Shame of a Nation

Book Review- Shame of the Nation by Jonathan Kozol


Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark court decision that would outlaw school segregation, was passed in 1954 and for a while, integration worked. That is, integration worked to the extent that white America was willing to fund and support it, both with their local tax dollars and their children. This period of time did not last for long. Jonathan Kozol’s Shame of the Nation works to condemn the current state of our educational system, as it has far escaped this brief period of success. While Brown v. Board is still on the books today, school segregation exists at extremely high rates and is only increasing. At the beginning of the century, integration was at lower levels than in 1968. Kozol’s work displays outrage over this state of affairs and hopes to accurately portray the severity of the issue via both structural analysis and ethnographic study. Kozol argues from the start of his book that federal integration initiatives have been repealed and delayed since the mid-1970’s and straight up counteracted since the 1990’s. This, he argues, has produced disastrous consequences. Through the course of his book, Kozol centers his analysis within stories from segregated schools, telling their history and talking to their students. A particular interest lies in what Kozol dubs “apartheid schools,” where 99 or 100 percent of the student body is black or Hispanic.

Shame of the Nation extensively discusses per-pupil spending within different districts. Kozol emphasizes how districts that are primarily black and Hispanic spend thousands less per student than districts that are primarily white. This occurs for a handful of reasons. One is that funds for education are pulled from local tax bases to an extent such that more affluent and white districts begin with a larger reservoir of capital to spend on education due to white flight and residential segregation. An additional reason, Kozol finds, is that white parents in affluent neighborhoods are more likely to donate large sums of money to public schools in order to provide services beyond the scope of what schools in poor neighborhoods could afford. These services include extensive art and music programs, among similar augmentations. This can be read as an example of white liberal parents desiring the ability to declare themselves an advocate of public schools while essentially buying their child a private education. While many mainstream narratives found in the media and in the collective political imagination see educational success as a matter of merit, Kozol is insistent to criticize this myth by highlighting how a child’s access to resources significantly affects their success.

A large part of the book furthers this concept, primarily focusing on the nature of discipline and pedagogy in underserved schools and how recently, those educational features have been shaped by a heavy emphasis on testing. In schools where heavy resource-based inadequacies exist, many provisions of the school are transient. Such schools have high rates of teacher turnover and lack the ability to provide basic resources, among other issues. In order to counteract this inconsistency, administrators rely on a curriculum that heavily prioritizes discipline and invariance to provide students with some modicum of reliability, no matter how distorted. This entails the compartmentalization of thought within schools, where standards are applied to every piece of work or idea produced by teachers and students alike in order to register how each piece of information operates en route to some educational goal. Additionally, it means that teachers in these schools often teach to actual scripts, which they cannot deviate from at risk of punishment from their overseers, who teachers casually refer to as “police.” The recent emphasis on testing in educational policy has only bolstered this form of teaching, as more rigorous expectations exist for teachers to live up to. Now, administrators find heavier standardization as their only option in the face of heavier testing loads. The difficulty lies in equalizing performance in underprivileged districts with more affluent districts. However, this gap is incredibly burdensome to bridge, even from the first day of school for most children, as Kozol demonstrates earlier in the book how a disparate access to pre-K programs hugely affects early test performance. Schools that don’t adopt a rigorously standardized curriculum might opt for a model based upon participation in the workforce. These curriculum offer children instruction on how to best act as and become “managers.” While these positions seem to empower students as actors in leadership roles, the actual curricula often envision the children in service work roles and greatly limit their options and imaginations.

Kozol’s arguments are primarily couched within anecdotes describing the actual lived experiences of students at these underperforming, “apartheid” schools. Kozol is incredibly careful not to divorce the abstract numerical description of segregation from the impact it has on segregated children. Time and time again, he finds that the attitude of the children pertaining to their educational situation mirrors the predictions of Brown v. Board that segregation “generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.” This is most explicitly shown early in the book when one student whom Kozol talks to expresses her understanding of her segregated environment as, “It’s as if you have been put in a garage where, if they don’t have room for something but aren’t sure if they should throw it out they put it there where they don’t need to think of it again.” Later in the book, Kozol performs an experiment with a group of children testing what he calls the “misery index.” While standards are set in place to measure academic performance, it is commonly ignored how the students in segregated, underfunded schools feel about their environment and how it affects their education. Kozol asks a group of fourth grade students to honestly express their unbridled feelings on their education and receives responses indicating a general dissatisfaction over their physical conditions. The schools of segregation are often dirty, old, dusty, and sometimes even contain vermin and pests. Kozol brings up throughout the book that these students can perceive the lack of regard for and consistent disinvestment from their futures and how that structures their own feelings for themselves in an often negative manner.

A thematic recurrence in Kozol’s work is the hypocrisy in the American opinion regarding education. A large portion of his book is dedicated to answering the claim that money is not a determining factor in the education of children, a central argument advanced by those who downplay the status quo. Any proponent of this argument, according to Kozol, is acting in bad faith. It is outrageous, if not laughable, he says, for detractors to claim that money has no role in education when those same detractors move to more affluent neighborhoods with higher per-pupil spending and those same detractors possibly even send their children to private schools. Americans writ large prioritize their own spending on education highly, as seen by parental investment in public schools in affluent communities. Until this changes, Kozol finds no value in the claim that a good education is independent of access to resources and rather contingent upon personal strength. What Kozol wants is to combat empty moralizations in the name of meritocracy. He thinks the solution is activist organizing from the teachers and administrators who see the injustices on a regular basis. Kozol believes that the current state of education is rife with profound discrepancies that match those of the civil rights era. If anything, the injustices now exist in a more pernicious, unspoken form. By urging teachers to center their own experiences and bring this problem to light, Kozol believes a movement with similar power can begin to form. Read in a more recent context, this claim has weight. The Black Lives Matter campaign has garnered heavy media coverage in the past year in its discussion of police brutality. By incorporating other aspects of black dispossession in this conversation, a full-fledged anti-racist movement could be born by uniting teachers, students, and administrators in an attempt to display to all of America the damage done by further re-segregation. Even prompting the conversation could destroy the myth that segregation is a relic of the past.

Kozol’s work is an excellent primer on the issues of educational segregation existing in many communities today. Kozol is able to weave powerful vignettes with the statistics that describe them almost seamlessly, producing a strong and accessible narrative. This is not some obscure, academic work – Kozol’s book is a New York Times Bestseller, which can attest to the clarity of his writing and his vision. As this book has sold so well, it may be pondered as to why it has not produced very severe change or spurred the activist movements it describes. This might root in the lack of access most communities affected by school segregation would have to Shame of the Nation. The teachers in these communities’ school might read the book, but without a network of teachers to mobilize and a rigorous political education in the communities, this would go nowhere. Our group’s job then is not to criticize assorted minutia in Kozol’s book or make perfection the enemy of the good. These are all policy goals far in the future, however, and if our group is to speak to community power and uplifting, our goal should be more pragmatically concerned. The eventual perspective our group must take would be to find ways to distribute this information while working with our political organizations in Baltimore so that the communities there may find a language through which to express their socioeconomic trauma and begin to find segregation on their own terms. This self-determination is most important and something that would be removed if we were to criticize this work from outside of the perspective of America’s dispossessed. Kozol offers an incredibly dense, yet engaging manual on segregation in the 21st century. Communicating the primary foci of the work is imperative in raising political consciousness regarding the issue.