Jonathan Kozol Elizabeth M. Eddy

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Elizabeth M. Eddy

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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[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 persevere, that the problem is basically the fault of the children, or that the whole situation is so hopelessly bad that the best thing to do is to laugh at the irony of it all.

In contrast to many who have written about the slum school and to the stance of most teachers within these schools, Kozol is actively protesting against the educational and social system which allows these schools to exist. This is refreshing, and it is encouraging that a book like this has appeared and received a national award.

Much that Kozol reports about his experiences has been confirmed by empirical investigations in other school systems. Further, there is evidence to indicate that the problem has ramifications beyond those documented in this book. The contemporary educational system has deleterious effects not only on Negro pupils but also on children from other groups stricken by poverty—Appalachian whites, Puerto Ricans, Mexican Americans and American Indians. (pp. 367-68)

The entrenched bureaucratic nature of the formal educational system needs much greater attention than Kozol gives it. His book eloquently describes the consequences of this system for both child and teacher, and Kozol himself is a dramatic example of the way in which the teacher is often discouraged from initiating creative learning activities in the classroom. In addition, the book presents insightful material relevant to the pathological adaptations made by many teachers who remain in the slum school rather than moving elsewhere.

At the same time, however, the educational world described in Death at an Early Age is reduced to overly simple proportions. Kozol's sketches of white teachers and agents of the system (with the possible exception of himself) are stereotyped and totally negative. In contrast, there is no unsympathetic sketch of a Negro adult or child. This brings into sharp focus the racial conflict clearly evident in American society today, but it does little to help us understand the nature of the educational system which must be changed if solutions to the present problem are to be found.

Kozol fails to sufficiently note or see the implications of the fact that both teachers and pupils (irrespective of their skin color) are at the bottom of a long bureaucratic supervisory chain of command which permeates all of...

(The entire section is 750 words.)