Schooldays

36 Children.
by Herbert Kohl.
New American Library. 256 pp. $5.50.

Death at an early age.
by Jonathan Kozol.
Houghton Mifflin. 240 pp. $4.95.

Firsthand reports from the classrooms of the inner city are fast becoming a new literary genre in America: The writer is a teacher or—more commonly—an ex-teacher, and the characters are tough but (usually) sympathetic kids, callous administrators, and a collection of fearful school types spouting hate through their pieties and educational nonsense through their apathy. The writer-protagonist is part anthropologist fascinated by the ghetto, part muckraking journalist, and part teacher struggling manfully to work with the children placed in his care. Ultimately he quits or is fired for being too successful, innovative, or defiant.

Some of this literature leans toward creeping sentimentality—a black for white reversal of the standard Blackboard Jungle tale—in which the zip-gun-toting hoods are invested with the souls of poets and the embattled teachers are transformed into sadistic racists. But a great deal of it also goes to the heart of the failures of urban education, leaving the wreckage of old clichés in its wake. Being journalistic and personal, it strikes where educational theorists fear to tread and the generalities of sociological polemicism shed no light. Books like The Schoolchildren1 by Orletta Ryan and Mary Frances Greene, and, more recently, Jonathan Kozol’s Death at an Early Age, and Herbert Kohl’s 36 Children, do for the turgid literature of education what Ida Tarbell and Lincoln Steffens did to the conventional political and economic texts of the progressive age: they describe the system, not as it’s supposed to function, but as it does, and they portray children as individual human beings, not as cases for the guidance counsellor. At their worst, these writers can be excruciatingly gothic; at their best, they are forcing, for the first time, a real confrontation with the abiding problems of the urban schools. Ultimately, all their statements are questions to which neither they, nor anyone else, have any substantial answers.

Kohl and Kozol have been traveling parallel paths to similar ends. Classmates at Harvard, and still good friends, they independently became earnest pilgrims in the ghetto schools, Kohl in Harlem, Kozol in Boston’s Roxbury. Kozol lasted a year minus a week as a temporary teacher before he was fired, in a local cause célèbre, for reading Langston Hughes’s poem Ballad of the Landlord to his fourth-grade class, and for other unspecified transgressions. The poem was not on the approved syllabus, and it threatened the polite hypocrisy of the school establishment. Undoubtedly Kozol’s personal concern, his commitment to his pupils, was highly offensive to his colleagues and superiors. Kohl survived two years, then quit in desperation because his successes in a sixth-grade class were frustrated and destroyed by the cynicism and disregard of others in the system.

Of the two books, Kozol’s is far more personal, more passionate, and therefore less comprehensive. It is a story of teachers who derive pleasure from beating children with a rattan in the school basement, of classes conducted—in competition with the noise of several others—in the corner of an ugly school auditorium, of the subtle racism of school administrators and elected school committee officials, and of one man’s odyssey through the terrors of a system where dedication means destruction and where personal and cultural originality are regarded as works of the devil. (“We have no inferior education in our schools,” said a member of the School Committee. “What we have been getting is an inferior type of student.”) Essentially, Kozol’s work is a simple, desperate document, almost a fragment, the message of a survivor that washes up on a distant shore:

No child in the ruined Fourth Grade at my school can ever have that terrible year returned to him. No boy whipped for society’s, not his, wrong is ever likely again to have his whole sense of dignity returned. No young man made to lie and apologize for something he did not do in order to avoid a greater punishment can ever be graced again with the gift of belief in a world or society in which authorities are just. And who in the slow calendar of days in which “things are changing” will find a way, after that change, to give back to the boys at that discipline school the lives that have been taken from them by the Boston Public Schools?

And yet, while Kozol knows what happened to him and the children about whom he cared so much, while he understands that the discipline cases, and the resulting psychological cripples, were the creatures of the system, he offers little understanding of why they occurred. Kozol portrays his own experiences against the lofty professions of the School Committee, and almost every page is charged with the irony of the differences. There are statistics and recitations of failure, comparisons of funds spent in Boston’s Negro and white schools, descriptions of textbook platitudes and their gratuitous insults to Negro children, and unbelievable vignettes of the ignorance and parochialism of teachers. But despite all these things—Kozol’s effective descriptions of the sad characters on the School Committee who upheld his dismissal, and of the school with its collapsing windows and peeling paint—the book often has the tone of an allegory where Hate, Fear, Hypocrisy, and Racism are the chief enemies. The political and social complexities that created this system, the very fact that all this is presumably the consequence of a democratic process, fades into the background. The political appeal of Irish politicians with their lace curtain pieties, the well meaning middle-class Yankees and Jews who fled to the suburbs and, until recently, disregarded the urban mess, the political and civil-service machinery that festers decay and disregard—all these things are overlooked. The strength of the book is in its uncomplicated emotional impact; its weakness is that it offers neither political nor pedagogical light. Finally, and ironically, it may simply reinforce the polarized hates and fears it so vividly describes, without providing a handle for their mitigation. Now we will know even better why we moved to the suburbs (where Kozol has become a successful teacher), why we detest Louise Day Hicks, the woman who parlayed the neighborhood school ritual into a serious candidacy for mayor of Boston, and why the urban schools are doomed. Kozol has written a powerful book, and he himself is a thoughtful, warm individual. Yet both author and book are indications that Good Intentions alone will not prevail. The “dedicated teacher” has become the rhetorical battlecry of the Boston system, but politics is the name of the game. Kozol’s genuine dedication is rare, and therefore it is not enough.

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Kohl’s book, written in a lower key, is a more complex story of a successful effort to meet the academic and pedagogical challenge of reaching children often considered hopeless; where Kozol is concerned with his pupils’ physical and psychic scars, Kohl is primarily interested in intellectual and personal relevance, in how youngsters from the Harlem ghetto can be taught effectively. During the course of his two-year hitch in the classroom, author-teacher Kohl scrapped most of the standard approaches of the curriculum manuals (partly through necessity, since textbooks weren’t available), taught the children fables, listened to their stories and records, and got them to a point where they were writing their own literature. Many of these classroom productions—usually in the form of epic “novels”—are heavily loaded with the children’s projections of good and evil, and with imaginative constructions drawn from lives that can be unbelievably rich, despite the misery that surrounds them. Since Kohl gave the kids a large dose of classical mythology, their stories—many of them reproduced in the book-are populated by a cast of heroes who are part Roman or Greek god, part Robin Hood, and part hipster (perhaps the first profiles of the dream life of a Black militant):

The Slave was very smart. Soon he found out about the king. The Slave told his friends. Soon Everyone was talking about it. The people were mad they threw him out. Then the Slave took the leaders place. He ruled good and wisely. For the king he was put to a task of rolling rocks (huge rocks) on a mountain that erupts. The Slave set all Slaves free and gave them money and land.

Nearly half the book is filled with the writing and drawings of children—little sketches of filthy streets and addicts, dreams of great achievement, ghetto versions of Oresteian tragedy—all testimonials that the “unteachable” can be taught, that they can produce unexpectedly rich poems and stories, and that the conventional assumptions about “disadvantages” are often nothing more than the confessions of incompetent teachers. (I suspect that Kohl also included the stories as a final act of educational encouragement to the writers.) Kohl, like Kozol, accepted and rewarded work that shocked others in the system: Children are not supposed to know about junkies or brutality, and their stories—if they write them at all—are usually forced into the saccharine tone of Dick and Jane. By encouraging work based on the children’s lives, and by seeing the kids as people, Kohl was able to convert their undisciplined curiosity and projections into coherent and often structured learning. From street language, he moved them to discussions about the origins of words, and the correct way of expressing oneself:

The emphasis on language and words opened the children to the whole process of verbal communication. Things that they had been struggling to express, or worse, had felt only they in their isolation thought about, became social, shareable. Speaking of things, of inferiority and ambiguity, of irony and obsession, brought relief, and perhaps for the first time gave the children a sense that there were meaningful human creations that one could discover in a classroom.

Slowly during his first year Kohl learned that “the lessons were secondary. Everything important happening in the classroom happened between lessons.” He also learned that the kids’ classroom failures were his failures, and that frequently the children’s offenses in school were only reflections of his own terror.

Although Kohl tends at times to be romantic about his pupils and about the work they produced (much of it, after all, isn’t great literature), he proves his point: success in a ghetto classroom is not determined by the literary distinction of its productions, but by what children do and learn, and clearly Kohl’s children wrote a great deal, became fascinated with words and stories, and often developed an unbounded curiosity about their lives, about books, and about all the things that should matter to a civilized human being. They began to discover, in brief, the value of learning, the idea that education is power, that the man of wisdom can command spirits.

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And yet, what we are witnessing here—what Kohl did in the classroom—is really the production of a work of art. As a teacher he was able to do what a million other teachers cannot, and it is this fact that limited Kohl’s own effectiveness and that led him to quit the classroom. (He is now at Columbia Teachers College writing materials for ghetto classes.) Most of the children he was able to turn on were quickly turned off by other teachers and other situations. Some of them were left in a limbo between two worlds. One who is now on her way to becoming a highly proficient mathematician has become a moral and social neuter; several others dropped out of school, while a few more are treading an uncertain line between life in the official world of school, ambition, and success, and the underworld of the streets.

This is what makes the book, and others like it, important and frustrating at the same time. It proves that the ghetto school is not totally without hope, but like Kozol’s it also seems to demonstrate that few people can make it anything more than a desperate holding operation that destroys children with a blind and ruthless efficiency. Other than the example of his own work, Kohl offers no pedagogical theory. Moreover, he does not, and cannot, provide prescriptions for the integration of the two worlds that he managed to straddle and bring together for a brief moment. The very success of his work and the very existence of the book are premised on the difficulty of that resolution. The problem is not merely in finding or training other teachers to be able to do what Kohl and Kozol have managed, but in integrating two cultures—rich and poor, white and black—each of which partly defines itself through exclusion of the other. The traditional school program, now demonstrably a failure, was premised on the belief that all children aspired to the comfortable middle class, that they all wanted to become little executives or professionals, and that, ultimately, the culture of the ghetto was no culture at all and would disappear. Clearly, this is what underlay Kozol’s dismissal in Boston. The disasters that grew from these assumptions suggest that alchemy is no more feasible in converting cultures than it is in metallurgy. If it is no longer possible to say that they should be like us, are we then willing to accept the idea that we should become a little more like them? The American educational system, advertised as the route to opportunity, also operates to select people out: the more important it becomes as an avenue of entry, the more important also are its functions of denial and rejection. As it becomes the prime asset and legacy of the advantaged, will the disadvantaged ever be allowed genuine parity?

The large urban school systems are visibly crumbling under the weight of teacher strikes, community action groups, and their own hierarchical rigidity. Decentralization, considered absurd a few years ago, is now coming into fashion. And yet, decentralization itself is really nothing more than an admission of educational failure and a recognition of our pedagogical bankruptcy. Ultimately, community control over the ghetto schools and black political power may generate a new kind of educational motivation. Perhaps if the parents are in charge, they will insist on more people like Kozol and Kohl and on more concern for children. Ultimately, urban politics—real ward politics—and community action, rather than the traditional urban classroom, may well be our greatest educational resource and the most effective device for achieving social mobility. But until that happens, decentralization will continue to institutionalize the two worlds, and the bridges will be that much harder to build. When they are built, they will, hopefully, accommodate two-way traffic.

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1 New American Library, 1967.

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