Book Article

Illiberal Education

Talking with Jonathan Kozol -- The author of ''Savage Inequalities'' tells us about his popular book

When Publishers Weekly ended a 119-year string of front-cover advertisements by printing an open letter urging President Bush to read Savage Inequalities, Jonathan Kozol was delighted. But that doesn't mean he expects his impassioned study of inequities in the American educational system to spark much response from the Oval Office. ''One of the President's aides has been on the phone with me,'' says Kozol. ''And I try to be polite. But there are certain areas of hypocrisy that one simply can't ignore. When the President tells poor people that more money won't help give their children a better education, I wish he'd tell us a better way than money to repair roofs, buy textbooks and computers, and clean up sewage in East St. Louis schools.''

Kozol, who won a National Book Award for Death at an Early Age (1967), began his career as a teacher nearly 30 years ago in Boston. When he returned to public schools in 1988 to research Savage Inequalities, he was stunned by what he saw. ''I knew that there was racial segregation everywhere, but I had no idea how much it had intensified. I never dreamed I'd come into a school where a teacher would have 26 books for 100 students, or where teachers would have 220 students a day. I would ask officials to show me the numbers again and again, because I couldn't believe them.''

Nor did he immediately trust what he heard from children — stories of collapsing ceilings, waterfalls in stairwells, overcrowded classrooms, and crime in the corridors. ''Like any journalist, I've disciplined myself to be skeptical,'' he says. ''But in no case did I find what students told me to be worse than reality.'' Much of Kozol's deeply felt invective has the ring of a stump speech, a fact that isn't lost on Democrats. ''Jesse Jackson is already talking about unequal funding of education,'' he says. ''Harkin and Kerrey are discussing these things too. It wouldn't take an ingenious candidate to force the issue.''

But, searching for hope, Kozol sounds as pessimistic as a boy he interviewed, who, asked about school desegregation, said, ''Give it another 200 years.'' ''Our nation's prospects are darkened by the despicable way we treat our children,'' Kozol says. ''It's not even a sense of conscience I feel. It's a sense of foreboding.''

Originally posted Oct 18, 1991 Published in issue #88 Oct 18, 1991 Order article reprints