Book Review: Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities

Affluent and generous, America proclaimed equality many decades ago. However, race and class are still instrumental in determining the conditions that individuals live in. The 1952 Brown vs. Board of Education ruling has concluded that segregation is inacceptable at schools. However, after so many years, this shameful practice is still in place. For his 1991 book Savage Inequalities, Jonathan Kozol, an educator and author, had spent two years traveling over the US and comparing the conditions in public and private schools. Although it goes without saying that private institutions are better equipped and stuffed, the disparity between these two ends of education continuum is too big to grasp.

Kozol’s expos was not intended to be exhaustive. He visited near thirty neighborhoods where he could easily gain an access through his friends or colleagues, without any special logic. In all states that Kozol had visited, such as Illinois, Ohio, New York, New Jersey, and Washington D.C., the situation with urban schools versus suburban ones was identical. Public institutions are 95-99 percent non-white and subsist in crumbling conditions with leaking roofs, unrepaired sewage systems, and non-functioning heating ones. As a result, public schools lack stuff, equipment, and resources. Meanwhile children lose any interest and motivation to study. Kozol reports that in Boston such areas are referred to as a death zone explaining it by the high infant mortality in such neighborhood (p. 6).

Usually the poorest schools are found side by side with the richer ones. The glaring difference between them is obvious even for children studying there or especially for kids. The reason is that young people are quite sensitive to injustice and inequity. At school, Martin Luther King’s Dream is repeatedly studied. Meanwhile his dream of blacks and whites studying together has remained just a dream. An apt remark has been made by a young female student of Martin Luther King Junior High School, who said as follows: “The school is full of sewer water and the doors are locked with chains. Every student in that school is black. It’s like a terrible joke on history” (p. 43). Indeed, the practice to name segregated schools after Martin Luther King looks like a misplaced fun.

Kozol explains this raging injustice by the manner of the funds’ distribution. Schools are usually funded by taxes on local property. In as much as in more prestigious and affluent areas real estate prices are higher and the city authorities collect larger amounts of taxes, schools in such regions have more per capita allowance. However, city authorities allow themselves to turn a blind eye to urban institutions’ problems claiming the following fact. Communities have enough money to solve their issues, “it’s just not being spent for what it should be spent for” (p. 30). Those ones were the words of Governor Thompson, who refused to pour money into East St. Louis, one of the poorest and the most neglected cities in the nation. The supporters of the argument money doesn’t matter tend to forget that the conditions between poor and rich schools are extremely different. At institutions of poor neighborhoods, decrepit buildings require constant repairs. A criminal situation needs more intense police supervision; and it results in additional expenditures. The factor in the libraries without textbooks and classrooms without the necessary equipment, and one sees that public schools not only have fewer funds, they also have more problems to solve.

All the above information has a direct impact on students and their academic progress. First and second graders may have enough enthusiasm to have faith at school even with 26 textbooks for 110 students (p. 45). Public institutions are recurrently short of books; history books are 15-20 years old; and classrooms do not have any reference material. However, by the third grade, teachers report that many students begin to lose interest in studies. By the sixth ones, a lot of them begin to play truant as a response to their sensations of being failures (p. 70). For example, a South Bronx school requires students to return their textbooks one week before the end of the semester. Therefore, pupils find it hard to pass final exams not having educational material to get prepared with (p. 134). Meanwhile public high school graduation rates are compared to their fellow students from wealthier suburbs with much better conditions. Out of 600 freshmen, by the eleventh grade only half of them graduate (p. 84). The majority of public school pupils do not intend to go to college.

Public schools try to save teachers’ salaries and often invite subs. However, it has a devastating effect on the quality of knowledge children receive. In the beginning of the book, Kozol gives an example of the fourth grade that has never had a permanent teacher having thirteenth tutors during a year. It is not needed to say that their reading and math abilities have not been up to par. It is a common situation for public schools. However, the poor results of students are often blamed on teachers only believing that all of them should be marvels. Kozol points out that while it is perfect if only talented teachers come to work to school, it is impossible to teach in overcrowded classrooms with no textbooks, computers, typewriters, and other necessary equipment (p. 62).

To Kozol’s credit, he refutes all arguments against increased financing for public schools. The suburbanites are afraid that the better conditions for poor districts would deduct from the wealthier areas. Therefore, they demand to be able to raise their funds as well. Kozol argues that it will trigger a chain reaction. Thus, “once the richest districts go above the minimum, school suppliers, textbook publishers, computer manufacturers adjust their price horizons – just as teachers raise their salary horizons – and the poorest districts are left where they were before the minimum existed” (p. 269).

Another argument against increased funding is that it will not help the academic performance anyway. However, this premise has not really been proved. The underprivileged children have never had enough opportunities to prove themselves. Throughout the book, Kozol has described the terrible conditions the poor schools subsist in and how it is difficult for students to perform in such environments. Only observing inequality already dampens their spirit. However, a feeling of being unimportant and abandoned by a society pulls a carpet away from under their feet.

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It is paradoxical that, while being tightfisted with funding for poor public schools, citizens overlook the implications. In comparison with annual institution expenditures for each student, $5,000 per a public school’s pupil and $9,000 per a private one, the average annual cost per person in prison is $60,000 a year (p. 65; 144). The reason for this drastic aligning is a fact that “90 percent of the male inmates of New York City prisons are the former dropouts of the city’s public schools” (p. 144). Therefore, citizens seem to miss out a real opportunity to save the funds.

However, money is not a main problem. Kozol is really insightful in his conclusion saying that a fair play is not to be expected in the field of “education, health care, and inheritance of wealth” (p. 269). It is obvious that more affluent citizens do not want to share their money with less fortunate ones. It is convenient for them to believe that the poor persons and minorities have low intellectual abilities. Any funds would be wasted on them. However, less than money they want to share power. Korol says, “They are fighting for the right to guarantee their children the inheritance of an ascendant role in our society,” and the school system guarantees it (p. 270).

Although it is disheartening to learn about such a global problem and not be able to find any quick solutions, Kozol’s Savage Inequalities does not provide any answers. The issue is too wide and too deep to be easily solved in a book written by an educator. However, raising awareness can also help in a long perspective. It provokes debates and revisions of funding. Kozol is right saying that America is a rich country. It is a shame that some people have to live like beggars, especially when they are children. Therefore, there must be the solutions at least to provide classrooms with the modern equipment, bathrooms with toilet paper, teachers with adequate salaries, and students with textbooks.

Apart from being quite repetitive in arguments, Kozol’s Savage Inequalities is an excellent reading for educators and everyone who works in a sphere of education or has any connection to it. Moreover, the book is highly recommended to those who believe that the students’ academic progress primary depends on a teacher. Kozol meticulously details all elements that get in a way of good education at inner-city schools such as the lack of educational materials and equipment, dilapidated premises, malnutrition, and poor health of children. However, taking into consideration that the book was written twenty years ago, it should be good to know what changes have occurred in the public school education if any. In general, the writing has an eye-opening quality. Given the fact how society can turn blind to many horrendous things that exist in the broad day light, Kozol’s Savage Inequalities is very necessary even now twenty years later. The more people read the book, the more chances are that something will change.

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