Jonathan Kozol Introduction

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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Jonathan Kozol 1936–

American nonfiction writer and novelist.

Kozol's nonfiction works document both the horrors of racist American school systems and the promise of other methods of education as represented by the free school movement. As his political stance has progressed from indifference to radicalism, so the style and tone of his writing have also changed. The Fume of Poppies, a frothy account of a love affair between two affluent undergraduates, written while he was an English major at Harvard, was his first book and only novel to date. It was published shortly after Kozol's graduation to encouraging reviews. His next book and first work of nonfiction, Death at an Early Age, written after his dismissal from the Boston public school system, leaves such frivolity behind. An angrily reproachful book, it gives Kozol's reactions to his year of substitute teaching in Boston's primary schools. A few critics noted that in his outrage against those policies and teachers who made the schools oppressive, he sometimes neglected to give much life to the portraits of the students he defended, but the fervor and accuracy of his charges fully compensated for this flaw. The work won a National Book Award in 1968.

Kozol's subsequent essays have grown angrier and more urgent, resembling appeals for support or incitements to radicalism more than accounts of personal frustration. Increasingly, they tend toward prescription rather than description. Free Schools, for example, which discusses the obstacles he faced as a founder of and teacher in an urban free school, could serve as a handbook for others interested in starting one. Educators and activists alike respect his dedication and agree that his probing analyses of the present standards of education in the United States deserve recognition and encouragement. Yet his manner of expressing his anger has at times caused him to appear accusatory and righteous even to those impressed by his eloquent and passionate concern. His last two books reflect his concern with the problem of illiteracy: Children of the Revolution recounts the tour of Cuba he made to examine the effects of their 1961 literacy campaign, and Prisoners of Silence provides guidelines for a similar project envisioned for the United States. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 61-64.)