Five Minutes With
Jonathan Kozol isn’t subtle. He is angry. A veteran of 40 years spent on the frontlines of education reform, his new book is titled Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America. The book, told primarily through the voices of teachers and students, vividly exposes the ways that the American educational system has betrayed lower-income inner-city children. Kozol describes schools that are separated by a 15-minute drive but that offer educational opportunities that are light years apart – primarily white schools that offer drama club and AP classes and primarily black schools that require classes like hairdressing. One teacher at a South Bronx elementary school who Kozol spoke with pointed to one of her students and said that after 18 years of teaching, the child was “the first white student I have ever taught.” Kozol, a Harvard graduate, Rhodes scholar, author of books including Savage Inequalities and former public school teacher, talked with Campus Progress about race, education, and Shame of the Nation.
How do we activate liberally minded young people who may graduate with a lot of debt and who are wavering between Teach for America and a lucrative career at Goldman-Sachs? What do you say to those students?
First of all, I think there’s a myth most college students are selfishly inclined to earning money quickly or so determined to make their way in the corporate world that they don’t have any time or inclination to go out and do the decent things that are needed to change the world. In fact, I find thousands of college students, tens of thousands, wherever I go, packing the auditoriums wherever I speak, and then typically 200 of them will keep me up for another two hours asking me exactly where they’re needed. They are not willing to suppress their sense of justice or postpone their activism until some later time in life until after they’ve established a lucrative career. They want to do it now and they’re right to have that feeling because if they postpone the moment of ethical action for another five years, the likelihood is that they’ll never return to it. Once they go on to law school or whatever career it may be, they almost never return to that state of mind where they’re willing to take risks for the cause of justice.
Secondly, a lot of young people are frightened by their parents or by the older generation because older people will say to them, “Hey, you might ruin your careers if you do something decent first,” or “you might never be able to pay off your college debt.” Typically for young teachers out of college, I know thousands of young people who go right into public school as soon as they’re certified to teach. Virtually all of them want to protest the conditions that they see within but some of them are scared; again their parents say, “don’t take a chance on speaking out; you might lose your job.”
What I tell these young people is, the world is not as dangerous as the older generation would like you to believe. Anyone I know who has ever taken a risk and lost a job has ended up getting a better one two years later. The ones I pity are the ones who never stick out their neck for something they believe, never know the taste of moral struggle, and never have the thrill of victory.
And what do you say to those who aren’t interested in getting involved or who feel like this is a problem outside of themselves?
Some young people will tentatively say to me, “well maybe I oughtta get involved.” Well I say, “You don’t have any choice; you’re involved already. Even if you never do anything about this, you’ve benefited from an unjust system. You’re already the winner in a game that was rigged to your advantage from the start. If we did not have an apartheid school system in America, what is the chance you’d walk into this college so easily? It would have been a lot harder because there would have been a far larger applicant pool of highly capable minority kids to compete with you.
In a sense, those of us – and I’ve had a privileged education, too – those of us who have those benefits have to live with the uncomfortable knowledge that all our victories in life will be contaminated by the fact that we were winners in a game that was never played on a level playing field.
Your new book focuses on what you call apartheid in the American educational system. A lot of people think of apartheid as a term referring to a moment now relegated to political history. How do you see it happening here and now?
I think a lot of people don’t have any idea of how deeply segregated our schools have become all over again. Most textbooks are not honest in what they teach our high school students. An awful lot of people come to college with this strange idea that there’s no longer segregation in America’s schools, that our schools are basically equal; neither of these things is true. Segregation has returned to public education with a vengeance. During the decades after Brown v. Board of Education there was terrific progress. Tens of thousands of public schools were integrated racially. During that time the gap between black and white achievement narrowed. But since 1990 when the Rehnquist court started ripping apart the legacy of Brown, the court has taken the teeth out of Brown. During these years our schools have rapidly segregated and the gap in skills between minorities and whites has increased again. I just visited 60 public schools in 11 different states; if you took a photo of the classes I’m visiting, they would look exactly like a photograph of a school in Mississippi 50 years ago.
You mention that one of the most segregated school systems is in New York and you particularly single out Martin Luther King High School, which I grew up near. It was located in a primarily white neighborhood with almost no white students.
There’s the greatest irony of all: If you want to see the most segregated school in America today, ask to see the school named after Martin Luther King. Or Rosa Parks, or Thurgood Marshall. New York City has a school named for Jackie Robinson. Is this an integrated school that represents the ideals for which Jackie Robinson is honored? Of course not. It’s a 96 percent black and Hispanic school. There’s a school in New York named for Langston Hughes that’s 99 percent black and Hispanic. The principal of Martin Luther King High School even said to me, “Honestly, here we are at Lincoln Center in New York in a school that’s named for Martin Luther King and I have to hunt around the building to find my eight white students.”
Young people in college need to make up their minds whether they want to live in a nation that lives up to the dream of Dr. King or whether they want to live in a divided nation. And if we agree to trample on the dream of Dr. King then I don’t think we have the right to celebrate his birthday every year; it’s hypocrisy.
But the problem you care about isn’t just that schools are racially segregated but that they don’t offer the same quality of education.
The words of Brown v. Board of Education were clear: Even if segregated schools could ever be made equal in physical facilities, faculty, etc., as schools attended by white children, they would still be destructive to the souls of segregated children by the very fact of segregation in itself. We have placed them in isolation because we don’t want you to contaminate our own schools. It sends a destructive message for young blacks, and they recognize it very well. One teenager in Harlem said to me, “It’s like if they don’t have room for something and don’t know how to throw it out they put it back in the garage.” I said, “Is that how you feel?” She said, “That’s exactly how I feel.”
And these schools are not simply segregated; they’re wildly unequal. Nationally, overwhelmingly non-white schools receive $1,000 less per pupil than overwhelmingly white schools. In NYC, to give a dramatic example, there are kids in the South Bronx who get about $11,000 a year towards their education while right next door in the white suburb of Bronxville, they get $19,000. Kids that I write about are treated by America as if they were worth half as much as children in the white suburbs.
I often hear privileged white people say, “Well, that doesn’t sound quite fair, but can you really buy your way to a better education for poor kids?” Typically people who ask that question send their kids to Andover and Exeter. And still, the parents who spend $30,000 a year to guarantee their child a royal road into the Ivy League have the nerve to look me in the eyes and ask me about buying your way into a better education.
And the segregated schools that you write about really seem to be failing their students by not preparing them for college and higher education in some pretty shocking ways.
While writing this book, I met a student in L.A. named Mariah, at a school with 5,000 people in it, who was forced to take sewing classes the previous year even though she wanted to go to college. This year they told her she had to take hairdressing. I said, “What would you rather take?” and she said she wanted to take an AP course in English; then she started to cry. “I already know how to sew; my mother works in a sewing factory. I want to go to college; I don’t need to know how to sew to go to college. I hope for something more.” I call it the cognitive decapitation of inner-city children. We’re locking them out of the competition for empowerment from the very beginning.
In some schools it starts even earlier. In the book, I write about children in first grade who were taught to read by reading want ads. They learned to write by writing job applications. Imagine what would happen if anyone tried to do that to children in a predominantly white suburban school. The parents would fire the principal overnight. We tolerate this for children of color because we don’t genuinely value their intelligence. I’ve heard business leaders say, “We need these inner city children to be trained to be our entry-level workers.” They would never use the word “train” when they speak of their own children – they want their own children to be educated, to run the corporation someday, or to be doctors or lawyers or preachers or teachers or musicians or whatever else they choose to do in life.
It seems like part of what the press loves is reporting these stories of individuals who “beat the odds.”
I call those the “hero children.” There’s always that handful of children who are given special favors by rich people who happen to meet them, and the press loves to report how successful these kids are. But all that is the consequence of random acts of charity. Charity is not a substitute for systematic justice.
Katrina for a lot of people seemed to lay bare a lot of realities about race and class in America, but I’m guessing for you a lot of the things we all saw weren’t surprising to some extent.
It’s simply the most recent, most dramatic example of how easy it is to ignore the humanity of people when we live in a segregated society. The primary victims of Katrina, those who were given the least help by the government, those rescued last or not at all, were overwhelmingly people of color largely hidden from the mainstream of society. It’s easier to be brutal to people when you lock them out of sight. When you don’t know them. It is a perfectly dramatic example of what happens every day in our nation’s public schools, but the destruction is not as sudden nor as dramatic, but no less brutal, because it goes on every single day of the year.
What about solutions? Are there successes that you can point to?
We haven’t even lived up to the promises of Plessey v. Ferguson. American schools today are separate and no one would even pretend they’re equal. Every expert has a new plan for creating successful segregated schools, and the white society loves to hear these stories because they let us off the hook completely. There’s a whole host of books with titles like “seven ways to fix the urban schools” or “seven ways to turn it all around in inner-city schools.” For some reason they always list seven items; I don’t know why. Each plan is usually boosted for a few years, then they’re declared a failure and abandoned. They’re recipes for what you could call successful segregation. I refuse to play the game of polishing the apple of apartheid. It doesn’t propose seven ways to create happy segregation – it calls to abolish segregation in America.
I devoted the last chapter of the book to inner city schools I loved – schools that are fighting the intolerant testing mania and still teaching kids well. Schools in which teachers and principals manage to do a good job and give kids a chance to enjoy their childhood. It’s my favorite chapter in the book, and if anyone who reads the book gets depressed, tell them to read that chapter first.
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