Jonathan Kozol discusses segregation in schools, recalls days of Civil Rights activism

It has been half a century since The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed in the United States, criminalizing the discrimination of people based on race, color, religion, gender or national origin. Racial segregation in the public schools is still a prevalent issue – one that writer and educational activist Jonathan Kozol has dedicated the past 50 years of his life to chronicling.

Kozol spoke to students, faculty and administrators in DPAC on Tuesday afternoon as part of the President’s Distinguished Lecture Series, highlighting the segregation that still exists in U.S. public schools today.

“Black and Hispanic children are more isolated intellectually today and segregated physically than at any time since 1968, the year when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was taken from us by assassination,” Kozol said.

Kozol met King once, when he walked beside him as a bodyguard at a rally King was speaking at on the Boston Common many years ago.

“Dr. King did not say, ‘I have a dream, that someday, in the cities in the north and south, we will have more efficient test-driven, anxiety-ridden, separate but equal schools,’” Kozol said. “Dr. King’s words were clean and pure – ‘I have a dream that someday, little black children’ – and I’m sure if he were alive today, he would add little brown children – ‘will sit together at the table of brotherhood.’”

Educational rights were not always on the forefront of Kozol’s agenda. He went to Harvard University, where he studied English literature. He then went to Oxford University on a Rhodes scholarship, and spent some time in Paris. He returned to the United States in 1964.

“I intended to go back to university in order to pursue a Ph.D., and I hoped to become a professor,” Kozol said. “I thought that would be a nice life – I could wear a tweed jacket with little elbow patches.”

However, in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, Kozol was inspired to being his teaching career immediately. With no formal training and no certification, he talked to a local priest and asked if he could be of use. The priest recommended he go into teaching, so he did. The next day, he walked into a public school in Boston and asked for a job and was given a position as a substitute.

“The first time I ever taught in my life, they sent me into a kindergarten,” Kozol said. “I was absolutely terrified. I had no idea what to do with people that size. They’re like gerbils. They crawl all over you. But I survived, and I’ve been working with low-income children ever since.”

Kozol’s current stance on educational equality remain the same, and at times he finds that the problems that students face in schools today are worse than they ever were.

He said many states reports may call the schools diverse, but the meaning of diversity has shifted in recent years.

“What I find when I get there is that diverse means both black and Hispanic and a few Asians kids,” Kozol explained. “Diverse doesn’t really mean diverse – it means segregated.”

Kozol also spoke of the aggravation that standardized tests add to an already corrupt system. While he believes that some testing is important, such as diagnostic tests that help teachers learn more about what their students know, he said standardized tests are “sucking all of the joy out of the childhood of children and driving out almost every bit of child-centered learning from the schools.”

Teachers only have time include what the state, because of the pressure testing has on the whole school system. Rather than teaching about what the children are interested in and would like to know more about, teachers have to stick to the books and teach students skills such as writing a topic sentence.

“I’ve written 12 books, and I swear I have never used a topic sentence in my life,” said Kozol. “No great novelist or great journalist would ever use a topic sentence. … Imagine Hemingway starting out his book saying, ‘This is going to be the story of an elderly man and an unusually big fish.’”

President F. Javier Cevallos spoke of the importance of bringing Kozol to campus on the 175th anniversary of FSU.

“Horace Mann was a missionary, and his agenda was education for all,” Cevallos said. “[It] was an agenda of inclusive education regardless of race and regardless of gender.”

These are the same ideals that Kozol still speaks to today. For 50 years, he has been writing books that outline the inequality that many low income and urban schools face, and offering solutions to help create a more inclusive public schooling system.

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