Jonathan Kozol Jeff Greenfield - Essay

Jeff Greenfield

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["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 deprivations, will they reach the real sources of the inability to read and write.

All this may sound like a book left over from 1967—but it is not, although Mr. Kozol's deliberate avoidance of academic neutrality sometimes colors the book purple. But he is aware of the rhetorical trap of "community participation" and unapologetic about the "teaching" role of teachers. And he also is more than willing to embrace corporate participation for reasons quite different from his own.

What makes this book puzzling is Mr. Kozol's belief that such a national program could, in fact, rally millions of volunteers. Such an assumption requires us to believe that millions of Americans are passionately devoted to the concept and reality of social justice—a belief that seems widely at variance with the current political climate.

Jeff Greenfield, "Nonfiction in Brief: 'Prisoners of Silence: Breaking the Bonds of Adult Illiteracy in the United States'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1980 by The New York Times Company: reprinted by permission), May 4, 1980, p. 16.