The Ugly Truth of Public Education

Before reading “Savage Inequalities,” if someone came up to me and said, “Systemic racial segregation continues to exist in our public schools today,” I would have considered this an exaggeration. We’ve come a long way from the days of “colored” bathrooms and drinking fountains. Reading “Savage Inequalities” has challenged this notion of mine.

Kozol takes an in-depth look at how the public school system in America, despite common belief, has remained largely separate and unequal. But his book isn’t simply a collection of disturbing statistics concerning the discrepancies of drop-outs, per pupil spending, class sizes, and other factors between white and non-white schools. Kozol personally visits the schools on both sides of the track. His interviews with students, parents, teachers, principals, and community organizers, give this book a deeply human and psychological dimension. His tone remains natural. You can feel his indignation at in justices he encounters as well as his sense of joy in meeting such courageous people.

What is most striking about this book is what it suggests about American values. That we’ve created a system which sends generation after generation of children to ruin is embarrassing. Some of Kozol’s critics say he talks a lot about the problem, but doesn’t offer many solutions. Also, he points out several legal victories which have resulted in agonizingly slow feet dragging to enact the necessary changes. This in itself leaves the readers with a sense of futility. Perhaps Kozol feels that our lacking is of a more spiritual type and is better addressed by likes of Martin Luther King, whom he references several times throughout his book? If this is case, he fails to convey this with adequate clarity. I still give him his due credit because we cannot deal with any problem until we know it exists. For its social value and the much needed change this book may lead to, it is truly an indispensable book.

This book hit a deeply personal cord. I’m the first generation born son to a Mexican immigrant family. I entered an inner city school speaking only Spanish. At the time I was too young to understand the dynamics of racism but the psychological effects were understood. I was dropped into an all English speaking class without any language preparation. My language barrier marked as a target for hate and was encouraged by the teacher. Imagine being a kid in a place where you can’t understand anything being said. But there are a lot of messages that don’t require words to be communicated. It got to the point one time where I became so unstable the teacher couldn’t calm me down, neither could the principal and my father had to leave work to calm me down. Years later I now understand that I was having a stress overload, a first grade kid having a nervous breakdown in the middle of class. Now that I’m an elementary school teacher myself, these memories take on a new meaning. I thank my family for not letting me become the expected statistic.

I strongly recommend this book to teachers, parents, students, and anyone interested in civil rights. Kozol’s analysis is sure to leave a lasting impression and is an enjoyable read in general. It’s one of those books that make you say, “thank god this was a bestseller!” Here’s to the struggle for a better tomorrow.

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