On an airplane ride across the country, I wiped the tears as I read, highlighted and marked significant pages in Kozol’s new book, The Shame of the Nation. Often, I had to stop, grab my mouth, cover my nose in an attempt to hold back a more noticeable emotional response – I was, of course, sitting amongst strangers. On one occasion, I stopped, thinking that I was acting like a child, what is wrong with me, I asked? Why are you so emotional? It is not like anything that you are reading is a surprise… Why after all of these years as an educator and activist for social justice education are you breaking down? Well, my dear readers, I just don’t know what is happening, but the more that I talk to colleagues, friends, educators and just plain old human beings in general – I believe that the winds are changing. Something has been brewing for a long time and it just is not going away. In fact, it is getting worse. I think Kozol started playing me, string by string like an old violin that aside from some fine-tuning was desperate to sing.
After reading over two hundred pages in just one sitting, I was calm again – well at least, I wasn’t emotionally wrecked. How will I ever be effective in my work if I can’t get past the pain and the anger and the sadness about the condition of education in America – for the poor, for the Blacks, for the Latinos, for the “minoritized” populations? Crying doesn’t mean a thing. And yet, for me, a stoic educator often coined as a ‘serious professional’ crying felt like the first step into a new chapter I have yet to title in my own journey. I was more convinced of this “new chapter” as I stood for half an hour waiting for my luggage at JFK airport, horrified as I watched the videotaped scene of Davis, a retired elementary school teacher, being repeatedly kicked and beat by white police officers in New Orleans for “stumbling into a horse.”
Kozol describes our current education system to be one of “apartheid.” Any present day educator working in schools in cities across America will agree that America’s schools are definitely segregated and that our communities are perhaps similar to or even worse in some cases to the 1950’s. Kozol’s urgent cry for us to confront the present day reality of separate and definitely unequal is a comprehensive snapshot of what many of us live every day – whether it be in the school, over our own dinner tables or behind a desk. However, the purpose of this commentary is not to repeat a description of the condition of our school system, but to discuss Kozol’s urgent call for action. He writes, “At every opportunity I have to talk with advocates and educators who share any part of my beliefs about these matters nowadays, I ask the same repeated questions: Where should teachers, superintendents, principals, and others who are troubled by the silence of our nation’s leaders on this issue look for recourse and for reinforcement of their discontent? What body of political objectives is sufficiently within the realm of realistic hope to be worth striving for? Where, within the limits of the possible, should we direct whatever time and energy we have?” He quotes Gary Orfield who responds, “A political movement is a necessary answer…we need to reach out to a broader sector of the nation to initiate a struggle.” Kozol ends his book with powerful statements made by Congressman Lewis: “ A segregated education in America is unacceptable… Integration is, still remains, the goal worth fighting for. You should fight for it. We should be fighting for it. It is something that is good unto itself apart from all the other arguments that can be made. This nation needs to be a family, and a family sits down for its dinner at a table and we all deserve a place at that table. And our children deserve to have a place together in their schools and classrooms, and they need to have that opportunity while they’re still children, while they’re in those years of innocence.”
My concern is, of course, if we continue to allow for segregated schools, segregated neighborhoods and segregated policies — what type of world will the future generations inherit?
I wonder: Can we provide the best education to our children without integration?
Kozol speaks a lot about money and class and how the wealthy continue to spend large sums of money on education. I ask: If we continue to support the notion that money does not make a difference in quality education – as in the Bush administration insisting that not money but higher accountability standards will improve our schools — then why do the communities that can afford it continue to invest so much in the education of their children? And what does that mean for the families who cannot afford to supplement the public fare?
Finally, I wonder: How should we initiate a struggle to revisit segregation in our schools?