Jonathan Kozol: Listen to the Children

Jonathan Kozol: Listen to the Children

Jonathan Kozol: Listen to the Children

Jonathan Kozol, honored with the Puffin/Nation Prize for Creative Citizenship, has spent his professional life actively listening to children and passionately advocating for the education they deserve.


More than a decade ago, at Saint Ann’s Episcopal Church in the South Bronx, site of a thriving after-school program that now serves nearly 100 inner-city children, Jonathan Kozol encountered a 12-year-old boy named Anthony who loved to read. Anthony had heard that Kozol was an author and announced that he, too, was a writer. He then showed Kozol his “novel,” which, at twenty-two pages, Kozol remembers as a “pretty good read.” Anthony went on to graduate from college and is now pursuing an advanced degree in English. Along with many others who have been touched by Kozol’s motivating influence, he credits Kozol with “waking us up.”

Back at homey Saint Ann’s on December 6, Anthony is among those present to honor Kozol, renowned educator, activist and blue sneaker-clad author, as he is awarded the 2005 Puffin/Nation Prize for Creative Citizenship. The prize, awarded annually to an American citizen for “distinctive, courageous, imaginative, socially responsible work of significance,” is presented jointly by The Nation Institute and the Puffin Foundation, honoring Kozol for his relentless efforts to expose the educational and social inequities that exist in contemporary American schools.

Kozol began his career teaching in the freedom schools of Massachusetts, amid the civil rights struggle of the late 1960s, and he has been working with inner-city children ever since. He has written eleven books, and for his latest, Shame of the Nation (Crown), about the ever-widening racial divide in American schools, Kozol visited sixty schools in thirty districts, situated in eleven different states. Everywhere he goes he immerses himself in the schools and communities, talking to kids on the playground (when there is one) and staying up late listening to teachers. Then he resurfaces to tell the world how it is, in books chock-full of straight-talking observations.

In Shame of the Nation, Kozol recalls one of his first experiences teaching in Boston: “One windy afternoon that fall, an entire frame of windows in our make-shift class collapsed. I was standing close enough to catch the rotted frame before the glass could shatter on the children sitting just beneath it.” Kozol writes bluntly about poor children’s lives; the dire circumstances communicate themselves.

Kozol reports what he sees: schools in utter disrepair, like the high school where “a stream of water flowed down one of the main stairwells on a rainy afternoon” and “green fungus molds were growing in the office where the students went for counseling.” He relays what he hears from children like Anthony, a bright student who nevertheless did terribly on standardized tests. Anthony said he “felt beaten down by so much else that went on in the South Bronx…the test was one more beating.” He commiserates with besieged teachers, like Louis Bedrock, the science teacher at PS30X in the South Bronx to whom Shame of the Nation is dedicated and who is also present at the award ceremony. Bedrock is one of the many who call Kozol at 2 in the morning, knowing he will be awake, probably working and willing to chat or, at the very least, listen.

The irony of accepting an award for work accomplished in a realm where the work never ceases is not lost on Kozol. Nor is the fact that New York City, once the bastion of liberal, progressive movements in education and where Kozol stands to accept the award, is now the epicenter of segregation in American schools. In a country where words like “diverse” have become synonymous with “segregated” and usually mean “all black and Hispanic,” he speaks candidly about the segregation of today’s schools, worse in New York than anywhere else in the United States, and worse today than in any year since 1968, the year Martin Luther King Jr. died. And there is not much of a difference, Kozol says, between the legally enforced segregation of the Old South and the social and economic apartheid of today. The reality is the same: It is the children who suffer.

Kozol has spent a lifetime chronicling the neglect and hypocrisy of public officials who address problems in education in all the wrong ways, such as George W. Bush’s commitment to testing-obsessed No Child Left Behind legislation. Kozol told Deborah Solomon of the New York Times that NCLB’s “driving motive is to highlight failure in inner-city schools as dramatically as possible in order to create a groundswell of support for private vouchers or other privatization schemes.”

The trend toward charter schools, the effectiveness of which Kozol is highly skeptical, has been highlighted in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, as New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin’s rebuilding commission has adopted privatization as its reigning philosophy. New Orleans plans to reopen many public schools as charter schools, including at least thirteen in the hard-hit and poverty-stricken West Bank neighborhoods. Nationwide, most charter schools are in urban areas, and they tend to be “more intensely segregated than the average public school,” according to Professor Gary Orfield and his colleagues at Harvard University’s Civil Rights Project.

A staunch supporter of integration as the pathway toward bettering educational systems, Kozol points to consistently successful programs, like the voluntary interdistrict transfer program in St. Louis, which is now in its twenty-fifth year. Today the program buses more than 10,000 mostly black students from the city to suburban schools. The program is effective: The vast majority of the minority students go on to postsecondary schools. Kozol believes, simply, that the world would be a better place if black children and white children got to know one another early in life, when they are most open to learning from one another and their surroundings.

Kozol’s critics, like Harvard social scientist Nathan Glazer, who recently reviewed Shame of the Nation for the New York Times, accuse him of blind advocacy and of reporting on resegregation without taking the time to examine why it has occurred. “He would not be deterred from his support of integration if no positive effects could be shown,” Glazer writes. And there are others who think he preaches, or rants too much without focusing on tangible solutions, or draws myopically from subjective, firsthand experience. Kozol would agree with that last point. He will be the first to say, “It’s true, I write what I know.”

Several years ago, Kozol acknowledged in a New York Times interview that he used to write books with the hope of sweeping change in mind, but he now thinks he writes “simply as a witness.” “This is how it is,” he insists. “This is what we have done. This is what we have permitted.” He speaks of the depression he feels in Washington when confronted with bureaucratic obstacles to getting children the necessities for their education.

Kozol has been fighting the same fight for the past forty years, but the fact is, the need for the fight remains. Ever more so today, when as Kozol looks around a classroom in the South Bronx, it is difficult to discern whether the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision did in fact, succeed in ending segregation. Kozol may write as a witness, but whatever pessimism this admission relays is overshadowed by a refrain that focuses on possibility.

As Kozol states in a Nation forum, “Looking Back, Looking Forward,” after Bush’s 2004 re-election: “It may seem to some beyond imagination, at this moment of defeat, that liberals can reignite the passion and assemble the resources it would take to counteract the power of the right-wing juggernaut in education policy today. But we will never win the victories we do not fight for.”

On this special day at Saint Ann’s, Kozol doesn’t want to be gloomy. There are cookies downstairs for the award reception, he is hungry and he imagines the squirming, “pint-sized people” before him are as well.

Jonathan Kozol listens to the children. They have been a source of gold for his books, as well as a target for some who feel he bases too much of his research on their testimony, which may be unreliable. In the introduction to Shame of the Nation, Kozol reminds us that while children may err on the minuscule particulars of remembered events, they rarely have reason to mislead us on the big things.

After accepting his award at Saint Ann’s this Monday afternoon, Kozol opens the floor for children’s questions. Most want to know what a puffin is and why there is a colorful statue of one on the podium. Perry Rosenstein, president of the Puffin Foundation, explains how his organization got its name: The puffins were near extinct, he tells the children, until a few people got together and decided to take action to save them.

When asked, over cookies after the award ceremony but before they start their homework, what they think of Jonathan Kozol, several of the children at Saint Ann’s say he seems like a “nice person.” A girl named Jennifer mentions that she is happy he won an award for saving the birds. Jennifer is off on the particulars of this one, but Kozol’s theory holds true. She gets the big picture: In his way, Kozol does work to save endangered creatures.

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