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Thompson: Remembering The Full Horror of "Death at an Early Age"

Screenshot 2015-07-07 11.33.30
Thanks to Alexander and NPR's Claudio Sanchez for reminding us of the 50th anniversary of the firing of Jonathan Kozol for "curriculum deviation."

Everyone should (re)read this book. 

Rather than immediately using it to discuss the ways that education and racism has and has not changed in the last half century, we should first focus on the horror of Death at an Early Age.

Kozol was a substitute teacher in a class of 8th grade girls who were designated as "problem students" because they either had "very low intelligence" or were "emotionally disturbed."  In a 133-word sentence, Kozol recalls his reading of Langston Hughes's "The Landlord."

No transistor radios reappeared or were turned on during that next hour and, although some children interrupted me a lot to quiz me about Langston Hughes, where he was born, whether he was rich, whether he was married, and about poetry, and about writers, and writing in general, and a number of other things that struck their fancy, and although it was not a calm or orderly or, above all, disciplined class by traditional definition and there were probably very few minutes in which you would be able to hear a pin drop or hear my reading uninterrupted by the voices of one or another of the girls, at least I did have their attention and they seemed, if anything, to care only too much about the content of that Negro poet's book.

In subsequent years, most of the students forgot the poet's name, but they remembered the names of his poems and "They remember he was Negro."

Kozol was fired, his students' parents protested, and the career of a masterful education writer began. The details of the dismissal, however, are also noteworthy.

Kozol was also charged with violating Boston's curriculum policy by using a book from the Cambridge Library, not from the school system's inventory. The bigger sin was failing to use a poem that "accentuates the positive." In particular, he risked the "dangers of reading to Negro children poems written in bad grammar." The official charge explained, "We are trying to break the speech patterns of these children, trying to get them to speak properly. This poem does not present correct grammatical expression and would just entrench the speech patterns we want to break."   

A key subtheme of Death at an Early Age is Kozol's attempt to understand "the Reading Teacher," who was a liberal supporter of civil rights but who was oblivious to her own racism. She was an otherwise excellent teacher, exuding enthusiasm and an ability to "sell" her lessons to students. But, the Reading Teacher steadfastly resisted Kozol's indictments of the system's racism. This part of the book's conclusion was foreshadowed when Reverend James Reeb was murdered in Selma and the Reading Teacher said, "Thank God at least, Johnny, that we can come to school each morning and do our work and forget about things like Alabama while we are here!"

Kozol asked his elementary students to write about their school or their lives, and they reported truths that were hard for the Reading Teacher to accept. After he and she debated the assignment, Kozol concluded that "this woman, like many teachers, had worked hard to develop and to solidify a set of optimistic values. To perpetuate the same views on her pupils therefore was not to lie to them ... but to extend to them, to attempt really to 'sell' to them, her own hard-earned hopes about the world."  

The climatic insight into the teacher's denial of her complicity in the abuse of black children, not to mention her personal racism, was foreshadowed by an end of the year conversation with her. At one point in a concluding discussion, the Reading Teacher seemed willing to acknowledge the "miserable consequences" for teachers and students being in their awful school. But, she had pulled back, saying, "No. My life is set." 

After Kozol was fired, the Reading Teacher told a colleague, "If this young man (Kozol) is right ... if the education scholars are right ... if the civil rights leaders are right--If Martin Luther King is right ... our entire view of the world is shattered and our entire lives have been a waste."

And, that is the reason why I have tried to keep this post as distant as possible from contemporary edu-politics. If many school reformers have to admit that they were wrong in their path to school improvement, they may see their careers as a waste. If 21st century schools ultimately use reward and punish to teach the “right” curriculum and teach students to produce the “right” answer, my education values will be shattered. If we can’t all reread and contemplate Kozol’s story, however, the vitality of our education values system is equally at risk.-JT(@drjohnthompson)



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