Where Ghetto Schools Fail

In this second of a two-part series on ghetto schools, the author, a thirty-year-old Harvard graduate and novelist, describes the sequence of events that led to his dismissal from one of Boston’s Roxbury schools—for bringing into his classroom reading materials he felt bridged the gap between the ghetto environment of his pupils and the prejudices and irrelevancies of their antiquated textbooks.

Editor’s Note: We’ve gathered dozens of the most important pieces from our archives on race and racism in America. Find the collection here.
This is the second and final part of a two-part series.
Read part one here.

There has been so much recent talk of progress in the areas of curriculum innovation and textbook revision that few people outside the field of teaching understand how bad most of our elementary school materials still are. In isolated suburban school districts children play ingenious Monopoly games revised to impart an immediate and first-person understanding of economic problems in the colonial period. In private schools, kindergarten children begin to learn about numbers with brightly colored sticks known as cuisenaire rods, and second-grade children are introduced to mathematics through the ingenuity of a package of odd-shaped figures known as Attribute Games. But in the majority of schools in Roxbury and Harlem and dozens of other slum districts stretching west across the country, teaching techniques, textbooks, and other teaching aids are hopelessly antique, largely obsolete, and often insulting or psychologically oppressive for many thousands of Negro and other minority schoolchildren.

I once made a check of all books in my fourth-grade classroom. Of the slightly more than six hundred books, almost one quarter had been published prior to the bombing of Hiroshima; 60 percent were either ten years old or older. Of thirty-two different book series standing in rows within the cupboard, only six were published as recently as five years ago, and seven series were twenty to thirty-five years old. These figures put into perspective some of the lofty considerations and expensive research projects sponsored by even the best of the curriculum development organizations, for they suggest that educational progress and innovation are reaching chiefly the children of rich people rather than the children of the urban poor.

Obsolescence, however, was not the only problem in our textbooks. Direct and indirect forms of discrimination were another. The geography book given to my pupils, first published eighteen years ago and only modestly updated since, traced a cross-country journey in which there was not one mention, hint, or image of a dark-skinned face. The chapter on the South described an idyllic landscape in the heart of Dixie: pastoral home of hardworking white citizens, contented white children, and untroubled white adults.

While the history book mentioned Negroes—in its discussion of slavery and the Civil War—the tone of these sections was ambiguous. “Men treasure freedom above all else,” the narrative conceded at one point, but it also pointed out that slavery was not an altogether dreadful institution: “Most Southern people treated their slaves kindly,” it related, and then quoted a stereotyped plantation owner as saying: “Our slaves have good homes and plenty to eat. When they are sick, we take care of them. …”

While the author favored emancipation, he found it necessary to grant to arguments on the other side a patriotic legitimacy: “No one can truly say, ‘The North was right’ or ‘The Southern cause was better.’ Remember, each side fought for the ideals it believed in. For in Our America all of us have the right to our beliefs.”

When my class had progressed to the cotton chapter in our geography book, I decided to alter the scheduled reading. Since I was required to make use of the textbook, and since its use, I believed, was certain to be damaging, I decided to supply the class with extra material in the form of a mimeographed sheet. I did not propose to tell the children any tales about lynchings, beatings, or the Ku Klux Klan. I merely wanted to add to the study of cotton-growing some information about the connection between the discovery of Eli Whitney’s cotton gin and the greater growth of slavery.

I had to submit this material to my immediate superior in the school, a lady whom I will call the Reading Teacher. The Reading Teacher was a well-intentioned woman who had spent several years in ghetto classrooms, but who, like many other teachers, had some curiously ambivalent attitudes toward the children she was teaching. I recall the moment after I had handed her that sheet of paper. Looking over the page, she agreed with me immediately that it was accurate. Nobody, she said, was going to quibble with the idea that cotton, the cotton gin, and slavery were all intertwined. But it was the question of the “advisability of any mention of slavery to the children at this time,” which, she said, she was presently turning over in her mind. “Would it,” she asked me frankly, “truly serve the advantage of the children at this stage to confuse and complicate the study of simple geography with socioeconomic factors?” Why expose the children, she was asking essentially, to unpleasant facts about their heritage?

Then, with an expression of the most honest and intense affection for the children in the class, she added: “I don’t want these children to have to think back on this year later on and to remember that we were the ones who told them they were Negro.” This remark seemed to take one step further the attitude of the textbook writers. Behind the statement lay the unspoken assumption that to be Negro was a shameful condition. The longer this knowledge could be kept from the innocent young, the better off they would be.

After the journey across America, the class was to study the life of the desert Arab. Before we began, the Reading Teacher urged upon me a book which she said she had used with her own classes for a great many years. It was not the same book the children had. She told me she preferred it, but that it was too old to be in regular use. I took the book home that night and opened it up to a section on the Arabs:

The Bedouin father is tall and straight. He wears a robe that falls to his ankles and his bare feet are shod in sandals of camel’s leather. … Behind the Bedouin father walk his wife and his children. …

These people are fine looking. Their black eyes are bright and intelligent. Their features are much like our own, and, although their skin is brown, they belong to the white race, as we do. It is scorching desert sun that has tanned the skin of the Arabs to such a dark brown color.

Turning to a section on Europe, I read the following description:

Two Swiss children live in a farmhouse on the edge of town. … These children are handsome. Their eyes are blue. Their hair is golden yellow. Their white skins are clear, and their cheeks are as red as ripe, red apples.

Curious after this to see how the African Negroes would be treated, I turned to a section on the Congo Valley:

The black people who live on this great continent of Africa were afraid of the first white men who came to explore their land. They ran and hid from them in the dark jungle. They shot poisoned arrows from behind the thick bushes. They were savage and uncivilized. …

Yumbo and Minko are a black boy and a black girl who live in this jungle village. Their skins are of so dark a color that they look almost black. Their noses are large and flat. Their lips are thick. Their eyes are black and shining, and their hair is so curly that it seems like wool. They are Negroes and belong to the black race.

Perhaps without being conscious of it, the Reading Teacher had her own way of telling the children what it meant to be Negro.

Not all books used in a school system, merely by the law of averages, are going to be consistently and blatantly poor. A large number of the books we had in Boston were only mildly distorted or else devastatingly bad only in one part. One such book, not used in my school but at the junior high level, was entitled Our World Today. Right and wrong, good and bad alternate in this book from sentence to sentence and from page to page:

The people of the British Isles are, like our own, a mixed people. Their ancestors were the sturdy races of northern Europe, such as Celts, Angles, Saxons, Danes and Normans, whose energy and abilities still appear in their descendant. With such a splendid inheritance what could be more natural than that the British should explore and settle many parts of the world and in time build up the world’s greatest colonial empire? …

The people of South Africa have one of the most democratic governments now in existence in any country …

Africa needs more capitalists. … White managers are needed … to show the Negroes how to work and to manage their plantations. …

In our study of the nations of the world, we should try to understand the people and their problems from their point of view. We ought to have a sympathetic attitude towards them, rather than condemn them through ignorance because they do not happen always to have our ways. …

The Negro is very quick to imitate and follow the white man’s way of living and dressing. …

The white man may remain for short periods and direct the work, but he cannot … do the work himself. He must depend on the natives to do the work. …

The white men who have entered Africa are teaching the natives how to live. …

Sooner or later books like these will be put to pasture. Either that, or they will be carefully doctored and rewritten. But the problem they represent is not going to be resolved in any important way by their removal or revision. Too many teachers admire and depend on such textbooks, and prefer to teach from them. The attitudes of these teachers are likely to remain long after the books have been replaced.

Plenty of good books are available, of course, that give an honest picture of the lives of black Americans. The tutorial programs in Boston have been using them, and so have many of the more enlightened private schools. In the public schools of this city, however, it is difficult to make use of books that depart from the prescribed curriculum. When I made a tentative effort to introduce such materials into my classroom, I encountered firm resistance.

Earlier in the year I had brought to school a book of poetry by the Negro author Langston Hughes. I had not used it in the classroom, but it did at least make its way onto a display board in the auditorium as part of an exhibit on important American Negroes, set up to pay lip service to “Negro History Week.”

To put a book by a Negro poet on display is one thing. To open the book and attempt to read something from it is quite another. In the last weeks of the spring I discovered the difference when I began to read a few of the poems to the children in my class. It was during a period in which I also was reading them some poems of John Crowe Ransom, Robert Frost, and W. B. Yeats.

Hughes, I have come to learn, holds an extraordinary appeal for many children. I knew this from some earlier experiences in other classes, and I remembered, in particular, the reaction of a group of young teen-agers in a junior high the first time I ever had brought his work into a public school. On the book’s cover, the children could see the picture of the dark-skinned author, and they did not fail to comment. Their comments concentrated on that single, obvious, overriding fact:

Look—that man’s colored.”

The same reaction was evident here, too, among my fourth-grade students: the same gratification and the same very vivid sense of recognition. It seemed a revelation to them that a man could have black skin and be a famous author.

Of all the poems of Langston Hughes that we read, the one the children liked the best was a poem entitled “Ballad of the Landlord.” The reason, I think, that this piece of writing had so much meaning for them was not only that it seemed moving in an obvious and immediate human way, but also that it found its emotion in something ordinary. It is a poem which allows both heroism and pathos to poor people, sees strength in awkwardness, and attributes to a poor person standing on the stoop of his slum house every bit as much significance as William Wordsworth saw in daffodils, waterfalls, and clouds. At the request of the children, I mimeographed some copies of that poem, and although nobody in the classroom was asked to do this, several of the children took it home and memorized it on their own. I did not assign it for memory, because I do not think that memorizing a poem has any special value. Some of the children just came in and asked if they could recite it. Before long, almost every child in the room had asked to have a turn.

One day a week later, shortly before lunchtime, I was standing in front of my class playing a record of French children’s songs I had brought in. A message-signal on the wall began to buzz. I left the room and hurried to the principal’s office. A white man whom I had never seen before was sitting by her desk. This man, bristling and clearly hostile to me, as was the principal, instantly attacked me for having read to my class and distributed at their wish the poem entitled “Ballad of the Landlord.” It turned out that he was the father of one of the few white boys in the class. He was also a police officer.

The mimeograph of the poem, in my handwriting, was waved before my eyes. The principal demanded to know what right I had to allow such a poem—not in the official course of study—to be read and memorized by children. I said I had not asked anyone to memorize it, but that I would defend the poem and its use on the basis that it was a good poem. The principal became incensed with my answer and blurted out that she did not consider it a work of art.

The parent was angry as well, it turned out, about a book having to do with the United Nations. I had brought a book to class, one of sixty or more volumes, that told about the UN and its Human Rights Commission. The man, I believe, had mistaken “human rights” for “civil rights” and was consequently in a patriotic rage. The principal, in fairness, made the point that she did not think there was anything wrong with the United Nations, although in the report later filed on the matter, she denied this, and said, instead, “I then spoke and said that I felt there was no need for this material in the classroom.” The principal’s report went on to say that she assured the parent, after I had left the room, that “there was not another teacher in the district who would have used this poem or any material like it. I assured him that his children would be very safe from such incidents.”

I returned to my class, as requested, and a little before two o’clock the principal called me back to tell me I was fired. She forbade me to say good-bye to the children in the class or to indicate in any way that I was leaving. She said that I was to close up my records, leave the school, and report to School Department headquarters the next morning.

The next day an official who had charge of my case at the School Department took a much harder line on curriculum innovation than I had ever heard before. No literature, she said, which is not in the course of study could ever be read by a Boston teacher without permission of someone higher up. She said further that no poem by any Negro author could be considered permissible if it involved suffering. I asked her whether there would be many good poems left to read by such a standard. Wouldn’t it rule out almost all great Negro literature? Her answer evaded the issue. No poetry that described suffering was felt to be suitable. The only Negro poetry that could be read in the Boston schools, she indicated, must fit a certain kind of standard. The kind of poem she meant, she said by way of example might be a poem that accentuates the positive or “describes nature” or “tells of something hopeful.”

The same official went on a few minutes later to tell me that any complaint from a parent meant automatic dismissal. “You’re out,” she said. “You cannot teach in the Boston schools again. If you want to teach, why don’t you try a private school someday?”

Other Boston officials backed up these assertions in statements released during the following hectic days. The deputy superintendent, who wielded considerable authority over these matters, pointed out that although Langston Hughes “has written much beautiful poetry, we cannot give directives to the teacher to use literature written in native dialects.” She explained: “We are trying to break the speech patterns of these children, trying to get them to speak properly. This poem does not present correct grammatical expression and would just entrench the speech patterns we want to break.”

A couple of weeks later, winding up an investigation into the matter, School Committee member Thomas Eisenstadt concluded that school officials had handled things correctly. Explaining in his statement that teachers are dismissed frequently when found lacking in either “training, personality or character,” he went on to say that “Mr. Kozol, or anyone else who lacks the personal discipline to abide by rules and regulations, as we all must in our civilized society, is obviously unsuited for the highly responsible profession of teaching.”

In thinking back upon my year within the Boston system, I am often reminded of a kind of sad-keyed epilogue that the Reading Teacher used to bring forward sometimes at the end of a discussion: “Things are changing,” she used to say with feeling; “I am changing too—but everything cannot happen just like that.”

Perhaps by the time another, generation comes around a certain modest number of these things will have begun to be corrected. But if I were the parent of a Negro child, I know that I would not willingly accept a calendar of improvements scaled so slowly. The anger of the mother whose child’s years in elementary school have been squandered may seem inexplicable to a person like the Reading Teacher. To that mother, it is the complacency and hypocrisy of a society that could sustain and foster so many thousands of people like the Reading Teacher that seem extraordinary. The comfortable people who don’t know and don’t see the ghettos deliberate in their committee rooms. Meanwhile, the children whose lives their decisions are either going to save or ruin are expected to sit quietly, fold their hands patiently, recite their lessons, draw their margins, bite their tongues, swallow their dignities, and smile and wait.

This is the second and final part of a two-part series.
Read part one here.

This article was excerpted from Jonathan Kozol’s book Death at an Early Age.