The Magazine

The Learning Disabled Education Expert

Jonathan Kozol's crusade to prevent school reform.

Dec 31, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 16 • By JONATHAN LEAF
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Throughout his writings, Kozol has presented himself as concerned above all for the poor and for minorities, and he says that it is for this reason that he has made "defending" public education his foremost theme. Yet here's a strange thing: Kozol himself abhors public schools. As he quite rightly observed in the opening sentences of his 1981 book On Being a Teacher, the present-day public school is a "dehumanizing institution." "Students reside within this house of lies for only twelve years at a stretch. .  .  . Their teachers often are condemned to a life sentence."

On Being a Teacher is a very revealing book. It shows how odd Kozol is in the role of an education advocate. He thinks it is imperative for teachers to break down the dehumanizing distinctions, to stop thinking of themselves as being different in any way from their students and make all school records available to students. "The cumulative folder is the school board's version of the secret records kept on citizens by the FBI. It holds the same potential dangers for students." What's more, in the ideal school, he explains, students should not "line up elegantly beside the door, wait for [the teacher's] signal and then file to the stairs." This is behaving like "William Calley's soldiers marching to My Lai." Better still, a teacher should make regular unsupervised afternoon visits to her students' homes and become a "co-worker and friend." (Kozol does not bother addressing the risks of molestation this might present, nor speak of the effect of the loss of authority for the teacher.)

And then there is what he thinks students should be taught. He says children should learn that Abraham Lincoln was "profoundly racist," that Martin Luther King Jr. thought that "America is the greatest purveyor of violence in the world," and that John Foster Dulles was a warmonger like the Nazi diplomat Joachim von Ribbentrop.

How did Kozol arrive at these unorthodox opinions? Curiously, although he has made his name as a former teacher speaking out for more money for ghetto schools, he actually only taught ever so briefly--for just a portion of one semester in 1964--in a ghetto school. Indeed, while he has written extensively about secondary schools, and always with a smug and assured tone of inside knowledge, he was never a regular high school teacher. His own teaching experiences were almost entirely in an elementary school in the affluent suburb of Boston where he grew up. He has so little real knowledge of the poorest schools that his books contain risible errors and suspicious-sounding quotations.

Kozol never intended to be a teacher. He wanted to be a novelist and authored the comically bad Fume of Poppies (1958). Here's an excerpt:

Before the warm fire, Wendy and I took off our clothes. She slipped off her sweater, pulled it over her head, raising her arms. The white of her belly was lovely and gay. The fire beat at us. Then she took off her britches. Her legs stood arrow-tall on the floor.

The novel is a Bildungsroman describing the protagonist's affair with a proud Wasp-y girl, their troubles, and their eventual marriage.

Not many years after the book's failure, Kozol took his first job teaching, in Roxbury, Massachusetts. He was soon fired, his dismissal arising out of his decision to teach some Langston Hughes poems to his fourth-grade students even though Hughes was not on the list of accepted writers that the district's school board provided him. In Death at an Early Age, Kozol presents himself as an effective and inspiring teacher who arrived following a period during which the children to whom he was assigned hadn't had a regular teacher in months. He claims that even though the children made progress during his time as their instructor, he was seen as a troublemaker and was instructed not to ever seek employment in the district ever again.

The logic here is consistent with Kozol's view that urban public schools are grossly mismanaged, "dehumanizing," and troubled. What's peculiar is that he could not draw the obvious moral of his story. The problem with the Roxbury public school class he led was not a want of funds to find a good teacher. In spite of the low pay offered, the school had unearthed a Harvard-educated Rhodes scholar and published novelist to teach their fourth graders. No, the difficulty was that the school didn't want a Harvard-educated Rhodes scholar. In Kozol's view, he made the mediocrities running his school uneasy, and they preferred a rotating stream of substitute teachers to a teacher who made them feel inadequate. Might competition have been a remedy for this entrenched and willful fecklessness?