Author Jonathan Kozol Speaks on Public School Segregation

By Eliza Silverman (’14)Copy Editor

On April 27, Jonathan Kozol spoke to a full house in Garrison Theater about the rampant inequalities entrenched in the public school system in the United States today. Kozol is a non-fiction writer, educator and activist best known for his books on domestic public education.

Kozol regaled his Garrison audience with the story of his intellectual adventures at Harvard University—from which he graduated summa cum laude in 1958 with a degree in English literature—and his subsequent acceptance of a Rhodes Scholarship. Instead of completing his Rhodes, Kozol began to tutor in Boston after a brief stint as a starving-artist stereotype in Paris, and finally was hired as a teacher in the Boston Public School District. Terrified and uncertified, Kozol entered the education sector with a passion for his children and for Language Arts. He in no way anticipated the apathy he would encounter from students, teachers and administrators alike.

After completing one year as a fourth-grade teacher, Kozol was fired for teaching a Langston Hughes poem that allegedly deviated from curriculum and presented material that was age-inappropriate. Kozol moved his Claremont audience with the story of one headstrong female student, who had been uninterested in the material and in Kozol himself until this particular Hughes poem was presented. Kozol’s anecdote demonstrated the unyielding and often outdated rigidity of the curriculum in undeserved communities, as well as the administration’s fundamental inability to listen to its own students.

After being fired, Kozol became devoted to fighting the injustices in the U.S. public school system. In his years before becoming more involved in social justice work and dedicating more time to his writing, Kozol also held various teaching positions in other districts. His first published non-fiction book, “Death at an Early Age,” describes Kozol’s year as a fourth grade teacher in Boston Public Schools. The book has sold more than two million copies in the United States and Europe.

Kozol has published several books since “Death at an Early Age,” including: “Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools” (1991); “The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America” (2005); and his most recent, 2007’s “Letters to a Young Teacher” (which Kozol claimed was his most “cheerful” book).

So what can higher education do to alleviate poverty and social inequality in school? “Emphasize humanities and social justice courses,” said Kozol. He said it is necessary to educate and make aware the leaders of tomorrow. Kozol left the audience with a memorable message: “Life is short. Use it well.”