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'An End to Inequality': Author Jonathan Kozol's wish for a more democratic education system

The cover of "An End to Inequality" and author Jonathan Kozol. (Courtesy)
The cover of "An End to Inequality" and author Jonathan Kozol. (Courtesy)

On the eve of the 70th anniversary of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, Here & Now’s Deepa Fernandes speaks with educator and author Jonathan Kozol about his latest book “An End to Inequality: Breaking Down the Walls of Apartheid Education in America.”

Book excerpt: ‘An End to Inequality: Breaking Down the Walls of Apartheid Education in America’

By Jonathan Kozol

For more than half a century, I’ve been working with young children and their teachers in schools that serve low-income Black and brown communities and, in my books, I’ve underscored repeatedly the nearly total isolation of these children from the mainstream of American society. School segregation, as we know, continues unabated and is presently at its highest level since the early 1990s. The ruling of the Warren court in Brown v. Board of Education is like a ghost of Christmas past. Its legacy and spirit have largely been abandoned.

But segregation, in and of itself, is not the primary subject of this book. We are dealing today not only with a physical divide that is obvious to anyone who spends much time in public schools, but also with a parallel divide between two worlds of pedagogic practice and methods of instructional control: one of them a tightly wired code of discipline and training that is held to be appropriate for children of one class and race, the other with more space and time for children to take some joy in learning as an act of exploration.

The notion that young children of color need a uniquely different course of training than white children because of their allegedly inherent liabilities, or liabilities attributed to parental “failings,” has always been a subtext in arguments presented by those who see no merit in school desegregation and was often heard in Boston when I was in my first year as a teacher in 1964 and 1965. I later described the open expression of these views in the words of school officials when I published Death at an Early Age about the school where I was teaching. I was a young and naïve optimist. I wanted to think that these beliefs would dissipate in time and would be consigned at last to the trash heap of our racist history.

It turns out I was wrong. Over the course of recent decades, these ideas have surfaced once again and have been elaborately revitalized and reified and seemingly legitimized by influential figures at conservative foundations as well as by their counterparts at many universities. School officials in all too many of our urban districts often appear to share the same perceptions of the students in their classrooms.

According to this thinking, Black and Latino children have different ways of understanding what we should expect of them than white and middle-class children do. They come to us, as we’ve been told, with troubled minds and unruly temperaments that cannot be subdued by normal forms of discipline. Different needs require different strategies. The strategy in this case, as I began to hear the latest iteration of this argument emerging, includes a wide array of practices intended to revise the sensibilities of children and to militate against the indulgence of their youthful curiosities, in order to keep them on a straight gray line of march to their next examination. Sitting stiff and silent in the classroom, no impulsive and unscripted questions, many numbered lists of minor misbehaviors and the unpleasant penalties for each, regimens of shaming for those who aren’t “performing up to expectations”—all of these are pieces of the disparate agenda.

So long as it’s accepted that these are the most productive strategies for governing the temperaments of children of a different class and color, any serious attempt at racial integration of our public schools would seem to be foolhardy—and would, indeed, run counter to the interests of those children, as their interests are perceived by those who really do believe they come to us in kindergarten or first grade, or preschool for that matter, as deficient little people. Why go to all the trouble it would take to let them go to schools where six-year-olds can move around the room and scrunch their legs up on their chairs and do not have to live in fear of penalties for looking out the window or whispering or laughing when they think that something’s funny? Why allow them this degree of normal informality, and this opportunity to interact with kids who come from other backgrounds and other racial origins, if all of this is contraindicated by “the data that we have in hand,” as we are told so frequently?

It’s not surprising that the right-leaning institutes in Washington and elsewhere have aggressively promoted these beliefs. These are the same forces, or the latter-day descendants of those forces, that promoted voucher schemes and separatist academies in Southern states in efforts to resist the integration struggles and the rulings of the courts in the days when Dr. King and Thurgood Marshall were alive. The real heartbreaker is that so many otherwise enlightened people appear to find these arguments convincing—or, at least, convenient rationales for leaving poor Black and Latino children where they are, “over there,” in schools that can deliver what they “need.” Would it not be a disservice to these children, according to this logic, to bring them into schools in which the special medicine that’s been prescribed for them is simply not available?

An End to Inequality: Breaking Down the Walls of Apartheid Education in America is a book about that “special medicine”—the targeting of children, on the basis of their economic status and skin color, with a brand of education that is crudely autocratic and, in the worst of cases that I’ve seen, grimly reminiscent of the Era of Eugenics. At a time when democratic values are under fierce assault, too little has been said about this clearly racialized agenda. One class of children is given at least some random opportunities to ask discerning questions, to interrogate everyday realities, and their teachers are not cautioned to suppress and penalize every indication of their often justifiable and serious or sometimes simply whimsical irreverence. Another class of children is not to be permitted the same luxuries.

The idea of a different breed of child who learns and feels and comprehends in wholly different ways than the children of the experts who have drawn this demarcation is an ignorant and dangerous construction. It widens the gulf between the favored and the disempowered. It inculcates unquestioning conformity. It closes the window on the full capaciousness of learning. It does not build on the richness of Black culture or any mix of cultures. It isn’t about culture. It’s about containment. It isn’t good for children, and it’s not good for America.

 

* * * *

 

Why do I use the word “reparations” – a word generally avoided by education writers – in speaking about enabling far more children of color to escape the present system of Jim Crow education? It’s well past time to make good, at long last, on that “promissory note” that Dr. King described on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963. And, as I have argued in this book, one good way we can actually begin is by doing whatever it may take, and spending whatever it may cost, to break the back of the dual system that separates the children in our public schools. The dream that Dr. King repeatedly envisioned was not some kind of cloudy aspiration to be realized in a very distant future. “Now is the time,” he memorably said, “to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the summit path of racial justice.” Any attempt to dilute that dream is a betrayal of his legacy.

Bringing millions of our children across the lines of class and race in beautiful and culturally expansive and richly funded classrooms will, as we’ve seen, cost a vast amount of money, and, for those who are content with the system as it stands, it will cost much more than money: it will cost them the disruption of their shameful equanimity, their routine acquiescence in the suffering of other people’s children.

Those who insist that there are less disruptive and less costly ways to raise the hopes and empower the success of children “over there” are simply blind to history. They’re asking us to place our faith in another round of those same old cycles of reform within the bounds of segregation that have never worked before. They ask us to believe that apartheid education is perfectible.

There is no such thing as perfectible apartheid. It’s all a grand delusion. I will say again what thousands of others—from Thurgood Marshall to Ted Shaw— have tirelessly told us so many times before. Separate is not equal. It never was. It isn’t now. It won’t be in another fifty years. Tests and punishments and scientific measurement and longer lists of incorrect behaviors are not going to “fix” it. Apartheid education isn’t something you can “fix.” It needs to be dismantled. How much longer will it be before enough good people who have “the best intentions” can summon up the ethical audacity to go beyond their good intentions and join us in the struggle to batter down those walls?

Copyright © 2024 by Jonathan Kozol. This excerpt originally appeared in “An End to Inequality: Breaking Down the Walls of Apartheid Education in America,” published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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