Education Opinion

The Shame of the Nation

September 30, 2005 3 min read

For almost 40 years, Jonathan Kozol has been the Jeremiah of public education, raging against the poverty and indifference that afflict our most disadvantaged students. His first book, Death at an Early Age (1967), drew from his experiences as a white teacher in Boston schools to chronicle the effects of institutional racism on black schoolchildren. Savage Inequalities (1991) was an indictment of how, in terms of schools and school districts, the rich get richer and the poor, poorer.


Kozol revisits these themes in The Shame of the Nation, only here he adds a new target—“apartheid schooling.” Over the past two decades, he argues, our schools have been resegregating: In Chicago, 87 percent of public school enrollment is black or Hispanic; in Los Angeles and New York, the figures are 84 percent and 75 percent, respectively. Many schools do not have a single white student, Kozol notes, including most of those named after Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks.

The retreat from school integration is often justified by political leaders, black as well as white, who cite that old saw about how black kids shouldn’t have to sit next to white kids to learn. The answer, they say, is not more integration but better teachers and higher standards for schools serving poor students of color. Kozol rightly sees this resurgence of separate-but-equal thinking as calamitous; separate can never be equal, a lesson that the nation learned (but has apparently forgotten) a couple of generations ago. Inner city schools, lacking political clout, will always be underfunded and underserved. And only the most inexperienced teachers will accept working in schools with collapsing roofs and a lack of basic materials.

Just as distressing, Kozol tells us, is the pedagogy that has taken root in apartheid schools. In the 60 schools in 11 states that he visited, mind-numbing instruction was the order of the day. While looking at his notes, Kozol couldn’t find “a single statement made by any child that had not been prompted by the teacher’s questions.” Intellectual exploration was virtually banned in these classrooms because it couldn’t be tested and hence measured.

Policymakers may claim that rote schooling is acceptable, but odds are they don’t want it for their own children. Kozol argues that what’s prescribed for apartheid schools is proscribed in middle-class ones. He writes of one of the former type of school he visited, “The choice was to bring heightened discipline and numbered lists and scripted lesson plans to Roosevelt’s children rather than bring Roosevelt’s children back into the mainstream of America.”

While Kozol writes with fervent conviction, too much of what he says consists of half-truths. Here, as in his other books, he expresses contempt for those who argue that more money is not the answer to solving schools’ problems. It’s hard to argue with him when so many schools are in such dismal shape. On the other hand, he is so eager to blame the “me first” attitude of suburban parents that he’s distressingly silent about the bloated bureaucracy and corruption that corrode inner city schools. My own district of Oakland, California, for instance, “lost” millions of dollars and was eventually taken over by the state—an object lesson as to why more money, while essential, truly is not enough.

Of course, Kozol is making the same point, albeit indirectly, by advocating for greater integration and not just greater resources. And in this, he may be right. There’s nothing good, as he puts it, about a world in which poor children “have no knowledge of the other world in which I’ve lived most of my life.” Forty-two years after King’s “I have a dream” speech, integration remains a worthy goal, elusive though it may be.

—David Ruenzel

A version of this article appeared in the October 01, 2005 edition of Teacher as The Shame of the Nation