During his Jan. 30 visit, Jonathan Kozol met with a group of about 30 graduate and undergraduate Lehigh students at the College of Education for a roundtable discussion.
Author, activist and lecturer Jonathan Kozol delivered a scathing indictment of the state of the nation’s public educational system in a talk at Lehigh on Jan. 30. Kozol’s lecture was the culminating event of Lehigh’s two-week observation of the life and legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King.
In his talk, which was delivered to a standing room only crowd at Packard Auditorium, Kozol placed the majority of the blame squarely on what he sees as a villainous “No Child Left Behind” federal mandate.
Slight, bespectacled, with the sleeves of his blue shirt rolled up above his elbows, Kozol spoke in soft, measured tones to the crowd, occasionally raising his voice to offer condemnation of President George W. Bush, who championed the “No Child Left Behind” mandate, and the Congressional cohorts who enabled him.
“There is something deeply, deeply hypocritical in holding an eight-year-old accountable—that’s the word they like, accountable, isn’t it?—but not holding this president and this Congress accountable for they did to rob children,” he said. “It just makes me so angry.”
Both during his talk and the question-and-answer session that followed, he spoke passionately about the inequalities inherent in an educational system that offers limitless opportunities to the rich, white and privileged, while punishing disadvantaged children with standardized testing mandates that bleed them of their joy, wonder and curiosity.
“And the worst part (of this law) is the daily schedule that is so tightly timed that there is literally no room for spontaneous conversation between teacher and children,” he said. “I looked all through No Child Left Behind and you will not find one word about sorrow, or hilarity, or playfulness or joy.”
Kozol shared a tale of his personal journey from Harvard, to the inner city schools of Boston, where he became a fourth-grade teacher after being inspired to contribute in the aftermath of the murder of three civil rights workers in Mississippi in 1964. While teaching in Boston, he said, he became “politically and morally outraged at the harsh injustices meted out to these children,” and decided to dedicate his life to addressing the issue of educational inequality.
“What I need to say to you tonight,” he said, “is that the struggle is not over. Instead, the treatment of Black and Hispanic children in our public schools is worse today than at any time since 1968, when Dr. King was taken from us.”
The way to honor King’s legacy, he said, “is not through an arms-length celebration of the courage they displayed, but through the emulation of that courage in the fight for social justice.”
Kozol spoke at length about Francesca, a young teacher he met while visiting an inner city school in Boston, and who became the focus of his most recent book Letters to a Young Teacher
Her inspiring, hopeful story stands as testament to power teachers hold as they help nurture fertile minds, instill a sense of wonder and awe, and “bring sweetness into the lives of young children,” he said.
“I don’t like to depress young people,” he said. “I do want to give you healthy cause for hope and offer you at least one clear example of how people are starting to fight back against this injustice with determined actions and joyful energy. There are hundreds of thousands of glorious, high-spirited and independent Francesca’s teaching in our schools today. I meet them every where I go, and I met them here at Lehigh.”
Earlier in the day, Kozol met with a group of about 30 graduate and undergraduate Lehigh students at the College of Education for a roundtable discussion that centered on the struggles faced by young educators in the face of rigid standardized testing, under-funding and over-reliance on educational consultants.
He also offered severe criticism of the “charlatans” who populate the lucrative “drill and kill” field of educational testing.
“They’re schtick-meisters, that’s what they are,” he said. “You can make a fairly good living telling people that there are surefire ways to fix schools, or teach reading or do this or that. But it’s just boosterism—cheap psychology. It’s junk.
“There is no one right way to fix our school system and anyone who tells you there is a self-promoting jackass.”
Photo by Douglas Benedict