Equity & Diversity

Is Jonathan Kozol Too Gloomy?

By Anthony Rebora — October 01, 2012 1 min read
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Jonathan Kozol, at age 76, has a new book out entitled Fire in the Ashes: Twenty-Five Years Among the Poorest Children in America. In it, he looks yet again—reportedly in career-summation mode—at the devastating consequences of America’s failure to provide equitable educational opportunities in disadvantaged neighborhoods.

In a review in the Washington Post that has the edu-blogosphere humming, Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp says the book “paint[s] an engrossing if bleak picture” of the communities portrayed but seems outdated at points and, more problematically, fails to account for the progress that has been made in improving many urban schools in recent years. She writes:

It is simply untrue that, as Kozol writes, "none of these schools ... is offering the kind of education that children of the neighborhood deserve." Today hundreds of exceptional schools, both charter and traditional public schools, are putting low-income students on a path to and through college. Given the daunting circumstances Kozol lays out, we should applaud the successes of those who have made a difference against them, rather than diminishing them or making them seem rarer than they are.

In a snarky—and probably inevitable—rejoinder, Edushyster offers a satirical summary of Kopp’s review, pointing out that Kozol’s obvious failing in the book is neglecting to acknowledge the work of—well—Wendy Kopp:

But his harping on the non-mattering is just the start of Kozol's sins in Wendy Kopp's eyes. The dude is also a real downer. While Kozol goes on and on and on and on and on about poverty and inequality somehow he missed the great news that Kopp and Kompany have been working well-funded wonders. The solution is as obvious as it is attractive to donors: recruit fresh-faced white college grads from privileged backgrounds and send them into the inner city to motivate Rachel's children with their high expectations. Come on Jonathan, get with the program!

Meanwhile, in a review in Slate, Emily Bazelon struggles with the Kozol’s seeming reluctance to enter into big-picture analysis and a tendency he shows toward gloomy self-judgment. But over and against Kozol’s own inclinations, she praises his life’s work as exemplified in the book:

OK, Kozol hasn't ended school segregation or convinced middle-class people to live side by side with poor ones. But that's more than any writer, even one who has served for decades as our conscience, can ask of himself. Over his career Kozol has wrought many small changes and won many individual battles. When I'm 76 I hope I can say the same.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.