Jonathan Kozol Richard Poirier

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Richard Poirier

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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["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. There is no third choice."

He can afford to say this. The success of his school has convinced him of the second option. The more so because the educational standards of his Free School are if anything higher than those in publicly financed schools. (p. 5)

Kozol's case is so persuasive on educational grounds, his practices so beneficial in their effect on the surrounding community, that any sympathetic reader may become a bit impatient and finally antagonized by some of the hyperbolic vehemence of this book. I am not referring to his assaults on slum lords and their judicial cohorts, or to his hot anger at living conditions—really conditions for slow dying—in the neighborhood, or to his attacks on the smugness and lethargy of urban universities, the banks and the foundations. He disposes of these with invigorating and detailed precision. What is disturbing is his overkill of educational projects other than his own because of their failure to confront social and political inequities. His lack of charity when it comes to the flounderings of even well-intentioned public schools and the shrillness of his contempt for rural Free Schools has its dangers. It calls undue attention to the limitations, given the vast needs of the whole society, of his own enterprise.

To put it bluntly, the Free School in Roxbury needs now and then to be sheltered from the book called "Free Schools," Kozol the builder protected from Kozol the scourge. In sweeping aside all other schools he clears an area, surrounded by forces of intense malevolence, that could not possibly be occupied effectively by his or by any other kind of school….

Millions of children need to be taught to read and write and add, millions need help in decoding a world that is not to be gotten round but only gotten through, and Kozol knows better than anyone that folk singing or bead stringing or sensitivity sessions will not provide the skills for doing all this. But neither is there any way to do it that won't finally be accountable, in dollars and cents, in some sacrifice of principle, perhaps, to "that flag." To assume otherwise is to be as much in some other...

(The entire section is 718 words.)