It was fitting that a huge crowd packed into the pews of Herrick Chapel at Grinnell College last Friday night to hear Jonathan Kozol, for while the 78-year-old Kozol is a quiet prophet with a Boston accent and a sense of humor, his life work has been to name the deepest sins of our society and call us to do something about them. He writes and speaks about public policy—especially as it shapes education and the other institutions that embody the way we value or devalue our children, but he isn’t really a policy wonk.
Kozol does not arrive with a list of the perfect policy solutions. Rather he writes from a location of privilege to challenge the blindness of privilege. His purpose is to make us all see and feel responsible for how our society’s injustices are experienced by real people who share the same values and needs and humanity as those who have been positioned to shape public policy for their own benefit. That Kozol is a prophet and not a policy wonk is why his 50-year-old Death at an Early Age is still read and his 25-year-old Savage Inequalities remains timely despite the passage of a quarter century, despite that No Child Left Behind created another set of under-funded programs, and despite state-by-state policy changes that have rearranged the inequality. Underneath the savage inequality in school finance is a moral failure: our society’s willingness to tolerate alarming inequality as long as those of us who have the power to move to farther suburbs can be sure our own children are protected and as long as we can allow ourselves not to see the children who have been left behind. All this blindness, Kozol shows us, is possible because we are increasingly a society segregated and disconnected by race and class—even more so than when Kozol published Savage Inequalities in 1991.
For me Kozol’s most memorable words were part of a keynote at a Providence, Rhode Island church convention in 1999. Kozol’s topic was welfare reform. Although Kozol is Jewish, he went to the New Testament for words that would touch an audience of mainline Protestants. Here is what he said: “When Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘If you love me, feed my sheep,’ he didn’t say, ‘only the sheep who dwell in the green pastures.’ He didn’t say, ‘only the sheep whose mothers please us by acceptable behavior.’ He didn’t say, ‘only the sheep whose fathers have good jobs and mothers come to PTA.’ He didn’t say, ‘only the sheep whose parents make smart choices.’ He didn’t say, ‘only the sheep that have two parents in the pen.’ He just said, ‘If you love me, feed my sheep.'” Kozol is calling to account a society that would blame and punish individuals unable to pull themselves up even as we citizens have blinded ourselves to the role of the structural factors that are deepening poverty and intensifying inequality in America. We are even willing to punish children for the perceived sins and failures of their parents.
So… what did Kozol tell us on Friday night?
Segregation continues to dehumanize us. “Black and Hispanic children are more isolated intellectually and segregated geographically than at any time since the Civil Rights Movement.” “Dr. King did not say, ‘I have a dream that we’ll have more efficient, test-driven, anxiety-ridden schools.'” On top of the segregation and inequality, “The pestilence of standardized testing is sucking the beauty and spontaneity out of the lives of children.”
As we permit ourselves to dehumanize education—focus on standards and rubrics, ratings and test scores; manipulate data to shape technocratic policy; value competition and efficiency and forget that it is all about shaping children—we lose sight of our human connectedness and our mutual responsibility for our children. “The education reform business is a business now,” with all the cold language of competition and accountability. Teachers “deliver” the lessons at prescribed times of the day to achieve “the outcome mandated for that moment of the morning.” In the 2005 book, The Shame of the Nation, Kozol explains the danger of language that transforms the experiences of children and their teachers into abstractions: “By giving every particle of learning an official name, we strip it of uniqueness. By forcing it to fit into the right compartment of significance or meaning, we control its power to establish its own meanings or to stir the children to pursue a small exhilaration in directions that may lead them to a place that experts haven’t yet had time to name. Fascination and delight, no matter what lip-service we may pay to them, become irrelevant distractions. Finding ‘where it goes’ and what it ‘demonstrates’ and how it can be ‘utilized’ become the teachers’ desolate obsessions.” (p. 77)
We have limited our dreams to the relatively tiny group of children we can save through a particular program, or one charter school, or even our favorite brand of charter management organization, but by definition justice must be systemic. Our education system cannot be reformed for a few exceptional children who earn a spot at a selective school or those whose parents are sophisticated enough to secure a place in a school choice lottery. Kozol elaborates in the 2007 Letters to a Young Teacher, “The Hebrew prophets and the followers of Jesus did not make a false god out of elbow-pushing skills and hard-nosed competition. ‘Savviness’ was not their ministry. We ought to remind Americans of that.” (p. 148)
Public morality must be about shaping the institutions of our society to provide access for all. Here is how Kozol explained it last Friday evening:
Competitive programs, whether in private schools or charter or voucher schools or public magnet programs, reward individuals with exceptional prowess or luck, but, “Charity has never been a substitute for systematic justice and systematic equity in public education. Public schools themselves in neighborhoods of widespread destitution ought to have the rich resources, small classes, and well-prepared and well-rewarded teachers that would enable us to give to every child the feast of learning that is now available to children of the poor only on the basis of a careful selectivity or by catching the attention of empathetic people like the pastor of a church or another grown-up whom they meet by chance. Charity and chance and narrow selectivity are not the way to educate the children of a genuine democracy.”