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A Book Review of Savage Inequalities by Jonathan Kozol

By Phinah Dec 17, 2012 1639 Words
Book talk

Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools by Jonathan Kozol

The Author
The first surprising impulse, Jonathan Kozol is a White. The point to be made is that given the content, his identity is surprising; but it is also a good thing, because he is concerned with the larger picture, which is USA. Kozol is an American Educationalist born in Boston, and him being an insider, for me an outsider, makes the matter believable. He is a great writer, well known for several works such as, Death At An Early Age (1985), The Shame of the Nation (2006), and On Being A Teacher (2009) among others. He is an alumnus of Harvard University and a recipient of the National Book Award as well as the Robert F. Kennedy Award. Savage Inequalities was finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1992 and became a national bestseller. This book is a sociological genre composed of six chapters revealing inequalities within inner-city schools and the environment in which they operate. The author addresses the book in a point of view of contemporary issues (or issues of his time). To put his case, Kozol makes two years’ observations and interviews with students, teachers and parents on America’s public school systems in the states of Illinois, Chicago, New York, New Jersey, and Washington D.C. He juxtaposes urban schools for poor children with suburban schools in the affluent parts of the districts to effectively bring out the theme of “inequality.” Like many Ugandans, I simply understand the word “Inequality” as “haves and have-nots” or what is extreme wealth on one hand and extreme poverty on the other. When children are not provided with basic needs in schools just because they are poor or worse still ignored, yet other children in the same country are living lavishly then, something is wrong and needs fixing. In fact, I do not need to be a nun, a professor, a Boston College student; an American or Ugandan to understand what inequality does at a human level. At the beginning of the book, Kozol mentions that he begun teaching at a segregated school in Boston that had no class (p, 1). Later on, he taught in a suburban school, also in Boston. Indeed he writes, “The shock of going from one of the poorest schools to one of the richest cannot be overstated” (p.2). He cites the issue of funds collected through both property taxes and funds distributed by the State. For instance, each kid in suburban areas receives education worth $ 11,000 a year whereas a kid in an inner city school receives $ 5,500. Actually, I find this ironical and agree with Kozol when he says, “Compulsory inequity, perpetuated by state law, too frequently condemns our children to unequal lives.” To drive his point across, Kozol vividly portrays East St. Louis, a place he describes as “the most distressed small city in America” with 98% being black population (p.7). The place is overwhelmed with people living in deplorable conditions such as poverty, overflowing sewers, flooding, pollution caused by smoke and chemical plants, stagnant garbage, lack of hospitals, high rates of child asthma and fetal deaths, unemployment, land degradation, segregation, racism, understaffing, lack of basic tools and textbooks for teaching, prostitution, alcoholism, and murder among other factors. How could kids faced with such conditions possibly succeed in school? I agree with Kozol when he says, “It is hard to know if a decision to drop out of school, no matter how much we discourage it, is not, in fact, a logical decision (p.59).” While I was marveling at how garbage can be kept in back yards because of lack of funds to cart the trash, I was drawn to laughter when Kozol quotes the policeman who speaks of “rats as big as puppies” in his mother’s yard. “They are known to the residents, he says, as ‘bull rats’” (p.8). For rats to get to the size of puppies is a demonstration of the extent of the problem. I know this is a figure of speech, but if inequality goes beyond being a sad thing to a laughable matter, then Kozol is right when he considers it “savage.” One girl asked, “Do you think the children in this school are getting what we would get in a nice section of St. Louis?” (p.30). Luther added, “Going to a school with all the races is more important than a modern school.” (p.31). It is amazing that kids view schools as places that should embrace diversity. I believe Jackson’s description of “school, like church and home, is some place special” (1998 p.118) would be inappropriate for kids in St. Louis. A 14-year-old student named Shalika said, “I started school in Fairview Heights. My mother wanted me to get a chance at better education…” “During recess I would stand there by myself beside the fence. Then one day I got a note, ‘go back to Africa.’” It is unacceptable for children in schools to feel isolated and teased or bullied as such. Frattura and Capper (2006,p.362) point out clearly that, “All students have the opportunity to attend their neighborhood school and be placed in heterogeneous classrooms at their grade level along their peers.” Milner observes that “stereotyped students know what is being said about them through the media and their performance can be influenced by these views” (2010, p.37). This is in line with what Kozol says; “Our children have become wise by necessity.” Indeed, Shalika as quoted by Kozol says, “You see a lot about the crimes committed here in East St. Louis when you turn on the TV. Do they show the crimes committed by the Government that puts black people here?” Milner (2010, p.39) further speaks about absenteeism of teachers in urban and high poverty schools, lack of commitment and substitute teachers, many of whom are untrained. Similarly, Kozol talks about a young woman who comes with her baby to help the teacher and while she teaches, the teacher takes care of her baby. A boy asks her what the word salvation means but she tells him to use his dictionary, and when two boys argue, she yells out, “ You…woke up my baby” (p.48). One teacher was asked why she does not come to class; she said, … “It makes no difference. Kids like these aren’t going anywhere” (p.52). Kozol wonders how Americans can allow these sorts of tragedies to happen. Instead of taking toxic chemicals away from the polluted environment, (it cannot be done in one night anyway), kids can be given proper or at least decent education. When opposing funding for Chicago’s children, Governor Thompson as quoted by Kozol said, “ We can’t keep throwing money into a black hole” (p.52). Kozol, however, advocates for equality of all people regardless of any racial or financial differences and in my humble opinion that is what it should be.

I believe Kozol has successfully put across his message to an outsider like me. At some point, I asked myself, “Isn’t this over-exaggeration?” Well, I believe nothing is new under the sun, what Kozol talks about sounds like Kenya of the 1950’s. In a play I Will Marry When I Want by Ngugi Wa’Thiongo and Ngugi Wa’Miiri (1982), poor Kenyans were terribly affected by the toxins that came from chemical factories built by their British colonial masters. That said, all hope is not lost, the lectures about Multicultural education by our guest speakers seem to address some of Kozol’s concerns. Generally, the course on curriculum for diverse learners has not only been eye opening but also an enriching experience that has enlightened me on how diverse practices are incorporated in class and school processes. I was impressed by Kozol’s writing style, which evokes feelings that make the reader feel the urgency to do something. I also appreciate the way Kozol makes sense of the environment. We saw how it can be used to justify bad deeds and through society, members like Kozol can be rays of hope that overcome the environment. As educational leaders therefore, we need to help children overcome the environment by making it better. To divert a little, I think Kozol overly uses repetition even when what he is trying to say is a matter of fact. He also does not exactly show how immediate solutions to the problems can be attained. Savage Inequalities has become one of my favorite books, though. I am glad I read it. I recommend students, teachers, parents and all educators to read it because it is a wonderful educational resource on issues of diversity that affect students in schools and the society as a whole. The curriculum needs to be adapted to the learners and teachers need to bear in mind that they are teaching students who have already had to face adult realities, making them far wiser than the traditional student, thus they need to be challenged and have their lives’ experiences reflected in what they learn. Leaders need to keep in mind the horrible situations that the students come from and create a welcoming environment that inspires the kids to learn so much that even though they have issues going on at home they still make sure they attend class because they love learning and they feel respected by their teachers.


Kozol, J. (1991). Savage Inequalities. (p.1-233) New York: Harper Perennial •Jackson, P.W., (1998) The Daily Grind. In The Curriculum Studies Reader. 3rd Ed. New York: Routledge p.118 •Milner, R., (2010). Start Where You Are, But Don’t Stay There. (p.37-39) MA: Harvard Education Press •Ngugi Wa’Thiongo and Ngugi Wa’Miiri. (1982). I Will Marry When I Want. Nairobi: East African Publishers

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