So what are we doing offering a book by one of the Enemy's agents? First of all, Jonathan Kozol may be no conservative or supporter of home schooling, but to write him off as the enemy is a little simplistic. Furthermore, Savage Inequalities is about the continuing legacy of classism and racism in America as much as it's about public education. A sort of Jacob Riis of the late 20th century, Kozol's chief concern has always been with the underrepresented and marginalized elements of society, fueled by a desire for justice and equality.
We typically think of public schools as being too equal, that the education children receive there is designed to bring them all to the same drab level of non-achievement and anti-motivation. While that's certainly true on one level, in other ways the schools are not equal at all. A rift exists between rich and poor, exemplified most clearly in the difference between suburban and inner city schools, and more often than not it is drawn across racial lines. White students typically enjoy good teachers and state-of-the-art facilities, while ethnic minorities get a lousy education in often unsafe physical conditions.
The problem (as we might expect) is money. But it's not that there isn't enough money, it's that the money is improperly distributed, that while everyone pays taxes only certain schools enjoy the benefit while the others limp along on restricted budgets, unable to secure the best teachers or the right textbooks or spacious classrooms. Kozol spent years investigating urban school districts, publishing the results as Savage Inequalities in 1991, a hybrid of observational journalism, personal memoir, and research findings.
At the beginning of his career Kozol spent some time in Paris learning how to write from veteran artists like William Styron and Richard Wright. This apprenticeship is clearly evident in the sharp, beautiful prose that makes Savage Inequalities more than sociology, elevating it to the coveted literary status all good writers hope their works attain. And while it's true we prefer books openly attacking public schools to those by writers who've made a living perpetuating them (unless you're John Taylor Gatto), this one is a fascinating look at one problem among many from a particularly perceptive insider.