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Book Title: Death at an Early Age: The Destruction of the Hearts and Minds of Negro Children in the Boston Public Schools|
The author of the book: Jonathan Kozol
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Reader ratings: 4.7
Date of issue: October 1st 1985
ISBN 13: 9780452257696
Format files: PDF
The size of the: 31.85 MB
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Winner of the National Book Award in 1967, Jonathan Kozol’s Death at an Early Age: The Destruction of the Hearts and Minds of Negro Children in the Boston Public Schools is the story of a new teacher recruited to finish the year with a group of African-American students. It does not compare much to Boston Public, the FOX television drama created by David E. Kelley (2000-2004).
The first word of the first chapter is “Stephen,” the name of one of Kozol’s students, and roughly the first half of the book is devoted to profiles of Stephen and his friends, anecdotes from their day-to-day experiences. In a school where white teachers take minority students to the basement to hit them with a rattan, Kozol makes it clear that it’s him and his students (and eventually his students’ parents) versus “the system.” The institution is represented by the Art Teacher, the Reading Teacher, and a piece of cardboard covering a broken window. It’s allegorical: The two teachers represent all the teachers and the cardboard serves a greater purpose than keeping out the cold. It stands for torn curtains and racist curriculum and everything wrong with Kozol’s teaching environment.
Kozol sides unfailingly with students. “I came into that room knowing myself to be absolutely on their side,” he writes. “I did not go in there with even the littlest suggestion that what had been going on… was even one-fiftieth their fault” (162). The way Kozol sees it, misbehavior is the students’ way of confirming their existence in a system that does not view students, especially African-American students, as fully human; thus, Stephen’s habit of looking in a classroom mirror is not the narcissism of youth but a way for him to “check up on his existence” (7); Kozol discovers some of his students steal money from their parents; this, he says, is because they’ve had so much stolen from them in life.
Kozol uses strong language. He speaks directly about the waste of time in school: “Who is it who bears responsibility for this soul-drowning dreariness and waste of hours?… It cannot be unexpected that motivation becomes the all-important obstacle when the material is so often a diet of banality and irrelevance which it is not worth the while of a child to learn or that of a teacher to teach” (184). About the poor working environment: “All that surprised me was that every one of those schools had not been burned down yet by an outraged population when so many of them were obvious firetraps” (148). About a racist education system: “The school systems kept its unteachables out of sight and turned them into untouchables” (49). About his colleagues: “The Art Teacher did not… care anything at all about the way in which you can destroy a human being” (4). He continues about her: “The hypocrisy involved in her narrow favoritism was revealed in several ways” (152). The Mathematics Teacher: “I cannot say that I learned anything at all except how to suppress and pulverize any sparks of humanity or independence or originality in children” (14). These colleagues are generally consummate professionals – they have the “superficial trappings and the polysyllables of ‘culture’”– but Kozol villainizes them by showing how their covert racism, often characterized by “lip service to a kind of halfway liberalism,” is in many ways worse than the basement beatings executed by others.
Kozol is hard on himself. He aligns himself with the Art Teacher: “I think that [the Art Teacher:] was no more a hypocrite… than I was a hypocrite” (12). He implicates himself: “By not complaining and by not pointing it out to anyone,” he confesses, “in a sense I went along with the rest of them and accepted it as something inevitable… A friend of mine to whom I have confided some of these things has not been able to keep from criticizing me for what he thinks of as a kind of quiet collusion” (31-33). Both admissions happen early in the book. The latter half of the book, shifting from exploration of student lives to a study of classroom materials (Kozol walks us through a close-reading of a textbook and several poems), is more argumentation than narrative. When Kozol gets fired by the curriculum cops for teaching a Langston Hughes poem (“The Ballad of the Landlord”), his humility and self-deprecation die and are replaced with a serious righteousness that, given the evidence, seems warranted. He stops confessing his wrongs and qualifying his arguments. He allows his nearly-annoying earnestness to stand as a refreshing antidote to the jargon and bureaucracy surrounding (and about to collapse in on) him and all his students and his students parents.
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