Learning To Say 'no'

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EDUCATION [image, unknown] The role of teachers

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Learning to say ‘no’
Jonathan Kozol has been an active critic of Western education for nearly 20 years. But his passionate prose and savage broadsides are as fresh as ever.
Richard Kazis spoke to the Boston native and asked him to outline his latest views of US schooling.

Jonathan Kozol. IN THE SUMMER of 1964, at the height of the black civil rights movement in the United States, a Harvard graduate and Rhodes scholar named Jonathan Kozol saw a notice on a tree in Harvard Yard which changed his life. The advertisement was for teachers in a Freedom School in Boston’s black ghetto of Roxhury. ‘That notice set me on a course I had never anticipated,’ remembers Kozol, now 46 and still living in Boston. ‘Until then I’d wanted to be a Harvard English professor.’

But that summer Kozol heard 12-year old students read at a second grade level. He worked with parents who saw the struggle for education as part of a larger battle for dignity and a way out of the ghetto. And he decided to join that fight. It was the beginning of an odyssey which has taken Kozol to schools, universities and community centres in the US and the Third World, to advance his vision of education for social change.

At the end of the summer Freedom School, Kozol signed up as a substitute teacher in one of Boston’s ghetto primary schools. He became involved with the community, got to know people, moved there, helped organize a rent strike. In his class, he quickly strayed from the approved curriculum. He was fired before the year ended after assigning a poem by the black poet Langston Hughes titled Ballad of the Landlord. His supervisor called the poem unsuitable since ‘it could be interpreted as advocating defiance of authority.’ In addition, the official wrote. Kozol lacked ‘the personal discipline to abide by rules and regulations, as we all must in our civilized society.’

Kozol channelled his outrage into his first book. Death at an Early Age. This chronicle of the destruction of the hearts and minds of Negro children in the Boston public schools’ quickly became a classic. Kozol catapulted into the public arena as a dogged and fiery opponent of racism and miseducation in American schools. His writings helped to focus the looming debate about the role of education in maintaining social inequality.

Fifteen years later, Jonathan Kozol remains remarkably consistent in his views. ‘If there has been any change,’ be stresses, ‘it is not a shift in ideology or political passion, but a firming up of my pacifism. The nuclear arms race has made it clear that liberation of the oppressed is worthless if it means liberation to enter a lifeless planet’

Kozol’s vision of education (‘Away to find pragmatic competence, internal strength and ethical passion all in the same process.’) was hopelessly lost in the sterile and hide-bound US state school system. ‘I was so convinced then that the public schools were hopeless. I saw free schools as the only solution,’ he recalls.

He saw these small, community-based schools, outside the regular system as a way to mobilize oppressed people. Kozol made clear that the politically-concerned free schools he advocated were quite different from the ‘wheat germ and yoghurt, everything is beautiful’ alternatives which were also multiplying rapidly in the early 1970s.

Kozol still believes that education must be linked to ethics and politics. Good teachers, he says, must be intellectual guerillas trying to create a ‘generation of hard-working, ethically-motivated and effective rebels.’ Now, though, he feels his earlier distinction between free schools and state schools was false. ‘We can’t simply ignore all those good people who work so hard within that system, he admits. ‘We can’t afford to wait for the day Ivan Illlich becomes Secretary of Education.

As a result, Kozol’s writing is now more concrete and practical. He’s concerned with how teachers can fight the political indoctrination of the schools from within, and how parents, students and teachers can build alliances that might prevent the kind of politically-motivated firing that Kozol himself experienced.

According to Kozol there is a basic problem built into our schooling which echoes both in society and in our personal and political lives. That is ‘the overwhelming fragmentation of our intellectual capacities, the Balkanization of consciousness which keeps us divided’ Teachers, he says, must try and subvert that process which keeps us from being whole persons.

At an early age, school divides the day into strictly-set-periods: one for reading, another for ‘reading enrichment’, another for language arts. And this compartmentalization gets worse as students progress. The number of required courses in US high schools has actually increased in the past two decades. At the university level, there is a drastic breakdown between the sciences and the humanities. Within each area, the divisions are as severe and uncompromising as among armed camps of competing soldiers.

‘It is this kind of approach which can lead a brilliant scientist like Robert Oppenheimer, while involved in the Manhattan Project building the first A-bomb, to respond to the question "Are you concerned with the ethical implications of your work?" by saying "I am a physicist. I have no special expertise in ethics."

The difficult task for teachers — and for parents and students— is to break through this fanatical isolation of one thing from another, one group from another, one subject from another. The way to move in this direction, says Kozol, is ‘to refuse to separate cognition from emotion, skills from their content, subject matter from process.’ Paraphrasing content, subject matter from process.’ Paraphrasing the poet Robert Frost, he concludes, ‘Before we build a wall, we should think about what we are walling in and what we are walling out’

Kozol cites the 1961 literacy campaign in Cuba (where a 25 per cent adult illiteracy rate was reduced to five per cent in one year) as an example of breaking down those walls which divide city from country, black from white, and peasant from worker. Impressed by the Cubans ’will and power to give ethical, equal and effective education to every citizen, regardless of that person’s economic status or politics Kozol and other American educators proposed a literacy campaign in the US.

‘The lesson of the Cuban literacy campaign is not the way it was done, but the very fact that it could be done,’ he points out Kozol’s plan was to mobilize five million

Americans to teach reading and writing to almost 60 million illiterates and near- illiterates in the US. ‘Our country spends $3.50 a year per illiterate American for education. We could eradicate adult illiteracy for the price of a couple of Bl bombers — if we wanted to.’

Published in 1980, Kozol’s blueprint for a government-funded program to ‘awaken people to intelligent and articulate dissent’ went over like a lead balloon in Ronald Reagan’s Washington But Kozol’s intent was perhaps as much inspirational as practical. Literacy campaigns he believes can help bring people together. They have the potential to raise people’s expectations, to help them articulate their frustrations and to organize for change.

Although some critics dismiss him as sounding too ‘sixties-ish’, he does not see that criticism as anything more than another example of false fragmentation — the fragmentation of time into decades. ‘Children need strong models of risk-taking, conscientious, consistent adults,’ he says.

The strident, sometimes apocalyptic tone of a decade ago has been tempered by the political and economic realities of recent years. Nonetheless, he continues to work in education, partly because he believes in the power of teachers to tap the rage, creativity and moral sense of their students.

People need basic communication skills; Kozol has always agreed with that aspect of the current ‘back to basics’ vogue in US education. But he sees the need for skills and ethics combined, skills and politics together.

‘We need to educate more people in basic skills. But not skills which are neutral. Learning is never neutral. You can learn how to read to follow directions or you can learn how to read to spy out hypocrisy. The role of the teacher is to teach the importance of saying "No". Kozol calls this ‘Disobedience Instruction’. Not to substitute ‘good’ indoctrination for ‘bad’ indoctrination but to introduce and develop ‘the levers of skepticism’ in the classroom and the community.

Richard Kazis is a freelance journalist based in Washington and a frequent contributor to New Internationalist.

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