Savage Inequalities, A Redux

Jose VilsonEducation, Jose7 Comments

Jonathan Kozol

I‘d love for people to actually talk about the sorts of things people like Arthur Goldstein and Nancy Flanagan did on Huffington Post and the Washington Post, respectively, when it comes to education. I hate to break it to people across the nation, but poverty hasn’t gone away. At all. In the conversation throughout and about education, words like “assessment,” “quality review,” and “tenure” get thrown around with little regard to the learning conditions of students … outside class. That people think 16 out of the 24 hours a day every child spends out of school (not including holidays and weekends!) don’t merit attention is beyond me. Abject poverty inhibits the learner in ways you can’t always assess, and all this talk about kids making it out sounds myopic and reek of exceptionalism.

In other words, you think just because one or two poor kids make it out of a batch of 10, the other 8 can as well?

You think that hearing gun shots every night promotes positive images for kids? You think who have to wear the same two or three shirts every week care about being seen by anyone? You think kids who have to prioritize between breakfast and dinner care much about their health? You think knowing that police crawl your tight units of space constantly, looking for people that look just like you makes you feel safe? You think hearing your mother screaming for various reasons all night, or your father coming at midnight from work only to get up four hours later tells a kid that this country has an interest in the working class in this country? You think kids who don’t understand why their vision’s so blurry or why they have to take cold showers in the morning look forward to an icy environment where the crux of their learning has everything to do with their mastery of 49 multiple-choice and extended response questions?

Probably not.

People on this blog have tried to tell me that it’s all about hard work and persistence, doesn’t it make you wonder why no one’s bringing up these environmental issues? With the inundation of poor images and a poor mentality, isn’t it interesting how now we’re asked to ignore the issue of classism at a time when the grand majority of Americans who have been labeled “working class” are dipping further into poverty relative to the top 2% of the country? Isn’t the whole function of this ultra-capitalism to ensure that there are as many losers as possible so the winners can keep winning? I haven’t even mentioned race and sex, though if you’re looking at me, you know that’s what I’m thinking about as well.

We’re a people prime for change, but if we think someone else is going to say it for us, we’re fools.

I don’t use poverty as an excuse, but let’s be serious: since so many of you won’t mention poverty, and haven’t even mentioned the name Jonathan Kozol (who I wouldn’t read again until I brought a leather boxing head guard and a cup), I’m going to keep bringing it up just to irritate people, hoping some of you understand that the bright designs of the broadcast on television aren’t the only designs people have on the general populace. Our silence is complacence, and we can say whatever we want here, but in person we better back it up.

Because these inequalities stay savage, 18 years later …

Comments 7

  1. Yes. Yes. Yes.

    The problem is that some people want to use poverty as the excuse for their bad teaching. I get that. But that doesn’t (or shouldn’t) justify the other extreme of saying, “Poverty doesn’t matter. We just need to teach harder. And by the way, we’re going to make education funding in this country based on property taxes, but equitable distribution of education funding isn’t really the problem, either.” (And for the record, I think that the way we allocate education funding is one of the most anti-democratic, classist policies we have in America today.)

    We have to find a way to honor the effort it takes for some kids to get through the door in the morning while also working with them so that they don’t see themselves as victims or as trapped by their situation.

    We have to find a way to work with the kids on the micro level as well as we can while never forgetting that there’s also a fight to be fought on the macro-level to create more equity of opportunity, more humane systems in our society, more structures that close the gap between the social classes, not widen them.

    We have to be teachers / teacher-advocates / social workers / scholars and surrogate parents.

    And we have to always that the lives our kids lead does not have to define their future, but it does define their past and present, and while we have to help them make the most of the hand they are dealt. But a kid knows you’re lying if you look at a pair of sixes and you try to tell them they they are holding a royal flush.

    Thanks for bringing it up.

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  3. I am not going to pretend that poverty has no role to play in a child’s prospects, or in his or her receptivity to learning. Nor am I going to ignore the lazy teaching that has for too long plagued troubled schools. I have found the best way to tackle the issue of class and education in America is to tackle it head on. As a high school English teacher, I try to use text, both fiction and nonfiction, to address issues of race, school funding, poverty, public education funding, culture, and clash. By drawing from works across the political spectrum, students become deeply engaged in conversations about their own situation and about the myriad interpretations of it. They are remarkably honest in their search for answers. Engagement inevitably follows, and, with it, a host of possibilities arise. To read about my experiences, I ask you readers to visit my blog at As always, I find your posts thought-provoking. And isn’t that what we–especially young minds–all want?

  4. Rather than invest in the whole child, “reformers” take the cheap way with professional development proclaiming “no excuses” and forcing teachers to all be on the same page in teaching to those 49 multiple choice questions. i remember the first time we didn’t cancel those inane workshops in the middle of a gang war, pulling away 20% of teachers from the classrooms and the hallways where we were needed. The resulting riot was predictable.

    We used to get counselors after murders, but when we lost a kid last year to a gang-related murder, we got nothing. They also took 1/5th of teachers out of the building for professional development so no adult was on duty in the lunchroom when the predictable gang fights erupted. After this week’s retaliatory murder, we also had four students and one adult wounded, and two of our kids arrested for the gang-related murder. Did they postpone the professional development? Nope. We had focus walks so every teacher had to have every students’ book open to the prescribed page and pretend learn was going on.

    I guess the kids will be so flatterred about adults putting our “high expectatons” over their feelings that they won’t seek retaliation this weekend.

  5. I tend to say, “the uncomfortable student cannot learn.” I say this most often about ADHD and Aspergers kids… if you are worried about your shirt’s tag scratching the back of your neck, that’s what you are paying attention to, but it is overwhelmingly true for kids raised in poverty, or in danger. Their world is defined but their real concerns, their real discomforts. If I am hungry or thirsty or dirty or scared, that is where my cognitive energy goes.

    In many ways this is the biggest problem we have with our “Ivy League/Sidwell Friends” “education reformer” group. Few have ever had these concerns, and if they have, in their battle for Ivy League social acceptance (*note, the NY Ivies, Cornell and Columbia, are socially different and so functionally different), they have deliberately forgotten.

    This is a huge problem in The Bronx, a place I know intimately, but it is a global phenomena – whether Bill Gates and Michelle Rhee in the US or David Cameron and Nick Clegg in the UK.

    A long time ago I wrote about one way the world divides… and this is one:

  6. Dear Jose,

    We create our myths, or rather, we are awash in myths created by those who have benefited from them.

    You speak in a reasonable (and beautiful) voice about something that reduces me to sputtering and frothing.

    Sputtering because when I mention the amazing resiliency of some children under extreme conditions, my witnessing seems to cement the idea in those in power (and that includes <i<anyone who makes enough dollars to worry about their retirement investments and pensions–are you listening, teachers?) , that gets turned around and used against any suggestion that maybe we look at the underlying problems.

    Frothing because words do not work. Every teacher should spend a professional day or two hungry, a professional day or two with pain (heck, put a tack in your shoe), a professional day or two in fear (randomly bash in a head or two at the next meeting).

    And see, I cannot talk. Others chuckle because they think I am joking. They cannot (or rather will not) grasp what is happening within a stone’s throw of their comfortable life.

    Look at this from the eyes of a child? Too painful. So we don’t. If we did, we would not behave the way we do. Or maybe we would.

    When Prince Arne suggests states that Katrina was “the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans,” when those with centralized power persist in promoting bad policies that disproportionately affect the poor and we do not mention race or sex or religion or anything else that might “dilute” the argument when in fact issues of power are at the heart of the problem. The heart, the heart, the heart…The Christ Almighty, as You are our witness, we will not look at the heart.

    And children suffer, a word I do not use lightly.

    I have ten years of stories, but no one will listen. No one can listen. It’s easier to blame phantom foes.

    We live in the Age of Mythology. And it’s destroying lives.

  7. Post

    Thank you for all your comments.

    Chris, I often find that’s what’s missing when we ask people to re-think their teaching. It’s not either / or. It’s both. We have to find a balance between having strict standards for how we educate while taking into account that the kid may not have had breakfast that morning. We can’t let them sleep in glass if they had rest, but we have to continue encouraging those who try that to prioritize their health.

    John, thank you for that. What a harrowing story. And it also made me think, “Why get counselors right after?” It’s reactionary, and we’d do better to have them before to prevent that sort of destructive behavior. Trust me when I say that those huge PD days are difficult. One the one end, it’s a great way to teach teachers en masse, but at the cost of ruckus across the school? Ouch.

    Ira, I have a couple of kids like that, too. I’m not going to standardize it by saying that applies to everyone, but I notice with my students that I try to teach them how to get focused. When we make a big deal about jittery children instead of squashing the cause of the distraction, we lose a lot of time. I’d expand more, but I’m going to make your comments into posts. I promise.

    Michael, some of these inequalities are ineffable too. Lots of great words out there, but not one that truly encapsulate the madness that is our system.

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