TBR: The Shame of the Nation
This week, I’m writing about Jonathan Kozol’s latest book, The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America. I guess I should begin by saying that I agree with probably 90 percent of what Kozol says in this book. I agree that the inadequate education offered to the vast majority of inner-city students is a national embarassment and should be a source of outrage to all Americans, not just those whose kids are stuck attending those schools. I think it is absurd to take the kids who come to school with the least family resources, put them in overcrowded underfunded classrooms with the least experienced teachers, and then blame them for their failure to pass standardized tests. I share Kozol’s deep skepticism about the "scripted" teaching programs that are being offered as panaceas to lift up those test scores.
And yet, I found myself repeatedly arguing with Kozol as I read the book. He pushes his argument to such extremes that I couldn’t follow him all the way. Yes, it’s terrible that kids are attending schools with asbestos coming out of the walls and stopped up toilets. But Kozol seems to be equally outraged over kids going to classes in trailer classrooms — which aren’t ideal, but aren’t terrible, and are common in a good number of solidly middle class school districts too. He talks about the beautiful and expensive new building provided for Stuyvesant High School in New York, while other schools in the city were falling apart, and points out that only about 3 percent of the students at Stuyvesant are black or Hispanic. But he doesn’t acknowledge, even in passing, that about half of Stuyvesant students are Asian, many from low-income families.
I was also frustrated that Kozol never made a clear case for why he thinks that it’s so important for black and Hispanic students to have white classmates. He devotes a lot of effort to proving how segregated many urban classrooms are — most notably, observing that if you want to find a segregated school in America, you should look for one named after Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King. But is the problem that the schools are (largely) segregated, or that they’re lousy schools? Is integration worth fighting for in its own right, or only as a means to improving schools for poor minority kids? Kozol clearly believes the former, but he doesn’t provide an argument for it that will convince anyone who doesn’t already share his views.
I’m actually scared that Shame of the Nation will set back Kozol’s goal of integration. If you want to convince middle-class parents to send their kids to integrated schools, publicizing the worst case scenarios of dreadful inner-city schools isn’t the way to do it. I’m not saying we should give up on Brown v Board of Education, but if we somehow managed to provide truly excellent public schools to all students, I think a good bit of educational and residential segregation would fade away without a massive government intervention.