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Savage Inequalities

Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities is a haunting, disturbing look at the condition of some of America’s schools. Throughout the book, he describes the conditions in several cities: crumbling school buildings, teachers who do not care about the students, astronomical dropout rates, abysmal environments, and much more. Savage Inequalities posits that the leading problem in the school system is the condition of these neglected schools, and that this constitutes a social problem. Kozol views this social problem, and its causes, from a conflict theorist perspective.

The definition of a social problem, is as follows: “conditions, processes, or events that are identified as negative by analysts or by significant numbers of other people and that affect large numbers of people, stem from social causes, and/or can be solved through social action”. The first clause in this definition of a social problem is its negativity, and whether or not it is recognized as a problem. It is difficult to argue that the conditions of these schools, and the areas in which they are located, can be anything but negative. These schools have administrative problems (Kozol 124), decaying buildings (Kozol 23-24, among dozens of other examples), and poor-quality teachers and guidance counselors (Kozol 113, others). They are overcrowded (Kozol 158-160), and it is assumed that the way to alleviate this problem is for half of the student body to drop out of school at some point (Kozol 112-113). Among these problems, the conditions of some of the school buildings are outstandingly appalling; for example, at Morris High School, in the South Bronx,

Blackboards . . . are “so badly cracked that teachers are afraid to let students write on them for fear they ll cut themselves. Some mornings, fallen chips of paint cover classrooms like snow. Teachers and students have come to see humor in the waterfall that courses down six flights of stairs after a heavy rain.” One classroom, we are told, has been sealed off “because of a gaping hole in the floor.” In the band room, “chairs are positioned where acoustic tiles don t fall quite so often.” In many places, “plaster and ceramic tile have peeled off” the walls, leaving the external brick wall of the school exposed. I am somewhat stunned to see a huge hole in the ceiling of the stairwell on the school’s fourth floor. The plaster is gone; exposing rusted metal bars embedded in the outside wall. It will cost as much as $50 million to restore the school to an acceptable condition . . . (Kozol 99-101)

The environments surrounding these schools are even worse. In East St. Louis, for example, among other problems with violence and pollution, lead levels in the soil can reach 10,000 parts per million (Kozol 11). All of the schools examined in East St. Louis, Chicago, New York City, Camden, Washington DC, and San Antonio are located in dangerous areas. Even taxi drivers refuse to go to these areas (Kozol 14). The problems in these schools and the surrounding locales have been recognized as negative by other people, another qualification for the definition of a social problem. To use another example from East St. Louis: The problems have been identified by, along with many others, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (Kozol 7), the University of Southern Illinois (Kozol 8), the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, including the reporter Safir Ahmed (Kozol 7-8, 10, 15-20, 22-23), local health officials (Kozol 10-11), lead-poison experts (Kozol 11), the Daughters of Charity (Kozol 11-12, 14), Green peace (Kozol 17), and the Illinois branch of the Environmental Protection Agency (Kozol 17). Kozol himself fits into this category.

With the problem identified, the second criteria for meeting the definition of a social problem is that it must affect large numbers of people. Even when viewing the problem as only affecting the area in which it is taking place, the fact remains that the cities cited in Savage Inequalities specifically, East St. Louis, Chicago, New York City, Camden, Washington DC, and San Antonio are among the largest cities in the country. In 1994, San Antonio was the ninth-largest city in the United States, Chicago was in third-place, and New York City was not only the largest city in the country, but also the second-largest city in the world. Therefore, even if one believes that just these cities are involved with the problems, there are still a huge number of people being affected. One can also take a much broader viewpoint; namely, that the problems in these cities are problems for all of American society. Some people believe that when society fails one group of people, it fails everyone. A more pessimistic approach to this train of thought would be that when the children from New Trier the wealthy high school graduate from the prestigious universities they were planning on attending, their tax dollars will be used for the food stamps that the Chicago children who dropped out of school will need.

Next, in order to be classifiable as a social problem, the problem must stem from social causes. This is the criterion where Kozol s thesis comes into play. It is Kozol s thesis that the problems stem from racial inequality:

What startled me most although it puzzles me that I was not prepared for this was the remarkable degree of racial segregation that persisted almost everywhere. Like most Americans, I knew that segregation was still common in the public schools, but I did not know how much it had intensified. The Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education 37 years ago, in which the court had found that segregated education was unconstitutional because it was “inherently unequal,” did not seem to have changed very much for children in the schools I saw, not, at least, outside of the Deep South. Most of the urban schools I visited 95 to 99 percent were nonwhite. In no school that I saw anywhere in the United States were nonwhite children in large numbers truly intermingled with white children. (Kozol 2-3)

Racial inequality fits the given criteria because it is definitely a social cause.

Lastly, to be a social problem, it must be able to be solved through social action. This is less clear, and is the major unanswered question of the book. Kozol believes that increasing governmental funding is the answer:

If the school board has sufficient money, it can exercise some real control over these matters. If it has very little money, it has almost no control; or rather it has only negative control. Its freedom is to choose which of the children’s needs should be denied. But, where the long-standing problems are more basic (adequate space, sufficient teachers for all classrooms, heating fuel, repair of missing windowpanes and leaking roofs and toilet doors), none of the pretended power over tone and style has much meaning. Style, in the long run, is determined by the caliber and character of teachers, and this is an area in which the poorest schools have no real choice at all. (Kozol 213)

Repeatedly, Kozol cites examples of the differences in public school funding. As a principal in Camden, New Jersey, remarked,

“We spend about $4,000 yearly on each student,” he reports, as we are heading to the cafeteria for lunch. “The statewide average is about $5,000, but our children are competing also with the kids in places such as Cherry Hill, which spends over $6,000, Summit, which is up to $7,000, Princeton, which is past $8,000 now.” (Kozol 149)

Now we take a closer look at the chapters in Jonathan Kozol book Savage Inequalities.

Looking Backward: 1964-1991

In this chapter essentially sets up the entire book, presenting us, at first, with Kozol’s experiences as an educator, a social worker of sorts, and then his return to teaching. Kozol presents us with the incentive to write this book in the opening paragraph: “I had begun to teach in 1964 in Boston in a segregated school so crowded and so poor that it could not provide my fourth grade children with a classroom. We shared an auditorium with another fourth grade and the choir and a group that was rehearsing, starting in October, for a Christmas play that, somehow, never was produced. In the spring I was shifted to another fourth grade that had had a string of substitutes all year. The 35 children in the class hadn’t had a permanent teacher since they entered kindergarten. That year, I was their thirteenth teacher”(NA). When Kozol returns, years later, to teaching, he finds that conditions have not improved, which urges him to travel and investigate various schools across the country in order to better ascertain the realities of education and the conditions of schools. What he finds is seriously devastating in many ways, and as such becomes the subject of the rest of the book.

Life on the Mississippi

In this chapter Kozol focuses on East St. Louis, which is a city that presents itself as essentially a wasteland, a forgotten city. The city, in fact, has declared bankruptcy. There are no businesses and no services, and frighteningly enough, even the garbage hasn’t been picked up since 1987. Kozol illustrates that even the simple atmosphere of the city is depressing and certainly not conducive to any form of adequate education. Children ride their bicycles along a dry creek bed, which is so polluted that it “smokes by day and glows on moonless nights” (Kozol NA). In light of this we clearly see Kozol’s descriptions of the school system and see how it emulates the surroundings, for the schools possess science labs without water or lab tables, windows that have no glass, and classrooms that have no books.

Other People’s Children

In this chapter Kozol describes several classrooms in Mary McLeod Bethune School within Chicago. Kozol illustrates how the teachers have essentially given up. These teachers lack any human warmth as they offer lessons in a monotone voice, bark any instructions, and essentially ridicule the students for minor mistakes. Kozol illustrates that these children are understandably stifled for they are given no

incentive to succeed, as they sit and stare. With no efforts made to engage them, many children sit and stare. Kozol then describes the classroom of Corla Hawkins, who is a dedicated, optimistic sixth grade teacher. She provides some hope for the reader, for she is a teacher uses her own money for materials the children do not have, engages the children in a variety of activities, and encourages the students.

The Savage Inequalities of Public Education in New York

This chapter is incredibly detailed and illustrates a general condition that exists all over the country. In this chapter we see the truly horrible schools, as well as the

powerfully rich and media loved schools which are supposed to represent the school systems of the entire country. Kozol presents examinations of many schools, but perhaps the most powerful school discussed, in terms of reality and imagery, is the South Bronx School. The school itself is set up in a windowless skating rink next to a mortuary. The class size ranges up to 35, has lunch in three separate shifts, and a library that possesses only 700 books. There is no playground. This is a school that illustrates some

incredibly painful and real conditions, especially when we understand that the school is 90-percent black and Hispanic, and is only a few moments north of a more affluent part of the Bronx and a public school which is surrounded by trees, playing fields, and a playground. This school also possesses a planetarium and an 8,000-book library. The population in this particular school is essentially white and Asian.

Children of the City Invincible

This chapter deals with Camden, New Jersey, where Kozol compares the conditions and programs in several New Jersey school districts. He conducts interviews with students and faculty members from schools, which exist in this economically depressed city. In these interviews we are made aware that the students and faculty members appear to be very knowledgeable about the fact that much of the schools’ deficiencies are caused by an economic decline. The interviews also illustrate their frustration at their lack of ability to bring about any kind of lasting change.

The Equality of Innocence

Kozol begins by stating the following: “‘Children in a true sense, writes John Coons of Berkeley University, are all poor because they are dependent on adults. There is

also, he says, ‘a sameness among children in the sense of [a] substantial uncertainty about their potential role as adults’” (NA). This can be seen or interpreted as an equality of innocence. He further illustrates how, in times past, attaint of the blood was a serious consideration in assessing the abilities and needs of children. “Terms such as ‘attaint of blood’ are rarely used today, and, if they were, they would occasion public indignation; but the rigging of the game and the acceptance, which is nearly universal, of uneven playing fields reflect a dark unspoken sense that other people’s children are of less inherent value than our own. Now and then, in private, affluent suburbanites concede that certain aspects of the game may be a trifle rigged to their advantage,” claiming that it may be unjust but that is ” the way the game is played” (Kozol NA).

The Dream Deferred, Again, in San Antonio

This chapter focuses on Texas in an attempt to further emphasize the conditions of the entire country. He illustrates that ever since 1989, which is when the Texas Supreme Court did not go for the old school-financing system, which was based primarily on property taxes, numerous Texas political leaders have continued to look for a way to attain school equity. Kozol illustrates how Texas is currently, or supposedly, taking property taxes from wealthier districts and putting the money into less affluent school districts.

Kozol s views in the chapters clearly show the theoretical position he takes. Kozol’s ideas tie in with the conflict theory. This is evident due to his perception of society as divided into a social class system where those at the top have significantly more than those at the bottom:

According to our textbook, Americans abhor the notion of a social order in which economic privilege and political power are determined by hereditary class. Officially, we have a more enlightened goal in sight: namely, a society in which a family’s wealth has no relation to the probability of future educational attainment and the wealth and station it affords. By this standard, education offered to poor children should be at least as good as that which is provided to the children of the upper-middle class. Inequality is mediated for us by a taxing system that most people do not fully understand and seldom scrutinize. How this system really works, and how it came into existence, may enable us to better understand the difficulties that will be confronted in attempting to revise it. (Kozol 207)

Kozol further asserts his conflict theorist views by his constant use of statistics in public school funding, an example of which appears above. Throughout the country, the people at the top of the stratification system also do not recognize that the problems exist. Kozol discusses interviews with students in wealthy areas, and parents of children in these areas (Kozol 124-130). However, this does not change the fact that Kozol presents his arguments from a conflict theorist perspective. Thus, it is evident that the arguments presented in Kozol s Savage Inequalities prove that the problems in America’s schools constitute a social problem. The problems fit all four criteria of a social problem: They are conditions that are identified as negative by analysts or by significant numbers of other people. They affect large numbers of people. They stem from social causes. Lastly, they can be solved through social action. Kozol presents his arguments from a conflict theorist’s interpretation of the sociological perspective: He believes that because the problems stem from economic inequality brought about by racial inequality, this represents those at the top of the stratification system holding down those at the bottom. He shows that the conflict theorist perspective is quite valid in the examination of this social problem.

This book has been an eye opener for me in respect to the realities of our American school system. I thought that such conditions described in Savage Inequalities only existed in third world countries. Today one of the hot topics under the Bush administration is education reform. It is safe to say that those who think school uniforms, vouchers, just say no, and after school, basketball programs have not read this book. When the basics are not available such as books, teachers, safe schools, and toilet paper, reforming schools must go way beyond the simple mindedness of a new exterior coat of paint. This book provides examples of inequality in the U.S. schools that should shame anyone who believes there is equality in U.S. schools. Giving a affluent kid (or at least a child whose parents can afford a private school education) provides an out for a few, but for the rest of the children who must survive at the public school they did not “choice” to attend, life will become even worse. The solution is clear, but neither Democratic nor Republican leaders want to hear it. The solution is federal education funding. Then the next step is to rebuild and modernize all schools that need it. Finally, whether people like it or not this is a money first society. Teachers should be paid better salaries in hopes of recruiting more teachers, and attracting those potential students who are not sure four to eight more years of school is worth $32,000 a year. In most cities, Taco Bell managers make more money, garbage handlers make more money, coaches make more money, police officers make more money, etc. I believe being a garbage handler is an important job, and I believe in paying people a quality wage. However, the responsibility a teacher has in shaping the minds of our youth is monumental. It is obvious to the U.S. children and to the rest of the world that education is not the number one priority politicians say it is. This book is a testimony of that lack of concern by U.S. politicians, and of the privileged who have the power to change the status quo.

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