Winner of the National Book Award in 1967, Jonathan Kozol’s Death at an Early Age: The Destruction of the Hearts and Minds of Negro Children in the Boston Public Schools is the story of a new teacher recruited to finish the year with a group of African-American students. It does not compare much to Boston Public, the FOX television drama created by David E. Kelley (2000-2004).
Roughly the first half of the book is devoted to profiling Stephen and Stephen’s friends. In a school where some white teachers take minority students to the basement to hit them with a rattan, Kozol knows he and his students have a lot to fight—an entire institution of antagonists. There’s the unnamed Art Teacher, the unnamed Reading Teacher, the flimsy piece of cardboard over the window, racist curriculum, and more.
Kozol sides unfailingly with his students. “I came into that room knowing myself to be absolutely on their side,” he writes. “I did not go in there with even the littlest suggestion that what had been going on… was even one-fiftieth their fault” (162). The way Kozol sees it, misbehavior is the students’ way of confirming their existence in a system that does not view African-American students as fully human; Stephen’s habit of looking in a classroom mirror is not the narcissism of youth but a way for him to “check up on his existence” (7).
Kozol offers forthright critique… about the waste of time in school: “Who is it who bears responsibility for this soul-drowning dreariness and waste of hours?… It cannot be unexpected that motivation becomes the all-important obstacle when the material is so often a diet of banality and irrelevance which it is not worth the while of a child to learn or that of a teacher to teach” (184). About the poor working environment: “All that surprised me was that every one of those schools had not been burned down yet by an outraged population when so many of them were obvious firetraps” (148). About a racist educational system: “The school systems kept its unteachables out of sight and turned them into untouchables” (49). About the art teacher: “[she] did not… care anything at all about the way in which you can destroy a human being” (4). The math teacher: “I cannot say that I learned anything at all except how to suppress and pulverize any sparks of humanity or independence or originality in children” (14). These colleagues are generally consummate professionals—they all have the “superficial trappings and the polysyllables of ‘culture’”—but Kozol shows how their covert racism, often characterized by “lip service to a kind of halfway liberalism,” is in some ways worse than the basement beatings executed by others.
Kozol is hard on himself too. He aligns himself with the Art Teacher: “I think that [the Art Teacher] was no more a hypocrite… than I was a hypocrite” (12). And implicates himself: “By not complaining and by not pointing it out to anyone,” he confesses, “in a sense I went along with the rest of them and accepted it as something inevitable” (31-33). Both admissions happen early in the book; the latter half of the book, shifting from colleagues and students to a study of classroom materials (Kozol walks us through a close-reading of a textbook and several poems), is more argumentation than narrative. When the “curriculum cops” in his district fire him for teaching a Langston Hughes poem (“The Ballad of the Landlord”), he stops the self-deprecation and implication and exchanges it all for a righteousness that, given the situation, seems warranted.