Waiting for Jonathan Kozol

I saw Waiting for ‘Superman’ today, the much-hyped documentary by Oscar winner Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth). I was all set to defend the movie to my teacher friends who decry its anti-union sensibility, some of whom won’t even see it on that account.

Now, having seen it, I don’t feel much like defending it. I’m glad it was made, and I’m glad a lot of people will see how people in poverty have to struggle with lousy schools. I’m glad that the movie demonstrates that all kids can learn. I’m sorry, though, that the movie puts so much blame on teachers and teachers’ unions.

Call me crazy, but I really don’t think teacher tenure is the fundamental cause of our schools’ problems. That’s the conclusion many viewers will come away with. The film doesn’t show buildings falling down. It doesn’t show broken windows and stinking bathrooms.

Jonathan Kozol

I wish after seeing Waiting for ‘Superman,’ people would go directly to their local library or bookstore and pick up a book by Jonathan Kozol. He doesn’t think that raising test scores is the Ultima Thule of education, or that education’s highest purpose is to transform children into cogs in our economic system to ensure that the United States remains the Number One Country in the World.

“Instead of seeing these children for the blessings that they are,” he wrote in Ordinary Resurrections: Children in the Years of Hope, “we are measuring them only by the standard of whether they will be future deficits or assets for our nation’s competitive needs.”  Jonathan Kozol went on a fast “as [a] personal act of protest at the vicious damage being done to inner-city children by the federal education law No Child Left Behind, a racially punitive piece of legislation.”

He dares to write about the joy of learning and the exuberance of children, not just about lengthening school days and mandating uniforms. “Why not give these kids the best we have,” he writes, “because we are a wealthy nation and they are children and deserve to have some fun while they are still less than four feet high?”

Since 1967, Jonathan Kozol has written twelve books on poverty and education and has spent countless hours working with teachers and schools and speaking tirelessly on behalf of urban education. It makes me very sad that he’s not even mentioned, let alone interviewed in Waiting for ‘Superman.’  I’m afraid that Kozol’s brand of idealism and activism is passe.

Have you seen the movie? Are you boycotting the movie? I’d love to hear what you think.

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5 Responses to Waiting for Jonathan Kozol

  1. In the 1950’s, the public schools were the best anywhere. What destroyed them? White racism! Now the rich whites see that most whites are poor now and do not want that for their children. Why the hell don’t they stay in private schools? Because they want public money to pay for their private educations. Greed never ceases, it just grows larger and larger until it completely destroys its lover. It takes a little time but, what the hell, I’ve got the rest of my life to laugh at these bastards.

  2. robin kosleb says:

    I did not see the movie and after your post, don’t plan to. It sounds like the movie, takes a complicated problem and attempts to make the problem and solution simple. That just drives me nuts. Urban schools are full of problems and there are many causes to those problems. We want simple, one step answers to complicated problems. There are also solutions that we won’t consider. If we had a county wide school system and Beachwood, Bay Village and Rocky River teachers suddenly had the urban poor in their classes, would their skills be effected by the new problems the students bring to their classrooms? I believe they would. Complicated problems deserve thoughtful answers.

  3. Arthur Evenchik says:

    While he was doing his research for “The Shame of the Nation.” Jonathan Kozol met a high school student in Los Angeles who had been tracked into sewing and hairdressing classes even though she wanted to go on to college. The girl broke down in front of him as she talked of the opportunities that were being denied her.

    Guggenheim’s film suggests that the reformers behind the Harlem Children’s Zone, KIPP, and the Harlem Success Network are refusing to let this happen in their schools. Their students are hearing, day after day, that they belong in college, that their aspirations are attainable, and that they can transform their lives.

    It is true, as you say, that the reformers’ brand of idealism and activism differs from Kozol’s. (For one thing, they don’t believe, as he does, that any discussion of educational inequality must begin with a discussion of racial segregation.)

    But they also don’t believe that “education’s highest purpose is to transform children into cogs in our economic system to ensure that the United States remains the Number One Country in the World.” And while Guggenheim himself makes the international competitiveness argument for educational reform, I don’t see this as the central message of his film. Like Kozol, he is moved above all by the fundamental human claims of the children themselves.

    Kathy, thanks very much for your thoughtful post.

  4. Kathy says:

    Yes. Everyone talks about “great teaching” as though we’re all in agreement as to what that is. I know my students don’t agree — some think I’m great, and others think I’m lousy. The movie assumes that if we just got rid of the bad teachers — I guess it’s the all-knowing, all-wise administrators who could do this — everything would be hunky-dory. The bad teachers are the ones who read newspapers during class. If the movie gets discussions started and inspires compassion for poor families, that’s good, but there’s so, so much more to be explored.

  5. I haven’t seen it (or any movies in theaters for quite a while; Philly is far inferior to Cleveland as a movie city) but I have read another response that reached the same conclusions and argued that the movie didn’t grapple at all with what teaching and learning are. Does that sound right to you?

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