The flaws of the United States education system have been explored and debated at great length in recent years. This sample book report explores Jonathon Kozol’s novel, Savage Inequalities, illustrating the success of its thesis and how the American education system is in shambles.
A critical review of Savage Inequalities
One of the most significant examples of a public reasoned outcry against the problems with United States’ education system was Jonathon Kozol’s (1991) book Savage Inequalities. This book highlighted the racial segregation that existed in modern day public schools and explored the reasons behind it. Several examples were provided of the disparity between public and private schools as well as between poorly supported public schools and those that benefit from superior financial backing. Opinions of teachers, administrators, government officials, and media representatives were also provided to demonstrate the extent that the problem permeates modern thought. Though the book feels heavy-handed at times, it did a good job of proving the claimed problem and exploring the causes of that problem in terms that an average reader could understand.
Kozol argued his case very convincingly in every regard. The evidence he provided of problem schools did an excellent job of portraying how very bad it is in some places. A school in East St. Louis served as an example of the economic hardship suffered by public schools. Kozol (1991) enumerated the extensive layoffs forced on the school district by the school board when they exercised their emergency powers as well as the school system’s everyday reliance on substitute teachers who could be paid less to fill the positions that were being rapidly dismissed (p. 24). At first this particular case is focused on so closely that it could be an isolated case, something I wondered while reading through it, but Kozol reinforced his claim with similar evidence from several other schools throughout the country.
Related Topic:Racial Inequality in Fiction
Financial burdens in education
In every example the reader was made very aware of the unfair, seemingly hopeless nature of the financial difficulties suffered by these schools. In the favored case of East St. Louis, Kozol (1991) quoted state officials to demonstrate this point:
“Governor Thompson, however, tells the press that he will not pour money into East St. Louis to solve long-term problems. East St. Louis residents, he says, must help themselves. In a very different tone from that of the governor, [the state superintendent] notes that East St. Louis does not have the means to solve its educational problems on its own” (p. 24).
This served to both further drive home the plight of the underprivileged schools and prepared the reader for the later parts of the book that focused specifically on the flaws in the political system that perpetuate this system of deprivation.
Did Kozol bend evidence to his needs?
Whenever an argument like this is presented, it can be easy to get caught up in the passion and evidence presented by the author. But it can also be easy to begin to wonder if the author is just focusing on the evidence that suits his purposes. Kozol (1991) was fair with his appraisal of the government’s attention to the problem, though even his attention in support of the existing system is flavored with disapproval:
“The state board of education demonstrates its genuine but skewed compassion by attempting to leave sports and music untouched by the overall austerity” (p. 25).
Touches like this throughout the book show that the book was not a witch hunt or manifesto for a class war. It was simply a hard look at the reality of modern education, and there happened to be a great deal of evidence that renders the government at best inept and, at worst, malicious.
Attack on media bias
Kozol’s attention did not fall solely on the government, however. If it had, it might have been written off as a rabble-rousing piece of yellow journalism, a type of media bias. He made no effort to ally himself with the media, and he used the opinions of private organizations to show more accurately who was on the other side of the line he had drawn by putting the spotlight on high-class media entities like Town and Country which:
“Flatters the privileged for having privilege but terms it aspiration” (Kozol, 1991, pg. 67).
This is presented in the midst of Kozol’s attack on ‘the spirit of competition’ as validation for the poor support of certain school systems, which happen to be populated largely by non-white ethnicities. No tempering points were provided on this front which could have threatened Kozol’s objectivity, but instead read more as righteous fury that the hereditarily rich would dare to pat themselves on the back for thriving amid ‘equality’ while the poor cannot even get books in public schools.
Kozol’s anecdotal evidence
The only evidence provided was not statistical or ethical, however. There were aspects of the racial problem in education presented that would demand a response from all but the coldest readers. Kozol presented evidence of the poor conditions for students at several points before, effectively tugging at the heartstrings of his reader to break up the statistics and self-incriminating quotes from the wealthy who failed to recognize how bad things were, but that reached a new level toward the end of the book. Throughout the book, impoverished public schools were shown to harm every aspect of students’ lives, and Kozol (1991) masterfully capped that series of evidence with one of the most heart-wrenching pieces of evidence:
“’We’re seeing more and more kids who are simply overwhelmed,’ says a doctor at a local hospital, ‘not unlike people who have experienced shell shock’” (p. 186).
Specifics regarding this were presented, showing the severe psychological trauma inflicted on impoverished students, simply by going to school under such conditions.
Kozol’s final point was well chosen as it led the reader beyond the book, into the real world. Government policy was presented as the root of this evil throughout the entire book, both because of what it caused and because of what it allowed. Kozol (1991) pointed out:
“The decision as to what may represent a reasonable ‘minimum’ (the term ‘sufficient’ often is employed) is, of course, determined by the state officials. Because of the dynamics of state politics, this determination is in large part shaped by what the richer districts judge to be ‘sufficient’ for the poorer” (p. 209).
Since Kozol already made a convincing case that the first interest of the wealthy was to give their kids an advantage at the cost of every other child’s opportunities, it was obvious that the system would only perpetuate and increase the stratification of educational conditions.
Limitations of the novel
The only failing of this book was the Kozol had no clear solution to offer. As a statement of a problem, however, it was immaculate. It appealed to all forms of logic, statistical, ethical, and emotional, and it did so in a pleasant and convincing organization. There was no question how Kozol felt about the situation, but by the end of the book it would have been difficult for any reader to disagree with the fact of the problem or the reasons presented for it.
Kozol, J. (1991). Savage inequalities: children in America’s schools. New York: Crown Publications.
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