What is Jonathan Kozol -- a teacher who radicalizes or a radical who teaches?
On his good days, he is both.
He was having one of those days at a teachers conference on adult literacy at George Washington University's school of education and human development. It was an exhausting agenda for Kozol, 43, and a Bostonian. He is a teacher of reading and professor of education whose first book, Death At An Early Age, won the National Book Award in 1967 and whose latest book, Prisoners of Silence, is subtitled breaking the bonds of adult literacy in the United States.
At GW, he spoke for an hour in the morning. He participated in a round of group discussions until late afternoon, and finished with an end-of-the-day seminar designed to raise the morale of the teachers as their budgets go down.
If the agenda was wearing, it didn't wear out Kozol. The former fourth grade and high school teacher in Boston's public schools is currently trying to rally 5 million volunteers to wipe out what he calls, with some heat, "a pestilence of mass illiteracy in the land."
Kozol puts the number of non-readers at 25 million, a grouping of citizens, he says, more sizable than the one that elected Ronald Reagan. But he also cites larger numbers, saying that between 54 and 64 million people in all lack the reading skills required to get by in a society dominated by printed words. Grouped ethnically, 56 percent of Hispanic adults, 44 percent of blacks and 16 percent of whites lack the reading skills to read want ads.
As bleak as those statistics are, a final one is worse. Despite programs funded under two major pieces of legislation -- the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 and the Adult Basic Education Act of 1966 -- and despite a fair number of well-run literacy programs in all parts of the country, only four percent of those in need have been reached.
As an optimist who believes that we are down to the final 96 percent, Kozol has severals kinds of people in mind to lead "an all-out literacy campaign."
Students, first off. Instead of wiling away a semester in a course like "Problems in Democracy," why not, he asks, "go out into the world around the school to try to solve one of those problems?" When they return, Kozol suspects, "the students will have no difficulty in uncovering subjects to involve them in exciting class discussions. At last, our students will be freed from the ironic task of being compelled to join in class debates on problems which they cannot possibly understand and have no chance to alter or correct."
Kozol, who estimates that he has personally taught 200 adult illiterates how to read, is too experienced a teacher to risk being dismissed as another over-reaching idealist. When asked by critics, or even by those who have tried to teach illiterates and know the difficulties, how can a gang of untrained high school and college kids solve this great a problem, he responds: "The teaching of reading is, without question, a complicated challenge, but it is not neurosurgery. It is a difficult labor, but it is not an occult skill nor a sacerdotal mystery. My own experiences in many grassroots community struggles proves this . . . Two weeks of drill in intensive phonics, with a strong emphasis on the active words of the people, words that already count the most to the students we shall teach -- and words which already form a part of the rich and often unexpected oral vocabulary of virtually all people in this land--are all that it requires to initiate the task we have at hand."
After students, Kozol has a number of other citizens who, if only out of self-interest, should teach the illiterate to read:
Officers in the military. Kozol quotes Adm. Hyman Rickover: "one third of our naval recruits are a danger to themselves and to the ships on which they serve" because of their inability to read instructions.
Newspaper and publishing company employes. Is there any surer way to gain readers than by actually creating a new reader?
Workers for insurance companies. The immense costs of accidents incurred by illiterate or poor-reading laborers in factories can be cut when written instructions can be followed.
Kozol's efforts to enlist volunteer teachers is not, he explains, the result of "mindless optimism. They are based upon a fresh and vivid memory from my own career. When I was still a very young man, with no experience of any kind at all in formal teaching skills, I was instructed to teach reading to illiterates in a course, taught in the basement of a small black church in my community. The course lasted only 14 days and depended heavily upon a single phonics method and an intensive emphasis upon our obligation to elicit -- for the purpose of our lessons -- only those words which mattered most to those whom we would teach. In the course of three months of painstaking work, all but two out of a class of 16 pupils were able to move from total illiteracy to a solid Fifth Grade competence . . . I would argue that there was nothing unique about my competence, energy or preparation."
In Washington, Michael Fox, director of Push Literacy Action Now (PLAN), which is in its ninth year, says that he is moving away from the one-on-one tutorial approach that was emphasized in the past. A group setting is now preferred. "The idea that adults have to be pampered with a one-to-one relationship is simply not the case. They can be taught in a class -- not a class of 30 like the public school but one with six to eight students."
Like Kozol, Fox is not tied to one specific teaching method. "We're eclectic. We use whatever methods and set of materials that fit the student. For example, for any employe of a Washington company, we would use a job-related vocabulary. For a mother, we would use a parenting curriculum. We use newspapers. We start where the student is coming from."
Potential students are everywhere, from prisoners in Lorton and the D.C. jail where 50 percent of the inmates read below the fourth grade level, to the halls of government where large numbers of clerical workers have weak reading skills and trouble understanding standard English.
Little is heard about illiteracy, neither from political leaders nor the victims. The "prisoners of silence," it seems, are not merely those who don't have the skill of reading. It includes also those who won't share it.