Death At An Early Age

By David Ruenzel — April 01, 2000 3 min read
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(New American Library, $13.95)

In 1964, a young teacher and activist named Jonathan Kozol began teaching 4th grade in one of Boston’s most over-crowded and dilapidated elementary schools. Like many inner-city schools at the time, the student population was slowly but inexorably turning from white to black. Most of his fellow teachers were white and not happy about the change. As Kozol reports in Death at an Early Age, the book he wrote about his year at the school, they routinely beat unruly students with a rattan and referred to their African American charges as “niggers” and “animals.” Some of the black students, Kozol writes, felt so ignored and isolated that they sometimes invited beatings, preferring degradation to total neglect.

By Maxine GreeneBy Jonathan KozolBy John DeweyBy John HoltBy Mike RoseBy Lisa DelpitBy Theodore SizerBy Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner But Kozol’s book stands as much more than an analysis and indictment of school racism, important as that is. What makes Death at an Early Age a classic of progressive education is Kozol’s description of the way he takes on the institutional apartheid by trying to close the traditional gap separating teacher and student—a gap that at this school had become an almost unbridgeable chasm. “The policy or the pattern that dictates a separation between a teacher and his pupil was being understood at our school, and was being explicitly interpreted, in precisely such a way to maintain a line of color,” Kozol writes.

By developing relationships with his students—many of whom had been taught by an endless rotation of substitutes—Kozol comes to understand both their emotional and educational needs. And as a result, he begins to question and then depart from the official curriculum, which is, in his view, as oppressive as it is inane. (For example, the school compels children to write using only “optimistic” adjectives and to read textbooks that describe Africans as a “savage and uncivilized” people who "[shoot] poisoned arrows from behind the thick bushes.”)

Frustrated by the scarcity of better materials, Kozol brings in provocative literature and artwork of his own choosing. This does not sit well with his fellow teachers and administrators. Though Kozol’s students become fascinated with a Paul Klee watercolor, the school’s art teacher tells him that he is naïve to think children could appreciate such complex work. When he has his 4th grade students read Robert Frost’s “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening,” his supervisor rebukes him, saying the poem is only for 6th graders.

But perhaps most bizarre of all is the scolding he receives from the reading teacher after discussing slavery with his students. “I don’t want these children to think back on this year later on and remember that we were the ones who told them they were Negro,” the teacher says to him.

Finally, in the spring of 1965, Kozol gets the ax after teaching his students “The Ballad of the Landlord,” a Langston Hughes poem about the exploitation of black tenants by white property owners. The next day, a district official explains to him that “no literature which is not in the Course of Study can ever be read by a Boston teacher without permission from someone higher up.”

In his epilogue to the 1985 edition of Death at an Early Age, Kozol suggests his book has done little to improve urban schools and racial inequities. But the book, and others like it from that period, did in fact lay the foundation for change. Thanks in part to Ko-zol’s efforts, writers like Langston Hughes are now part of the school curriculum.

Still, it’s easy to understand the author’s frustration. Policymakers are only beginning to address the squalor and substandard conditions of inner-city schools that he so devastatingly depicted.

Many see the standards movement sweeping the country as our best hope for these schools. But the current push for standards and high-stakes tests threatens to turn teachers into score-raising technicians. With long lists of material to cover for the tests, teachers may soon find themselves with no time to venture beyond the official curriculum or to reach out to students. Kozol decries this kind of teaching. Indeed, his arguments about the need for teachers to know their students and link learning to their lives is at the heart of the book. In this way, Death at an Early Age speaks to a whole new generation of teachers.


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