behind another destructive legacy—a truly ironic one, given Kozol's dream of racial harmony. So unsparing is the book's portrayal of the racism of white teachers that a reader might well deem black separatism and Afrocentrism the only alternatives. Why not give up on integration and let blacks run their own schools, with black teachers and administrators and a black-oriented curriculum that would restore black children's self-esteem and racial pride?

That's exactly the approach that New York tried a year after Kozol's book came out. Mayor John Lindsay and Ford Foundation head McGeorge Bundy conspired to turn over Brooklyn's Ocean Hill/Brownsville school district to black nationalist militants. Echoing Kozol, the two white patricians had come to believe that white teachers were the cause of black children's failure. A year later, New York abandoned its experiment in "community control" (as it was called), but not before hatred between the black community and the white teachers' union began to rage, grievously weakening an already beleaguered school system and leaving a residue of bitterness that persists to this day.

Curricular Afrocentrism as an antidote to the alleged destruction of black children's minds by white educators still persists, too, with no less malignant effects. School districts from Portland, Oregon, to Washington, D.C., have institutionalized a new form of racism, stuffing the minds of black children with racialist humbug about a mythical glorious African past, instead of teaching them the basic skills they need in an information-based economy.

Kozol's next two books did much to convince teachers of all races that their proper role is to subvert the mainstream beliefs that make America so racist and uncaring. The politicization of teaching that these books helped bring about inflicts its own measure of harm on minority students, filling their minds not with essential skills but with ideological claptrap that fans resentment of the mainstream culture that students should strive to master. In Death at an Early Age, Kozol had presented himself as a non-political, idealistic young man shocked by a glaring injustice, but soon afterward he revealed himself as a hard-line leftist. America's capitalist culture, he now argued, gave rise to its racist public schools. Good schooling, therefore, shouldn't focus primarily on teaching literacy and numeracy but rather on encouraging children, black and white, to free themselves from capitalism's competitive mindset and the false patriotism that traditional teachers and textbooks inculcated.

Kozol hardened these views in (of all places) revolutionary Cuba, whose government invited him in the mid-seventies to study its education system. Dictatorships don't make such offers without knowing what kind of review they will get: Kozol's account of his visit, Children of the Revolution, is a nauseating apologia for the Castro regime's indoctrination of children and adults. Almost everyone else in the world knew about Castro's appalling human-rights record by this time, with poets languishing in jail and purged teachers. Not Kozol: the dissident truth-seeker became a crude propagandist for a coercive Marxist state.

The first thing he learned in Cuba was to get over some outworn ideals—that education is about the objective search for truth, for example, or that objective truth exists. When he asked Cuba's education minister why turgid political propaganda filled Cuba's adult-literacy-course texts, he got the standard Marxist line: "All education has forever had a class bias. No society will foster schools that do not serve its ends." Kozol accepts this doubletalk as gospel and urges the reader to discard the naïve view that education can be politically neutral. Even in the so-called free world, it is an instrument of state indoctrination.

Kozol's visit to the Lenin School, the high school for future leaders of the revolution, stands out as a highlight of his trip. "[S]omething here is really different," he enthuses. "There is a sense of shared achievement, of hard work that remains . . . one good notch below the level of competitive obsession"—unlike capitalism's dog-eat-dog way of life. The school is "able to combine . . . a reverence for productive labor and an impressive level of true humanistic education of the whole man and the whole woman." No alienation here: socialist man is at peace with himself and his comrades. Like all Cuban schools, this one is based "on a firm and vivid grasp upon the concrete truths of life itself. Almost all ideas and skills that are acquired in these schools are meant to lead to action, to real work, and to real dedication. . . . There is a sense, within the Cuban schools, that one is working for a purpose and that that purpose is a great deal more profound and more important than the selfish pleasure of an individual reward." Radically anti-intellectual as well as anti-individualist, this is a pretty good description of the totalitarian frame of mind.

Luckily for Kozol's career, Children of the Revolution sold few copies and quickly vanished. But Kozol brooded over the ideas he'd taken away from Cuba and molded them into a new theory for reforming American education. Taking as his starting point the crude Marxist view that education in all societies is "a system of indoctrination," "an instrument of the state," he worked out a method by which teachers could subvert capitalist America's bad indoctrination and—cleverly and subtly—substitute some good left-wing indoctrination in its place. His next book, On Being a Teacher, is a manual on how to do that.

A typical chapter, "Disobedience Instruction," shows teachers how to inculcate skepticism of authority. They should discredit obedience by discussing "those ordinary but pathetic figures who went into Watergate to steal, into My Lai to kill—among other reasons, because they lacked the power to say no." They should invoke mass murderer Adolf Eichmann, too, whose "own preparation for obedient behavior was received in German public schools"—which resemble our own in aiming to produce "good Germans, or good citizens, as we in the United States would say."

All the book's model lessons aim to teach little children to withstand America's state-sponsored brainwashing and to open them up to the self-evident truths of feminism, environmentalism, and the Left's account of history. At the end of the book, Kozol thoughtfully provides a long list of left-wing publications and organizations—including the information agencies of the Chinese and Cuban governments—where teachers can get worthwhile classroom materials. But, Kozol warns teachers, be stealthy about all this; you can't let administrators or parents perceive you as so politically oriented that you neglect the basic skills.

Parents, particularly of minority children, should dread the prospect of having one of Kozol's guerilla teachers in charge of their children's classrooms; such teachers are almost never much good at imparting basic skills, because they almost always embrace the ed schools' latest progressive pedagogical fads. The young teacher who feels compelled to parade before her fourth-graders every one of Columbus's depredations against the Arawaks is also likely to believe that standardized tests are bunk, that math and reading should never be taught through drill, that children need not be taught "mere facts," and that the very idea of literacy is merely a Western conceit.

Unlike Kozol's Cuban book, On Being a Teacher is still in print and still widely read in ed schools and by activist teachers. To the degree that elementary and high school teachers take to heart Kozol's vision of the classroom as an arena for political indoctrination and the deconstruction of Western culture, they limit the life chances of inner-city children. As education critic E. D. Hirsch and noted black educator Lisa Delpit have warned, disadvantaged children desperately need drilling in basic literacy and numeracy skills—even more than do middle-class children from educated families. Those poor children will grow to adulthood not in the collectivist society of Jonathan Kozol's fantasy but in the global economy. Education theories and practices inspired by another failed Marxist utopia are the last thing those children need.

The 1990s gave currency to some truly radical education-reform ideas that offer real hope for improving the nation's schools, especially in inner cities. Kozol's next book, Savage Inequalities, has given a powerful boost to the opponents of these innovative reforms, once again harming the minority children Kozol purports to champion. As the new reformers see it, inner-city public schools fail poor children not because they are racist but because they are part of an unaccountable monopoly system, operated for the benefit of employees rather than pupils. The new reformers propose to make teachers and principals accountable by ending tenure, and to let students escape from failing schools, taking public money with them, either to private schools or to public charter schools. Naturally, the two national teachers' unions hate these proposals. But because they can't say that they oppose change per se, they have come up with the counter-argument that inner-city schools fail because they have less money to spend than more successful suburban schools. Give us as much money as the best suburban schools, the unions say, and we will produce successful urban schools.

Kozol entered the fray on the side of the teachers' unions. Aiming for another best-seller, he put aside his Marxist edspeak in favor of the shocked innocence that had worked so well in Death at an Early Age. "I found that I missed being with schoolchildren, and I felt a longing to spend time in public schools again," Kozol writes in Savage Inequalities. He visited schools in 30 neighborhoods, he said. But in the book, he chooses to highlight only the most glaring contrasts between the worst inner-city schools and nearby suburban schools. The disparities between urban and suburban schools should surprise no one, of course. White flight—partly caused by the forced busing that Kozol helped bring about—shrank urban tax bases while filling the suburbs with new upwardly mobile parents who cared deeply about their children's schools and were happy to lavish tax money on them, particularly since they were now paying less taxes for welfare and policing.

Each of Savage Inequalities' six chapters focuses on the blighted minority schools of a different city, along with some comparisons with nearby wealthy suburban school districts. By comparing the worst urban schools with the richest suburban schools—two of Chicago's sorriest high schools, for example, with preppy New Trier High School in one of the nation's poshest suburbs—Kozol can avoid dealing with the real reasons that urban schools don't work, the non-financial reasons that teachers' unions do not want discussed. If he actually compared the deplorable Morris High School that he chooses to highlight with adequate inner-city public schools—New York's successful Manhattan Center or Frederick Douglass Academy, for instance—Kozol would have been forced to consider explanations other than money for school failure. If he had visited one of the many Catholic schools within walking distance of Morris High School—schools that are thriving academically despite spending less than half of what the public schools spend—he'd have to ask whether the total absence of accountability for teachers, principals, and other employees might account for public school failure.

Widely respected education economists, Harvard's Caroline Hoxby and Eric Hanushek of the University of Rochester, have shown that disparities in school funding cannot explain racial and class disparities in academic achievement. Nevertheless, the success of Kozol's work provides political cover for the education interests to ask for more and more dollars to keep doing the same things. No wonder the teachers' unions have repeatedly honored Kozol, who has conveniently stopped denouncing white teachers in inner-city schools as hopelessly racist, as a "defender of public education."

Kozol's and the unions' money arguments have clearly worked: money has been pouring into urban school systems since the publication of Savage Inequalities. The cities have benefited from more than $50 billion in federal Title I money and substantially increased state aid packages to poorer districts to make up for their local property-tax shortfall. Three of the six cities Savage Inequalities portrays—New York, Washington, and Camden—now spend over $10,000 per pupil on their schools. True, that's still not as much as rich suburbs like Scarsdale and Great Neck, nor will it ever be, under our current political system. But it is much more than any other country spends on education; it is higher than the average expenditure for the United States; and it is higher than the average of the states those three cities are in. Certainly, it should be sufficient to provide any child with a decent education. But it will never be enough for Jonathan Kozol. No matter how much help inner-city schools receive from private or public sources, they'll never match the purity of purpose and the levelling of all human differences that Kozol once glimpsed in revolutionary Cuba.

Kozol's latest book, Amazing Grace (1995), reiterates the argument of Savage Inequalities, though with a preachy religiosity in place of Marxist rhetoric. This time it is the Mott Haven section of the South Bronx—New York's poorest neighborhood—that prompts Kozol's sermon about racial injustice. He relishes describing how he boards the subway right next to Bloomingdale's department store on Manhattan's opulent Upper East Side and, six stops and 20 minutes later, emerges from Mott Haven's Brook Avenue station into a moonscape of garbage-strewn lots and burned-out buildings.

Once again, Kozol argues that as long as ghettos like Mott Haven exist, they will have grossly underfunded schools. To make the point, he describes Morris High School, which he also wrote about in Savage Inequalities. It is "one of the most beleaguered, segregated and decrepit secondary schools in the United States," he writes. "[B]arrels were filling up with rain in several rooms the last time I was there. Green fungus molds were growing in the corner" of one room, and the girls' toilets smelled too bad to use. But this description comes straight out of Savage Inequalities; Kozol wasn't anywhere near Morris during his research for Amazing Grace. In Savage Inequalities he had written that it would take at least $50 million to restore Morris's decaying physical plant, implying that the same racist society that created segregated Mott Haven would never spend that much money on a ghetto school. But New York actually did spend about $50 million to restore Morris a few years after the publication of Savage Inequalities, though Kozol has not a word to say about this expenditure. Of course the newly gleaming building hardly had an impact on the academic performance of Morris's students.

Though there's not much evidence that Kozol ever spent a single night in Mott Haven, he told reporters that he had spent the better part of two years there, losing 30 pounds and contracting asthma as a result. Four years later, he is still telling this story in his public lectures, usually moving his audiences to give him a standing ovation. His fans come away believing, as some have told me, that this is a writer "who really cares about poor children" and who has endured hardship for the sake of the truth.

One of the heroic figures in Amazing Grace is Mario, an angelic-looking black child trapped in an awful, segregated public school. Like every other black child Kozol has ever written about, he's engaging, bright, innocent, and brimming with untapped talent. If Mario is going nowhere, it's only because the rich, white taxpayers of New York refuse to spend more than a paltry $6,000 on his education. "We say that in the eyes of God all children are of equal value," Kozol intones in his standard stump speech, "and in the eyes of God I am sure they are. But in the eyes of America, alas, this isn't true. In the eyes of America, little Mario has a price tag on him. He is a $6,000 baby. If you want to see a $16,000 baby, you have to go out to the suburbs." To Kozol it's obvious that for little Mario to realize his dreams of a better life, government must immediately shower his school with that extra $10,000 per pupil.

Unquestionably Mario is a victim of cruel unfairness. Even with the more than $10,000 per pupil his school actually now receives (not $6,000, as Kozol claims), he is getting an inferior education. But not for the reasons Kozol puts forth. And since none of Kozol's prescriptions for inner-city schools has ever worked, perhaps it's time to stop listening to him and his many followers and to look harder and more honestly at the real reasons that our public schools are failing Mario and millions of children like him.

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