Who is Jonathan Kozol?

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  • Last Modified Date: 08 September 2019
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Jonathan Kozol is an American author and social justice advocate, born in Boston in 1936 to a neurologist and a social worker. Many activists concerned about equality issues in American society value Kozol's writing, which provides a harsh look at basic ingrained inequality, especially in the American school system. Along with other sociologists who focus on equality, Kozol is a popular guest lecturer at universities all over the United States, and his books are required reading in many classes designed to get students thinking about American education.

Kozol graduated from Harvard in 1958, and found himself traveling to England on a Rhodes Scholarship. He ended up moving to Paris, never completing his scholarship, although he got an education of a different sort. He lived in some of the poorest neighborhoods of Paris while he wrote his only novel, The Fume of Poppies. He traveled back to the United States, where he started out as a tutor and later took a teaching position in a primarily African-American neighborhood of Boston.


After hearing about the death of three civil rights workers at the hands of the Klu Klux Klan in 1964, Kozol became involved in the civil rights movement. Working intimately in an impoverished African-American neighborhood caused Kozol to begin to question the inherent inequalities he saw all around him, especially when he visited more wealthy school districts which were able to offer their students much more, educationally. Kozol wondered whether it was right, in America, that the area of your birth should determine the quality of your education.

As Kozol began to consider social equality issues, he was fired from his position as a public school teacher for teaching the poetry of Langston Hughes in his classes. While unemployed, he wrote Death at An Early Age (1967), a book talking about his experiences in impoverished, mainly African-American schools. In 1968, the book won the National Book Award. He wrote several other books exposing inequality issues in American schools before Savage Inequalities was published in 1992. The book shocked many readers, who were unaware of the serious social justice issues plaguing some American schools in the modern day.

In 1995, he followed with Amazing Grace, a book focusing on the New York public school system. He looked at racial and class divisions within one of the largest public school systems in the world, and the book troubled many readers, who were uncomfortable with the harsh reality that he depicted. Kozol said that the book was very difficult for him to write, because living through the incidents he wrote about was a very intense experience.

Kozol published The Shame of the Nation, a book about growing informal segregation of American schools, in 2005. Some critics felt that he was going too far with the subtitle of the book, which included the word “Apartheid,” implying a legally sanctioned system of segregation. The book did have the intended result of stimulating discussion about inequalities in American education and society in general, an issue which Kozol clearly feels very strongly about. Along with his fans, Kozol hopes that his work stimulates serious discussion about social issues in American, which will perhaps ultimately spur major reforms.


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