Jonathan Kozol Essay - Critical Essays

Kozol, Jonathan


Jonathan Kozol 1936–

American nonfiction writer and novelist.

Kozol's nonfiction works document both the horrors of racist American school systems and the promise of other methods of education as represented by the free school movement. As his political stance has progressed from indifference to radicalism, so the style and tone of his writing have also changed. The Fume of Poppies, a frothy account of a love affair between two affluent undergraduates, written while he was an English major at Harvard, was his first book and only novel to date. It was published shortly after Kozol's graduation to encouraging reviews. His next book and first work of nonfiction, Death at an Early Age, written after his dismissal from the Boston public school system, leaves such frivolity behind. An angrily reproachful book, it gives Kozol's reactions to his year of substitute teaching in Boston's primary schools. A few critics noted that in his outrage against those policies and teachers who made the schools oppressive, he sometimes neglected to give much life to the portraits of the students he defended, but the fervor and accuracy of his charges fully compensated for this flaw. The work won a National Book Award in 1968.

Kozol's subsequent essays have grown angrier and more urgent, resembling appeals for support or incitements to radicalism more than accounts of personal frustration. Increasingly, they tend toward prescription rather than description. Free Schools, for example, which discusses the obstacles he faced as a founder of and teacher in an urban free school, could serve as a handbook for others interested in starting one. Educators and activists alike respect his dedication and agree that his probing analyses of the present standards of education in the United States deserve recognition and encouragement. Yet his manner of expressing his anger has at times caused him to appear accusatory and righteous even to those impressed by his eloquent and passionate concern. His last two books reflect his concern with the problem of illiteracy: Children of the Revolution recounts the tour of Cuba he made to examine the effects of their 1961 literacy campaign, and Prisoners of Silence provides guidelines for a similar project envisioned for the United States. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 61-64.)

Granville Hicks

[The elements of which "The Fume of Poppies" is made are] travel and sex, and Mr. Kozol writes about both with likable enthusiasm.

Young as he is, Mr. Kozol has learned a good deal about the craft of writing, and the book has many excellent pages, but it stays close to the surface. During the first three-quarters of the novel, while Wendy and the boy are having fun, this doesn't matter, but it is a serious drawback when, on the voyage home [from a tour of Europe], the romance blows up. The explosion, which is ugly, is effectively rendered, but we realize that we don't know enough about either the narrator or Wendy to understand why it has to happen, and the narrator's explanation, which has something to do with "being an American and acting as though you weren't," doesn't help much. After that, Mr. Kozol steers the novel to a neatly sardonic ending, proving once more that he is a clever craftsman, but a backward glance leaves the reader disappointed. (p. 17)

Granville Hicks, "Young Love," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1958 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. XLI, No. 41, October 11, 1958, pp. 17, 51.∗

["The Fume of Poppies" is a] very short, fresh-colored novel about two American college students who are able to love each other as enthusiastically and as romantically as they please, because they have a fair quantity of ready cash, some imagination, some ruthlessness, and a reasonable amount of a kind of courage that might most accurately be described as daring…. Mr. Kozol, who writes bravely, directly, and with style, shines particularly in the few pages, glowing with love, that introduce his story, and in the short chapter, sour as sour grapes, that ends it. (pp. 205-06)

"Books: 'The Fume of Poppies'," in The New Yorker (© 1958 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. XXXIV, No. 36, October 18, 1958, pp. 205-06.

Charles W. Mann, Jr.

Mr. Kozol shows me [in The Fume of Poppies] that I have underestimated the latent sexual impulse of the American coed. Mr. Kozol's graphic affair, one of extreme youth, is reminiscent of [Raymond Radiguet's] "Devil in the Flesh," with much flesh and very little devil. It carries a naive charm just a little too far. I applaud his ideals of sexual love but I'm slightly embarrassed to be drawn so intimately into his sexual fantasies. "Shacking up" is all very well but it hardly will hold an entire novel together. Making love from the chill woods of Maine to the West Porch of Chartres becomes enervating if not ludicrous. There is some effective, if brief, scene painting and let us hope that when the first careless rapture has passed, Mr. Kozol will try again. This should do wonders in paper covers.

Charles W. Mann, Jr., "New Books Appraised: 'The Fume of Poppies'," in Library Journal (reprinted from Library Journal, November 1, 1958; published by R. R. Bowker Co. (a Xerox company); copyright © 1958 by Xerox corporation), Vol. 83, No. 19, November 1, 1958, p. 3153.

[The narrator of The Fume of Poppies] is quite carried away by "the magic of sweet love making." It is an obsession with him, the centre of his universe, and, if The Fume of Poppies takes on some of the aspects of a Cook's tour, first of the Maine mountain country, then of Europe, no amount of territory on either side of the Atlantic is quite big enough to contain his adored Wendy.

Naturally such youthful fervour is riding for a fall, and the utter disillusion which overtakes him when he finds that Wendy has been unfaithful to him is only the reverse side of the same coin. Both the lyric love and the subsequent disillusion are expressed in language of clichéd intensity which this reviewer found somewhat nauseating.

"Love Gone Wrong," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1959; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3012, November 20, 1959, p. 673.∗

Robert Coles

["Death at an Early Age" is an] honest and terrifying book….

[The] heartbreaking story that it tells has to be read, and cannot be distilled into a review. Mr. Kozol entered the Boston schools as a substitute teacher in 1964, and the next spring he was summarily dismissed. Very simply, his book tells what happened in between, to him as a teacher and to the children, mostly Negro, he tried so hard to help and befriend. What emerges is an unsparing picture of American education as it exists today in the ghettos of our major Northern cities….

The reader will find out about the cynicism, condescension, outright racism, and severely anti-intellectual attitudes that Mr. Kozol quite easily and openly encountered as a teacher among teachers….

The finest moments in this book are those in which the author quite openly examines his own, ordinary ("normal," if you will) willingness to go along with the rest, to submit to the very mean and stupid practices he so clearly recognized….

Like the rest of us, he can excuse and condone—or simply ignore—events that threaten his "standing," his job, his yearly income, his day-to-day relationship with his peers…. There are moments in this life when to do the practical or wise thing is, in fact, to take the most corrupt and hurtful course possible. Mr. Kozol lets us see how those moments fall upon all of us—the would-be friends and supporters of what is "good" and "right," and of course "professional."…

In the strongly worded title he has given his book, Mr. Kozol charges the Boston School Committee and the system they run with spiritual and psychological murder. Nothing in what they say, some of it supplied word for word in the book's notes, makes the accusation seem excessive.

Robert Coles, "Do They Know What They Do?" in The New York Times Book Review (© 1967 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 1, 1967, p. 1.

John Holt

Kozol's book [Death at an Early Age] is an insider's wholly personal cry of outrage and pain at the things he saw done to Negro children in the schools where he taught. He is in no sense objective; though truthful, he is hardly even fair. He is not concerned … to give the devil his due, but only to show what the devils are doing. (p. 5)

It is a tale of unrelieved, and almost unbelievable, callousness and cruelty….

One asks oneself "Are these horrors true? Have indignation and resentment made Kozol exaggerate or distort what really happened? Is he a credible witness?" There is no doubt that he is. The schools call him a troublemaker, but the charge is absurd. It is clear that he leaned over backwards, to what he himself admits was a shameful degree, to stay out of trouble with the authorities and to do what they wanted. Far from looking for an excuse to fight the system, he did all he could (and far more than he should) to avoid a fight…. I have heard enough Negro boys talking … about their own experiences in the Boston schools … to feel sure that what Kozol tells us is the truth—though probably only a small part of it—and that, at least to Negro children, the Boston public schools are every bit as contemptuous, callous, and cruel as he says.

But he tells another kind of story that is in a way even more significant. These are stories about the things he was not allowed to...

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Nat Hentoff

Kozol's intention [in "Death at an Early Age"] was to write an angry, shocking polemic, and he has succeeded…. Whatever its effects on the Boston public-school system (so far they appear to be nonexistent), I expect that "Death at an Early Age" will be read in the future, as [Charles Dickens's] "Nicholas Nickleby" is now, by those whose habit it is to look back in wonder at the barbarisms of past civilizations. (p. 166)

Nat Hentoff, "The Most Deadly Sin," in The New Yorker (© 1968 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. XLIV, No. 4, March 16, 1968, pp. 166-68.∗

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Elizabeth M. Eddy

[Death at an Early Age] is one of the more perceptive of the books written by former teachers on the subject of the slum school. Among its virtues are the fact that it omits the fictional happy ending of The Blackboard Jungle and To Sir, With Love, and the attack against the pupils presented with varying degrees of subtlety in nearly all of the other books which have received popular attention. Moreover, the book is not amusing as is Up the Down Staircase. As a consequence, Kozol's book will not make a good traditional Hollywood movie, and the reader cannot be misled into thinking that there is a happy ending to the present situation in the slum school if only lone dedicated teachers...

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Charles R. Moyer

[Death at an Early Age] is an all-out attack on the Boston school system and tends to use the author's classroom experiences only as ammunition for that attack…. [Callous] indifference … is amply documented in his book, and Mr. Kozol certainly emerges from the book as a dedicated teacher. But he is so incensed by the conditions under which he worked that his book tends toward the melodramatic with innocent black children cowering under white racist school officials—plainclothes Cossacks, as it were, sent in to ride herd on the ghetto.

Perhaps because he taught in the Boston schools when there was a great deal of public clamor about bussing black children into white schools, Mr. Kozol's...

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Richard Poirier

["Free Schools"] convincingly suggests that a school only becomes "free" when it creates around it a community of conscience about … injustices and a will to struggle against them. The very form of the book—a kind of manual with advice on how to find a building, how to raise the money, recruit a faculty, set up a curriculum, with lists of contacts and leads—proves that difficulties can indeed be the seed of practical achievement rather than frustration, that anger can be transformed into energy. It also allows some unusally blunt assessments of possibilities. At one point Kozol offers the flat challenge that "either black people are dull, slow-witted, stupid and inferior, or else their schools are murderous....

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Robert B. Nordberg

"Free Schools" is a sort of handbook for educational revolutionaries—a curiously unrevolutionary one. Mr. Kozol, having been through some of the organizational and administrative side of life, now realizes that somebody has to direct, that decisions have to be made, that there are limits to what can be done. He often sounds quite annoyed with the intemperate zeal of some of his fellow reformers. (p. 31)

Books on organizing and administering a revolution can't be as interesting as books on the need for one, and "Free Schools" is not spellbinding. Its style is prosaic, business-like. If it sacrifices something in excitement, it gains in its responsible tone. Oh, there are a few of the filthy...

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Philip G. Altbach

[Free Schools is] a short, highly readable, and informative volume about the prospects for, and the problems of, free schools. The book consists basically of two themes: one is a useful discussion of how to form and sustain a free school based on Kozol's own experiences in Boston; the other is a critical commentary on some of the failings of the free school movement. Both themes will be useful to those working in the movement as well as to those with serious interests in "alternative" education.

Perhaps Kozol's basic criticism of the thrust of the free school movement in the past few years is its failure to provide a viable educational program for those young people involved in it. The notion...

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Toby Goldstein

[Free Schools is] an indispensable handbook for any group planning to establish a free school. [Kozol] aims it at the underprivileged, non-white people, the ones who cannot easily escape to a Vermont farm but must get educated in Watts or Harlem….

[Kozol's] plans are terribly practical, his book is awe-inspiring. It makes a great deal of sense that he was fired from the public school system, for nothing proves as devasting as breaking the machine by using its own parts.

Jonathan Kozol writes of schools, but in essence, teaches about life. (p. 92)

Toby Goldstein, "Up in the Morning and Off to School," in Crawdaddy (copyright ©...

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Vivian Gornick

Kozol's books are, essentially, a radical's indictment of the inequities inherent in American society. Not only are those inequities made manifest in every aspect of public school life, says Kozol, but the public school education is designed to serve the domestic and foreign policies of the profit-making system….

Furthermore, says Kozol, that is all that takes place in the schools. The great realities of life—love, pain, fear, death; poverty, hunger, oppression; the vast miseries of ghetto life, the insatiable greed of capitalist enterprise; the health of outrage; the uncompromising respect for truth; the passionate concern for justice—all these are kept at a distance from the children...

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Norman Solomon

The Night Is Dark and I Am Far from Home challenges current fashions of equivocal dissent and reform-minded "innovations." Those forces controlling public schools, Kozol points out, are the same ones perpetuating inequity and suffering elsewhere; pedagogic styles and shapes may change, but the basic parameters and purposes remain the same: desensitization, selective information, predetermined "options," indoctrination….

Kozol poses tough questions, demanding answers which are both difficult and crucial. The Night Is Dark and I Am Far from Home is beyond all else a profound moral statement. The pain and torment of poor people are ever-present, and Kozol's words seek to remind us, cause...

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Jeffrey Lant

[Jonathan Kozol] has not grown more conservative with age. Indeed, he is today far more the enfant terrible than he was in 1967…. Since then, in fact, Kozol has continued to speak out often and forcefully on educational and social matters of immediate and widespread concern. However, though his points are often valid, sometimes shockingly so, he may be losing his ability to persuade people of their validity, because of an unfortunate change in his style and manner of presentation….

In quietly understated, profoundly moving prose, Kozol was able to show [in Death at an Early Age] how creativity, individuality, and ever dwindling self-esteem were squeezed out of the predominantly...

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Anne Nelson

[Children of the Revolution] retraces the [1961 Cuban literacy] campaign with the practiced eye of an educator, and then, startled and passionate, moves on to tell us how the society is building an educational system, how the education is creating society….

Children of the Revolution is as enthusiastic as [Death at an Early Age] was pessimistic, but Kozol is careful to show us that he is not being "set up" with pre-planned visits to model schools. His enthusiasm is a matter of both evidence and tone: when he begins a chapter, "Those who are resolved to find the flaw in Cuba's efforts to eradicate illiteracy (on the supposition that there has to be one)" … we are ready...

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James Higgins

Jonathan Kozol's Children of the Revolution makes available to the people of the United States an account of a great human development which took place in Cuba almost 20 years ago: the near-elimination of illiteracy, and the continuing successful effort since then to see to it that virtually no Cubans lack a sixth-grade education. (p. 1)

A weakness of Children of the Revolution, and one which often produces a tone of over-wrought sentimentality, is Kozol's tendency to intrude subjective judgments, shaped by his deep distrust of what goes on in U.S. schools, upon uniquely Cuban phenomena. In his defense, however, it is all too natural for a conscientious and even critical North American...

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Jeff Greenfield

["Prisoners of Silence"] is a book with a clear, specific issue. In American society, where words are so critical, at least 25 million people are "functionally incompetent," and Jonathan Kozol … argues for a national campaign to fight adult illiteracy.

A crash program worked in Cuba, Israel and Brazil, Mr. Kozol says, and it could work here—with young men and women working at subsistence wages, living in the same conditions as those they are teaching…. Only by experiencing crime, disorder, police neglect and abuse, says Mr. Kozol, can these teachers avoid "condescension." And only through teaching "action" words, which will enable adult illiterates to express their rightful anger at society's...

(The entire section is 278 words.)