On Thursday evening, education veteran Jonathan Kozol came to Davidson College to speak on his life and work in activism on behalf of social justice causes, specifically educational opportunity. Mr. Kozol has been fighting for racial equality in the public school systems for the past 50 years and has received countless honors for his books on his experience as a teacher including the National Book Award for his first nonfiction book “Death at an Early Age.” Along his journey, Mr. Kozol has had many remarkable interactions that have influenced his work, such as becoming a long-time education mentee of Fred Rogers of the preschool television program “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” and marching alongside Martin Luther King Jr. in a Boston parade.
Unlike when guest lecturers usually visit Davidson, Mr. Kozol’s visit was not spearheaded by a department or organization but rather by a single student, Bridget Wack ‘16. Addressing a diverse crowd of local educators, fans, alumni, and students in the Lilly Gallery, Mr. Kozol explained that he normally receives hundreds of letters a week that are left unattended. However, there was something about Wack’s letter that stood out. “She seemed to know so much already about the work that I’ve been doing,” he said.
Mr. Kozol did not hesitate to dive right into the issue of the blatant inequalities that continue to plague inner city public schools. “I don’t like to be gloomy, but I’m going to be honest with you. I wish I could say there has been dramatic progress since the days when I wrote those books, but it simply would not be the truth in terms of basic racial justice and elemental fair play for children of the poor.”
Mr. Kozol began laying out his life’s journey, explaining the impetus for a lifetime of teaching after receiving a Rhodes Scholarship and graduating summa cum laude from Harvard. It was 1964, and the murders of three members of the Congress of Racial Equality, two white Northerners and one black man, by the Ku Klux Kan had just made national headlines. Although Mr. Kozol had never been political or had any involvement with race issues, he was so affected by the tragedy that he got in his little Volkswagen, drove to a prominent black minister’s house in Roxbury, the black community of Boston, and asked: “May I be of use?” The minister’s response, that he would like Mr. Kozol to share his privileged education with the children, “changed [his] life forever,” Kozol reflected.
Mr. Kozol added some humor to the room’s initially solemn tone. In describing his first teaching job for a kindergarten class he recounted, “I was terrified. I had no idea what to do with people that size. To me they were like gerbils.” He shared how he was fired from his first job teaching fourth grade on the charge of curriculum deviation because he introduced a Langston Hughes poem, the first black poetry that his students ever read.
When crossing over into sensitive territory, Mr. Kozol’s points were fervently delivered. He emphasized the loyalty black leaders have shared with him, explaining the misconception that some white people believe that if they were to teach and break the curriculum in a black school, they would be shunned by the black community. “Black parents aren’t stupid. If they think they’re fighting for your children they’ll fight for you,” he declared.
In much of Mr. Kozol’s talk, he pointed to actual inequalities between suburban and inner city public schools: the disparities in funding, the lack of early education for most children, the business-oriented education models the Common Core sets, and the exam-driven system that boggles down teachers to test to a very limited slice of skills, thus thwarting child spontaneity and curiosity.
The disparity in funding between inner and suburban districts is evident to anyone who compares affluent suburban schools with the schools that serve the black and brown, he explained. In highlighting how critical early age development for children is, he asked the audience, “how many of you have read about this importance in a psychology class?” He responded, “don’t believe anything the governors say about universal Pre-K”—pausing again with a sly smile before continuing… “even if they’re Democrats.” The affluent middle class an buy developmental education for their children, but inner city kids receive almost nothing. .
He looked around somberly, sighed an exasperated sigh, and continued, “I don’t know quite how to say it, but it’s pretty evil to rob these children in their years of early innocence and then tell them that they’re failing when they’re taking the tests.”
Mr. Kozol went on to condemn the test-taking system, using censuring epithets like “evil,” “a mistake,” and “awful.” Discussing the nervous attitudes inner-school, test-driven teachers often adopt, he explained how shutting down a child can discourage them from speaking out again in a voice of authenticity, spontaneity, or curiousness. “It’s a good way of measuring the success of salesmanship at Walmart but it’s a terrible way to judge the capaciousness and intellect in children.”
The address ended with a lofty vision of the steps Mr. Kozol would take toward equality if he had the power. “I’d pour that money into giving the poorest children in America a class size of no larger than 18…but I’m not the President.” In spite of the lack of progress in the 50 years Mr. Kozol has been fighting against racial inequality in the public school system, students appeared to come out galvanized by the size of the task.
Pablo Zevallos ‘16 reflected on what achieving equality will look like: “Closing the achievement gap by race and class will take more than piecemeal, feel-good efforts. It’ll demand wholesale change that stems from a collective examination of conscience and a dialogue of reckoning about the wrongs inflected on our system and our citizens. That doesn’t mean we don’t have a path forward, and Kozol inspires me to keep taking steps down this path, appreciate the small victories, and keep my eyes on the prize.”
Madi Driscoll ‘16 voiced her excitement for the future. “I think there’s room for more solutions than Mr. Kozol seemed to, but his dedication to bettering public education was inspiring and I can’t wait to get to work.” Bridget Lavender ‘18 suggested a way to stay optimistic: “Think of the fact that educators like Kozol and other teachers that he was talking about are literally making worlds of difference because if they can affect one child that is the child’s entire world.”