Jonathan Kozol John Holt

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John Holt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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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 do for or with Negro children, in many cases things that other teachers were allowed to do and did for the few white children in the same school….

Still more important, every time he was able, in his teaching, to catch the interest and enthusiasm of the children, he was made to stop….

The hard fact is that with few exceptions our city slum schools, like many of the broken-spirited children in them, have fallen back on the strategy of deliberate failure. They have a vested interest in that failure…. The less our city schools are able to do, the harder they must cling to the alibi that nothing can be done, and the more deeply they must be threatened by anyone who by succeeding undermines the last shaky prop to their self-respect—the dogma that poor city children cannot be taught. (p. 8)

John Holt, "Children in Prison," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1967 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. IX, No. 11, December 21, 1967, pp. 5-6, 8, 10.∗