Jonathan Kozol Robert Coles - Essay

Robert Coles

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["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.