Saturday, October 01, 2005

Jonathan Kozol

On September 13, I had the chance to see in person one of the leading education writers, one whom I admire while simultanenously having profoundly mixed feelings about. With an incredible amount of energy and raw passion for a 69-year-old—especially considering that this is just one event of a two-month book tour—Jonathan Kozol talked to a packed crowd at the Astor Place Barnes & Noble in Manhattan to promote his new book The Shame of the Nation : The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America (there's also an excerpt in this month's issue of Harper's magazine, "Still Separate, Still Unequal: America's Educational Apartheid"). Dozens of copies of the book (in a deluxe hardcover edition, to boot) were flying off the shelves; such demand is certainly a testament to the huge numbers of people who care about education and want to improve it. I was tipped off to the appearance when I unexpectedly heard Kozol on The Leonard Lopate Show on WNYC radio earlier that day, in which the talk was announced.

As Kozol has done in his writings since the 1960s, this book documents in gory detail the shocking degree of racial and class inequality in the public schools; this book also points out the difference between the legal segregation of the pre-Civil Rights era with the segregation in practice today, where poor schools have almost entirely black and Hispanic students and rich schools only white and Asian ones.

Kozol also had some great stuff to say about standards and testing, with his characteristic sharp indignation. He called No Child Left Behind "the worst piece of education legislation in my lifetime"; contrasted a teacher reading literature to a class for its own merit and a desire to share their own experience with it, with reading it to teach "skill 67-B"; and mentioned that a brilliant student who was struggling to get through school because he consistently did terribly on tests, but read literature like Dickens precociously and with deep understanding, "just might have something to say about standardized tests" when he becomes a teacher.

In addition to his work about the public schools, Kozol went through a period of involvement with alternative schools, for instance in his 1972 book Free Schools (the revised edition, issued a decade later, was retitled Alternative Schools). It so happens that I first knew of him through this phase, rather than his more well-known work about the public school system described in his other books, and therefore associate him with it more than most people would. One of the first books I read about alternative schools is Chris Mercogliano's account of the Albany Free School, Making It Up As We Go Along, before going to the 2003 IDEC (International Democratic Education Conference) which was sponsored by and held near that school. Not only did Kozol influence the school, but Kozol's name was mentioned in a blurb for the book by Ron Miller, which listed Kozol among the critical writers on education of the 1960s such as John Holt, James Herndon, Herbert Kohl, and George Dennison (and also said that Chris's book is in some ways the best book on education to appear since that period, and the one that recaptures their spirit and compassion). Even then Kozol was quite critical, indeed sometimes hypercritical, of many alternative schools, viewing many of the more middle-class oriented schools as elitist—although many alternative school people used his criticisms constructively to help address such issues of privilege.

So it's disconcerting for somebody like me, coming from that perspective, to see his current complete dismissiveness of alternative private schools as opposed to his previous support of them (however tempered that was by criticism). For instance, in an interview in The New York Times Magazine at the time of release of the new book, he says, when asked whether he endorses any private schools,
They starve the public school system of the presence of well-educated, politically effective parents to fight for equity for all kids.
It's particularly ironic because the interview points out that Kozol never had children, so he himself is an example of how somebody without children in the public schools can work to help the children in them. Kozol also sees schooling as a national responsibility, instead of as a local, familial, or personal one, and has called for more national control of education; from the same interview:
Schooling should not be left to the whim or wealth of village elders. I believe that we should fund all schools in the U.S. with our national resources. All these kids are being educated to be Americans, not citizens of Minneapolis or San Francisco.
and has also dismissed any role of the free market in reforming the school system, for instance in "Kozol Sees Hypocrisy in Testing Craze":
For example, he said, voucher proponents contend they want to use the free market to help poor children get a better education.

"When did the unbridled free market ever serve the poor as well as it does the non-poor? Never." Just look at the low-grade banking, grocery and health care services in inner cities, he said.
and in the appropriately titled "The Market is Not the Answer" from Rethinking Schools:
But we have to be careful not to succumb to this nonsense that a public system is inherently flawed and that therefore we have to turn to the market place for solutions. I've never in my entire life seen any evidence that the competitive free market, unrestricted, without a strong counterpoise within the public sector, will ever dispense decent medical care, sanitation, transportation, or education to the people. It's as simple as that.
and in the same interview, also says that there's absolutely no inherent problem with state monopoly of schooling. (It so happens that one of Kozol's least-known books is Children of the Revolution: A Yankee Teacher in the Cuban Schools (1978), a favorable account of the Cuban education system—no pesky private schools draining resources from the public monopoly there.)

And while flipping through The Shame of the Nation, the only mention of the 1960s free/open school movement I could find is a 2-3 page section (with one very brief footnote to his Free Schools book) which basically puts down the excesses of the movement, associating it with "do your own thing" yuppie-ism, a lack of structure and standards, and elitism (white teachers going into poor schools without understanding the kids' needs); he also sees its main effect as leading to an over-reaction in the opposite direction, to a retrenchment of very conservative approaches to pedagogy that overemphasize discipline and order. And while he says that one of the mistakes the movement made is to neglect to teach and assist children, under the pretense of giving them freedom to choose to learn, and ignoring how their poverty and under-privileged status prevents students from actively trying to learn, there are many examples one could point to of poor children in very difficult circumstances initiating their own learning, given the right support. For instance, the "Hole in the Wall" project in India, which showed that groups of children could learn to use a computer on their own—some of the children being under such extreme poverty that they favored Microsoft's Paint program because they didn't have access to real paper and crayons to draw.

In fact, Kozol has gone from one extreme to the other, with somewhat of a tendency towards black and white thinking (no pun intended); during some of his alternative schools period he was as dismissive of the public schools as he is dismissive of private schools today. According to Jerry Mintz, when Kozol was organizing what eventually became the National Coalition of Alternative Community Schools (NCACS) in the 1970s, he didn't want even alternative public schools to join the coalition. Either extreme can be very counterproductive; either when one is opposing even the public schools that are making major efforts to go against the grain, in Arnold Greenberg's words, "infiltrating the system"; or ignoring altogether the role of private schools, with their relative independence from the system. It's necessary to do both at the same time. And no matter how flawed and resistant to systemic change the public system is, one can certainly applaud teachers who do their best against tremendous obstacles to make it decent for children there, even if this won't make any lasting change in the system.

It's instructive to contrast Kozol's combination of criticizing the present public school system while assuming that the same system is necessary in a reformed variety, with the "deschooling" approach of people like Ivan Illich, John Holt, and John Taylor Gatto, who have combined a critique of the methods and curriculum of schools with a critique of the logic of the school system itself, and how the former flows from the latter, indeed seeing public schools as "public" in name only. No opponent of the compulsory public and private school system, even Gatto at his most passionate, could get better data on how the system has failed at the very things it's supposed to do, and at the cost of a huge amount of freedom.

When saying that it would be easier to reform school systems "overnight" than to deal with more complex problems such as poverty in communities as a whole, Kozol makes a very good and inspiring point about doing what can be done to help in the here-and-now, and not letting problems that are difficult or impossible to address prevent one from doing something about the more manageable ones. However, one can still see how the centralized machinery of the school system has the allure of making it easy to imagine immediate solutions implemented from the top, although the very automatic nature of such ease of manipulation by a minority is itself the problem (see Lewis Mumford's idea of the "megamachine"). Although Kozol has many trenchant and accurate criticism of No Child Left Behind and federal standardized testing, it's also no coincidence that it's those methods of federal funding, rather than the sort Kozol favors, that is politically feasible within the nature of the system.

Here's what Matt Hern says in his book Field Day, about the contrast between his own deschooling approach and Kozol's one in dealing with the issues of privilege Kozol talks about (and whose analysis of the problem Hern largely agrees with as one of the best):
One could read a book like Savage Inequalities and interpret the stories as a call to government to correct these inequities and, with massive resource infusions, ensure equal institutional opportunity. But when you're in a hole you should stop digging. Schools and the state are inextricably linked and schools are both reflecting and reinforcing a vision of society. As institutions they reinforce the social disparities around them. (p. 39)
And it should be noted that just about 99.9% of Kozol's readers indeed "interpret the stories as a call to government to correct these inequities and, with massive resource infusions, ensure equal institutional opportunity", and that this is what Kozol explicitly advocates nowadays. Hern is absolutely right that political and economic decentralization (and hence equality) have to go hand in hand.

(One might also wish that in addition to private alternatives such as alternative schools and homeschooling, people like Kozol would give more consideration to ideas of changing public schools to be more like the less manipulative public institutions, like libraries and museums.)

One can also question the limitations of wanting all schools to be like well-funded, affluent public schools, even though that would address the most blatant problems faced by poor schools, such as 40 kid rather than 20 kid classrooms. Even high schools that are nice, affluent, with small class sizes and supposely attention to the intellectual needs of students, can be a total waste of time and life for all involved.

One can also criticize Kozol's assumptions (which are, needless to say, very common among leftists) about the market, and especially how free markets reinforce inequality and fail to offer opportunities for the poor. Leftist free-market economic schools, such as those of the radical classical liberals, mutualists, single-taxers, and individualist anarchists, see the inequalities of the current system (which are used to oppose the very existence of any and all markets) as resulting from the degree to which its markets aren't free, due to systematic privileges that favor the rich over the poor and concentrations of power in banking, land and other institutions. The original idea of a free market which is carried forth by those traditions, a very progressive one of "a fair field and no favor", has been distorted beyond recognition by both proponents and opponents of "free markets". For instance, Kozol describes how poor students are forced to take idiotic courses in subjects like sewing and hairdressing when they would prefer, and be capable of, courses in advanced science and other challenging subjects. There's a chapter in The Shame of the Nation called "Preparing Students for Markets" about how they're being coerced into training for subservient jobs. Now just what does this have to do with a free market based on voluntary exchanges of labor between equal producers?

It should also be noted that those behind many of the particularly egregious attempts at corporate influence in public schools, such as advertising and brand names in textbooks, are more than willing to take advantage of the "captive audience" status of students there. The voucher and charter approaches, given a great deal of attention as exemplifying "privatization" by both supporters and detractors, are also some of the most enmeshed in a sort of pseudo-independence from the public system. And schooling is an example where the influence of the state is far beyond what is directly administered by it—our culture has so internalized the ideas about education and equating it with the current school system that private schools are far closer to the approach of the public system than they are legally made to be.

This is why some people have been using the term mutualization to refer to the process of getting real democratic control of social services in the private sector, as opposed to both nominally public state control and the corporate control commonly associated with "privatization". Many alternative schools can be understood as excellent examples of mutualization, and there are many more examples once one looks out for them, for example The New York Times ran an article on the very large-scale nonprofit mutual health organization in African countries that have made up for the lack of functioning state healthcare.

Once such mutual services are seen as part of the market, the market looks a lot nicer and "greener", and less deserving of reflexive condemnation. As upaya has written on his blog,
There are at least two ways to think about what is and what isn't part of the market. On the one hand, you have the Rothbardian idea that market is just the sum total of all voluntary human activity. That means hippie communes, charities, revolutionary workers collectives, and so on would count as market institutions. On a narrower conception of markets, the market is constituted by the total of commercial exchanges in a society.

When libertarians express an easy "let the market handle it" attitude, many non-libertarians will reasonably assume that this means "let for-profit commercial exchange handle it." And that might not be a very good or a very attractive idea. For instance, getting utilities out of the hands of government is a good idea, but should they be transferred to big utilities corporations (who are likely very well connected politically) or should they be turned into consumer co-ops? From a libertarian perspective these are both shifts from state to market. Indeed, as radical libertarians (left, right, or center) will be quick to point out, the consumer co-op solution is probably the more free market solution. And yet, the consumer co-op might be considered by some to be more of a "community-based" (read: grassroots and cooperative) rather than "market-based" (read: corporate, greedy, and competitive) solution.
some examples upaya mentions being,
mutual aid societies, neighborhood assemblies, land trusts, co-ops, tenant's unions, independent labor unions, neighborhood watch and cop-watch, alternative media, community gardens, LETS systems, barter networks, mutual banks, open-source information, etc.
Most ironically, during his alternative school phase, Kozol came up with methods of how schools could use the market to fund themselves, reasoning that if they could generate a profit from a successful business, ones that could take advantage of the particular situtation of their local community, they could rely less on tuition for funding and moderate the pressure to profit solely from the school. Hence, they would become more accessible to poor students who would not be able to pay normal tuition costs. One of the schools that used this approach was the Albany Free School, which generated profits by fixing up neglected buildings of the area, and thus contributing to the community as well. The community and self-sufficiency obtained by such local self-reliance won't be taken away from above when the group in political power changes.

I've always had mixed feelings about Kozol; even where many of his points are useful and true, something has always rubbed me the wrong way about his stuff, even where it's closest to alternative education. Some of this is rhetorical: Kozol sometimes crosses the thin line between indignation (usually at well-deserved targets) and self-righteousness and bombast, making a good point with sledgehammer-like unsubtlety. It seems that, despite Kozol calling much-needed attention to lack of equality, my underlying point of disagreement is that Kozol's value system is one that seems to place equality above liberty. Kozol has said that poor districts have neither liberty or equality and so don't have to worry about choosing one, but deciding which one causes the other is important to get out of both. Bertrand Russell's Proposed Roads to Freedom has a nice quote from G.D.H. Cole's Self-Government in Industry, about how it makes a big difference whether lack of wealth is seen as the cause of the lack of freedom or vice versa:
What, I want to ask, is the fundamental evil in our modern Society which we should set out to abolish?

There are two possible answers to that question, and I am sure that very many well-meaning people would make the wrong one. They would answer POVERTY, when they ought to answer SLAVERY. Face to face every day with the shameful contrasts of riches and destitution, high dividends and low wages, and painfully conscious of the futility of trying to adjust the balance by means of charity, private or public, they would answer unhesitatingly that they stand for the ABOLITION OF POVERTY.

Well and good! On that issue every Socialist is with them. But their answer to my question is none the less wrong.

Poverty is the symptom: slavery the disease. The extremes of riches and destitution follow inevitably upon the extremes of license and bondage. The many are not enslaved because they are poor, they are poor because they are enslaved. Yet Socialists have all too often fixed their eyes upon the material misery of the poor without realizing that it rests upon the spiritual degradation of the slave.

As a random semi-related digression, while I was looking around the Barnes & Noble I spotted the book The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl: The Illustrated Screenplay, based on Robert Rodriguez's movie, whose story was written by his 7-year-old son Racer Max Rodriguez (two of Racer's brothers are also actors in the movie). The New York Times review of the movie contained this charming little nugget of ageism:
There's a reason children aren't allowed to vote, drive or make movies with multimillion-dollar budgets. Lively and imaginative as their inner worlds may be, the very young still lack the discipline and maturity to shape them into coherent and compelling stories...
Any adult who makes a bad movie with an incoherent and uncompelling plot should have their driver's licence and right to vote revoked.

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