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Jonathan Kozol’s Critique of American School System in Savage Inequalities

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“In the twenty-first century, we use a nineteenth-century school model with twentieth-century values. There is clearly something wrong with this picture.” Like Zander Sherman, the author of this quote, Jonathan Kozol focuses on the disparities that exist within the education system, highlighting many of the differences between schools meant for different social classes and races. The book is based on his evaluation of the school system, through observation of the New York City, Camden, Chicago, and Washington D.C school systems among many others which he has devoted time to studying. It is a sociological book that is meant to assist in the re-evaluation and remodeling of the American school system, to make it a level playing field for students from all walks of life, regardless of their financial background, race or any other differentiating factor.


Chapter One

The author narrates his vast experience in the school system, taking note of schools with a disparity in funding and spending within the different schools. In his various visits to certain schools, the author paints a picture of dismay and disappointment at the languishing state of many of the facilities in lower-tier schools. Issues such as overcrowding of students, unsanitary environments and lack of basic teaching equipment such as textbooks put into question the government’s commitment to the education sector. These schools are engaged in various challenges, such as an inability to sustain a working labor force. “The schools announce the layoff of 280 teachers, 166 cooks, and cafeteria workers, 25 teacher aides, 16 custodians and 18 painters, electricians, engineers and plumbers”.

Chapter Two

Moreover, it is concerning that many of the areas that are in a bad state are those that are tasked with taking in minorities. Geographical areas with the highest number of minority groups have the highest number of degraded schools. This is hardly surprising since these areas also have some of the lowest literacy levels, which would logically mean they deserve to have facilities that are at the very least at par if not better than those available to others. He references many of the cases that have filed by residents in these school districts such as North Lawndale and the South Side of Chicago. In many of these cases, the judges favored the residents yet little seems to have changed in terms of the quality of education offered.

Chapter Three

The major subject discussed within this chapter of the text is that of minority communities such as the Hispanics and Blacks having a hard time getting a quality education. This train of thought suggests that these communities receive less funding and have less developed facilities as a result of their actions, such as high crime rates within school vicinities that discourage large-scale funding caused by a fear of less through criminal or hooligan behavior. While it is undoubtedly true that this plays a part in determining the general outlook of schools. However, from a moral standpoint, it is illogical and simply punitive to punish students for the wrongdoings committed by others within their community. A student cannot and should not be subjected to discrimination for reasons that are beyond their control.

Chapter Four

On the other hand, some of the rulings have gone against the grain and supported the system, which Kozol argues to be unjust and inequitable to those of the lower social classes and many of the minority groups within the country. He also argues that racism and segregation are still alive and well within the society, with the education sector at the forefront of sustained prejudice against those of minority races. The injustice caused by inequalities in taxation and unfair distribution of the resulting funds is meant to empower those already at the top of the educational food chain, and leave those born within disadvantaged backgrounds without a way of climbing the educational ladder. In essence, it creates a perpetual cycle of poverty and disillusionment with the education system.

Chapter Five

One of the arguments made against Kozol in this chapter is that the students still receive an education that is sufficient, regardless of the minor difference within different schools. The proponents of these arguments believe that as long as the quality of education is sufficient for the transfer of knowledge, it is acceptable to have differences. However, while Kozol does not dispute that the learning may be sufficient to impart adequate knowledge, the tales of unsanitary environments, bathroom stalls without any doors, sewage riddled schools and students routinely lacking textbooks are far too serious to be overlooked. It is misguided to believe that money and funding are the answer to all these problems, having similar funding to others is a step in the right direction and a good place to start.

Chapter Six

In this chapter, Kozol quotes John Coons, a popular school reform activist, in saying that there is ‘no greater threat to the capitalist system than the present cyclical replacement of the ‘fittest’ of one generation by their artificially advantaged offspring’. Such a sustained action is bound to lead to eventual collapse as unworthy privileged individuals are elevated to positions they are unqualified for at the expense of minorities.’ Such a situation is made even worse when the enabling institution happens to be the government, an entity that is sworn to uphold equity and the best interests of society.


Reading the book, I found it extremely captivating as it captured many of the issues that have always been raised about the education system and the disparities between the services offered in different schools. The debate has always been heightened and fuelled by the fact that these disparities appear to be caused not by random factors or events, but by a sustained and conscious effort to segregate areas and differentiate students based on their backgrounds. Even though the book is centered more on the issues at hand instead of some of the solutions that may be on offer, it serves a good eye-opener for those unaware of the criticisms directed at the school system and an in-depth look for those who are already familiar with these gripes.

It is disheartening that even after a century of supposed progress, little has been done to eradicate the institutionalized racism and neglect of certain student demographics in the country. According to Kozol, even after the century of action within the legislative and judicial systems, the country reserves a system that is tilted in favor of those that already have the platform to succeed based on the color of their skin as well as their financial background. Students from poorer parts of the country, along with those that are members of a minority group or ethnicity receive an education that is both quantitatively and qualitatively different from the one given to their wealthier and white counterparts.

In this regard, the author also makes a point of stating that children are born differently and some have advanced capabilities as well as special talents when compared to others. It is precisely for this reason that I believe special programs should be in place to aid such students. Based on the right evaluation, it is possible to select and categorize students based on ability. Even so, the selection process should be as open and fair as possible to ensure that all students are judged on merit and not by discriminative standards such as the color of their skin. This is helpful because the economy has openings for all sorts of people, including unskilled labor, which is a crucial part of the economy. Not everyone is cut out for higher-level education and it essential that only those who are qualified make it to such a level.

Such a process would constitute an ideal situation. However, the reality is often disappointing and the state on the ground means that a lot of students either have their potential untapped or are pushed to levels which they are incapable of sustaining. Across the country, places at prestigious learning centers are determined by financial situations and ethnic backgrounds, meaning that a person’s likelihood of success based on their ability is innately linked to the size of their parents’ income along with the color of skin they happened to be born with. It is profoundly sad that privilege and opportunity are linked to discriminatory practices that have no place within a modern and successful country.


Overall, Kozol takes a reactionary approach that is tinged with rage and disappointment at the state of the school system. Based on the situation he describes, it is hard to avoid being angry at how the education system of a country as advanced as the United States could be dealing with issues of discrimination for over a century. It is agonizing just how little has been done since landmark rulings such as Brown v. Board of Education, which led to the criminalization of segregation. Such rulings have only led to the current state of affairs, a school system that is neither equal nor united. All students deserve equal treatment regardless of their background. To achieve this, it takes not only funding but also changing attitudes within society and support by the government in equalizing the access to and quality of education. Progression is linked to the provision of equality regardless of differences within the demographic.


  • Grusky, D., & Lucas, S. (2001). Tracking Inequality: Stratification and Mobility in American High Schools. Contemporary Sociology, 30(6), 574. doi: 10.2307/3088991
  • Kozol, J. (1991). Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools (p. 255). Harper Perennial.

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