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Jonathan Kozol

October 17, 1997 (Friday), 5:00 pm
Assembly Hall, Campus Center
University at Albany, Uptown Campus

"Pick battles big enough to matter;
small enough to win."

Jonathan Kozol is an educator and author of nonfiction works which focus on the issues of race, poverty and education. His books include Death At An Early Age, Savage Inequalities, Amazing Grace, Illiterate American, and Rachel and Her Children.

In 1964, Jonathan Kozol moved from Harvard Square into a poor black neighborhood of Boston and become a fourth grade teacher in the Boston public schools. He has devoted the subsequent three decades to issues of education and social justice in America.

Death At An Early Age, a description of his first year as a teacher, was published in 1967 and received the 1968 National Book Award in Science, Philosophy and Religion. Now regarded as a classic by educators, Death At An Early Age sold more than two million copies in the United States and abroad.

From the start, Kozol combined teaching with activism. Working with black and Hispanic parents, he helped set up a number of freedom schools in storefronts and church basements and later taught at South Boston Senior High School during the city's desegregation crisis.

In subsequent years, Kozol grew increasingly concerned about the large numbers of adults he met in very poor communities who could not read. In 1980, the Cleveland Public Library asked him to design a literacy plan for the nation's large cities. His plan became the model for a major effort sparked by the State Library of California. The book that followed, Illiterate American, became the center of a national campaign to spur federal and private action on adult literacy.

A few days before Christmas, 1985, Mr. Kozol spent an evening at a homeless shelter in New York. Night-long conversations with the mothers and children who befriended him led him to remain there for much of the winter. Out of that experience came Rachel and Her Children: Homeless Families in America, a powerful portrait of the day-to-day life struggle of some of the poorest people in America -- living only one block from Fifth Avenue within our nation's richest city.

When Rachel and Her Children was published in 1988, Newsweek called it "bitterly eloquent." The Los Angeles Times called it "compelling, moving, eloquent... an extended tour of Hell." The New York Times said the book was "a searing indictment of society." The author, said the Chicago Sun-Times, is "today's most eloquent spokesman for America's disenfranchised."

Rachel and Her Children was awarded the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award for 1989 and The Conscience in Media Award of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.

In 1989, nearly two decades after the publications of Death At An Early Age, Mr. Kozol revisited America�s schools. He went to rich and poor schools in over 30 communities. What he saw convinced him that, despite the struggles of the 1960s and the efforts of the courts, our nation's public schools remained still separate and still unequal. This experience led him to write Savage Inequalities: Children in America's Schools.

The book, published in 1991, was termed "powerful" and "searing" by Time magazine, �crucial" by Publishers Weekly, and "essential" by The New York Times. "This book," wrote the late Alex Haley, "digs so deeply into the tragedy of the American system of public education that it wrenches the reader's psyche."

Savage Inequalities was a finalist for the 1992 National Book Critics Circle Award and was awarded The New England Book Award in nonfiction. It was also the subject of a recent PBS/Bill Moyers Special entitled, "Children in America�s Schools, with Bill Moyers."

In 1993, Kozol returned to one of the most racially isolated and impoverished neighborhoods in the United States -- the South Bronx of New York. Two years of conversations with the children, priests and parents who befriended him led to the writing of Amazing Grace: The Lives of Children and the Conscience of a Nation, which was published in October 1995.

Amazing Grace is a gently written narrative work that quietly explores the meditations and reflections of some very young black and Hispanic children who, although they live in one of the most violent, diseased communities in the developed world, retain a soaring spiritual transcendence.

In a widely quoted speech, delivered June of 1995 before 2000 of the nation's publishers, Mr. Kozol said, "I believe the questions that we should be asking about justice and injustice in America are not chiefly programmatic, technical or scientific. They are theological. But I disagree with those who think we should be asking questions of theology primarily to those who live in poverty. I think we need to ask these questions of ourselves."

Noble Laureate Toni Morrison has said of Kozol's newest book, "Amazing Grace is good in the old fashioned sense: beautiful and morally worthy."

Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Garrow calls it "elegiac, memorable, and haunting."

"Jonathan's struggle is noble," writes Elie Wiesel. "What he says must be heard. His outcry must shake our nation out of its guilty indifference. "

Amazing Grace, says Marian Wright Edelman, "may turn out to be one of THE books of our times... I encourage all Americans to buy it and read it."

"If there are amazing graces on this earth," Mr. Kozol writes, "I believe that they are these good children sent to us by God and not yet soiled by the knowledge that their nation does not love them." Despite the severe political conservatism of the 1990s, Amazing Grace became a national bestseller within three weeks of publication. In a front-page review in The Washington Post, Marie Arana-Ward found the book "devastating" in its portrayals but said, nonetheless, that Amazing Grace is "as good as a blessing" in its tribute to the courage of the mothers of the poor.

Born in Boston, Jonathan Kozol graduated from Harvard University Summa Cum Laude (1958) and was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship to Magdalen College, Oxford. He has since held two Guggenheim Fellowships, has twice been a fellow of the Rockefeller Foundation, and has also received fellowships from the Field and Ford Foundations.

At Public School 261, located in a poor and predominately Hispanic and black neighborhood in the Bronx, overcrowded and under equipped classes are held in a roller rink. A tattered poster in a hallway states, "All children are capable of learning. "Yet, a first grade teacher predicts only one-fifth of her students will be at grade level at year's end. At P.S. 24 in the same district, small classes of affluent white and Asian students work busily in airy, well-lit rooms equipped with computers and new encyclopedias. "We know certain things that other kids don't know because we're taught them," explains a confident young student.

And that, according to Jonathan Kozol, is the crux of the matter. All children are capable of learning, but many--for the most part, the poor and the non-white--are denied any chance to do so because of the unfair, and ultimately dangerous, way in which America's public schools are funded. Race and money divide students into two separate and unequal camps. Combining carefully researched statistics with first-hand observations--including interviews with teachers, administrators, and students--Savage Inequalities presents a chilling portrait of a system gone awry, and of millions of uneducated American children facing bleak futures.
"The school children who speak to Jonathan Kozol... know something that President Bush, the self-proclaimed education President, apparently does not know... The strongest indictment of the government's insensitivity parsimony in Savage Inequalities is heard in the voices of the children and their teachers."
-- The New York Times

"He [Kozol] courageously crosses the unwritten line that makes charges of racial discrimination taboo in this day and age... a superbly written, thoroughly researched documentary of a world hidden to most."
-- Chicago Sun-Times

"... a haunting reminder of Malcolm X's ever urgent question, 'If democracy is equality, why don't we have equality?"'

Cosponsored by

Greater Capital Region Teacher Center
National Research Center on English Learning and Achievement