There is much in Jonathan Kozol's experience as an educator that parallels my own. Both of us have been teachers and principals, both have worked in private schools and urban and suburban public schools. Neither does now. And we both have been fired and have written about it. Because I was one of many admiring readers moved by his Death at an Early Age , I was eager to learn what's on Kozol's mind some two decades later.
I see On Being a Teacher as a book about what Kozol would do if he had it to do over again -- articulate a sense of social purpose and enlist a power base of students, parents and other teachers to help achieve it. It's very heady and very pesonal stuff.
I have difficulty with Kozol's ideology and pedagogy. I find confusion between him and the teachers to whom he addresses his message. The jacket suggests Kozol is "writing as a teacher on behalf of some four million other teachers." He is, of course, not a teacher, in the sense the other 4 million are -- sustaining the demanding, highly routinized 8-to-4 days with scores of students. He may be speaking to many teachers, but I know of no one who speaks for teachers, certainly not for all of them. They're a pretty idiosyncratic, independent bunch; they speak pretty well for themselves. On the basis of many meetings with teachers, Kozol assertts the book is "to a very large degree, a compilation of [teachers'] own views, strategies, and ideals." I find this leap from "I" to the more common "we" pretentious. I would prefer that he speak for himself and attempt to disguise neither ownership for his ideas nor for their consequences.
Kozol is outraged by schools that perpetuate a mass deception of teachers, students, and their parents through what they teach and how they teach it. He offers a host of useful remedies: replace the antiseptic with the controversial by substituting Abigail Adams for Betsy Ross; puncture the conventional mythology about our heroes by revealing, for example, an extraordinarily racist speech by Abraham Lincoln; arrange for two teachers with conflicting views to debate before a class of children; send students into the community to write their own texts. In short, he inventively acknowledges, highlights and generates conflict as an effective pedagogical method.
The rationale offered for supplanting the prevailing values, views and practices of the majority with his own is not as useful or convincing. He documents his case for reform with overblown rhetoric and a string of attributuions and generalizations: Teachers "cannot help but look upon the public schools today as an archaic and dehumanizing institution." Students "are all victims of a pedagogic structure built on lies." This kind of hyperbole, like shooting from the hip, is attention-getting but not very accurate.
Kozol's plan for transforming the schools is to "steal into the weapons warehouse of those who hold the reins of power and obtain their ammunition." He rejects the shoddy-looking manner of the 1960s counterrevolutionaries. It is the teacher whose class is "filing quietly up the stairs" who can engage in radical action with impunity. He calls upon teachers to gain the loyalty and respect of parents by teaching basic literacy skills so others will not reject "our ideologies or pedagogic views."
Teachers are advised to enlist students and parents in a coalition to conquer oppresive principals, superintendents, and school committee-persons. "The truth, however, is, that visits [to parents' homes ] and informal relationships like these are seldom possible if we observe the orders of our principals." "There is no way in which the teacher can expect that high officials -- members of the school board, for example -- are going to accept . . . unconventional and, literally, subversive actions."
I have seen enough example of principals, superintendents and school boards being out front in efforts to reduce racial isolation, for example, that I cannot accept the assumption that teachers are the social reformers and all others are mindless impediments to reform. To the contrary, almost every effective school I observe is a place where teachers, parents, (sometimes students) and principals have formed a coalition not against, but in behalf of the common cause of good education. McDonough 15 in New Orleans, P.S. 166 in New York, the Cambridge Massachusetts Alternative Public School, and South Boston High School, for example provide good education not because a few radical teachers have infiltrated the school, but because a group of caring, resourceful teachers, parents, and principals are working more often together than at odds.
There are other ways to get wagons in a circle than to create Indians to shoot at them. Public schools, beset by too many fights already, could better use "interdependence instruction" than Kozol's "disobedience instruction."
I am intrigued by Kozol's sense of mischief and impressed with his writing skill. But what would happen if teachers took his prescriptions seriously and acted upon them? What happens when a teacher removes the flag from the room and refuses to lead the pledge of allegiance? Most teachers these days have their hands full with far more than they can handle: the special needs, the gifted, bilingual education, literacy skills, discipline. They take on new battles only by shortchanging existing efforts. In doing so they exhaust and alienate themselves from colleagues. Most would probably frighten parents who would remove children from the class. Children, in turn, would be torn by conflict between teacher and parent. This kind of civil disobedience might well cause the school community to question the meaning, even the meaninglessness, of the pledge -- but at what gain and what cost to whom?
Kozol offers prescription without sufficient description; I suspect many teachers would prefer a description of what has worked on the basis of which they can formulate their own prescriptions. I applaud Jonathan Kozol's vision of a just society and his commitment to work toward that end. But I find little recognition in On Being a Teacher either of the enormous complexity or risk associated with the author's incredibly ambitious prescription for social and educational change. The total scheme is much more illusive and ill-defined than the partial means offered here for achieving it. I don't think teachers should become anyone's cannon fodder no matter how compelling the social goal.
Kozol quotes admiringly from William Lloyd Garrison who, when asked by a friend why he was "all on fire" with his rage, replied, "I have need to be all on fire, for I have mountains of ice about me to melt." The same might be said of Kozol. His book may melt some ice but, if in doing so, it creates a new mountain of ice, I'm not sure how much will have been gained.