Learning Curve

Jonathan Kozol isn't giving up on America's public schools

While Jonathan Kozol was researching his new book, The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America, St. Louis broke his heart. The National Book Award winner learned that Missouri is facing cuts in funding that underwrites the state's desegregation program. "If St. Louis allows that program to be destroyed, it will be a tragic loss," Kozol tells us. "Not only for the people in St. Louis and in the suburbs, but for a lot of us nationwide who look to that program as one of the few really bright lights in an incredibly reactionary time in our history."

Not that heartbreak is anything new for Kozol. After graduating from Harvard and studying at Oxford, he chose to teach fourth grade in Roxbury, a poor, black neighborhood in Boston's inner city. While sickened by the condition of the schools in the community, he also became endeared to its children. Kozol's best-selling books combine the observations of teachers and students in these decrepit schools with statistical data like per-pupil spending. The results often reveal stark contrasts between the lives of inner-city students and those of children in more affluent suburbs. From the lead paint that covers the city schools' walls to the teachers forced to implement federally mandated tests within them, Kozol argues that society has abandoned the nation's most vulnerable, voiceless and impoverished citizens. And owing to resegregation, he says, the divisive cultural gap between the classes continues to widen.

According to Kozol, the United States has "ripped the guts out of and trampled on the legacy of Brown [v. Board of Education]," even as the nation exulted the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court's landmark decision last year. "Segregated schools have never in American history been equal to the schools that serve the privileged," he says. "They never were in the century just passed, and they never will be in this century, either. Segregated schooling is the oldest failed experiment in American social history."

But The Shame of the Nation doesn't offer quick fixes. Kozol isn't out to "polish the apple of apartheid schooling." He calls for action in what he says is a moral and political battle. He praised the "decent and wise" Clayton High School students who, in 2004, walked out of their classes in protest to proposed cuts in the voluntary student transfer program. But he wants more: "I want to see the kids at schools like Clayton High do more than walk out for one day. They ought to walk out for a month to humiliate the elders of their own community!"

Kozol's not without his critics, though. He cracked the top ten in Bernard Goldberg's book 100 People Who Are Screwing up America. But Kozol doesn't mind: "No matter how unfashionable it is to say this, I'm going to keep on saying what I believe in the most unflinching terms I can. And no matter what the price I'm forced to pay, I intend to keep on fighting this struggle until my dying day." He continues, "And I don't plan to die yet. I keep telling young people if they get out there and start marching soon enough, I'll be young enough to march with them."

Jonathan Kozol reads from and signs copies of The Shame of the Nation at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, October 5, at the Ethical Society of St. Louis (9001 Clayton Road, Ladue). The event is sponsored by Left Bank Books (call 314-367-6731 or visit www.left-bank.com for more information), and admission is free.

 
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