‘Letters to a Young Teacher’

‘Letters to a Young Teacher’ by Jonathan Kozol and ‘A Class Apart’ by Alec Klein
The ideals of public education are still a long way off in this land of plenty.
By Erin Aubry Kaplan

August 26, 2007
If only it could have been one book.

Such was my wishful thinking, infused with a certain anger, as I read “Letters to a Young Teacher” and “A Class Apart,” two up-close accounts of two radically different public school experiences written by, respectively, veteran educator Jonathan Kozol and Washington Post reporter Alec Klein. Of course, I figured just by the titles and authors that I was in for much more contrast than convergence. Kozol, 70, is the unsparing social critic and fierce public-school advocate whose last work, “The Shame of the Nation,” detailed the almost intractable nature of public-school inequality in America 50 years after Brown vs. Board of Education; Klein, 40, is a journalist who in his book appears less influenced by political ideology than by the tenets of modern feature writing, which include a conscious neutrality on deeper education issues.

“Letters” uses the time-honored literary device of correspondence to steadily illuminate the long-standing concerns of the letter writer and those of Francesca, a novice first-grade teacher who toils in the tough, mostly black Roxbury area of Boston and who functions as Kozol’s younger alter ego; “Class” is much more diffuse, full of characters, situations and odd moments meant to feel like an almost random year-in-the-life look at exclusive, high-powered Stuyvesant High School in New York City — Klein’s alma mater, by the way.

A quick comparison of the two yields a predictable picture of one school beset by poverty and racial isolation and is nearly hostile to the needs of its pupils, and another that is a bright, open oasis of resources and creativity designed to exploit every bit of talent and brain power that its student body is assumed to have in abundance. That the Roxbury school is elementary and Stuyvesant (Stuy for short) is secondary doesn’t blunt the point. Wishful thinking, indeed.

And yet, there is hope — that is, there is some basis for comparison and, perhaps, fruitful commiseration between schools that are so unlike but that still share a singular responsibility for educating young people as thoroughly as possible. Both schools are part of similar systems — dealing on a daily basis with bureaucratic and political headaches such as budget cuts, inadequate staffing and the installation of forbidding security devices imposed by a central office. Both are obsessively defined by numbers and test scores.

Most important, both writers are oriented by a persistent idealism born of their experience. True, Kozol’s experience is much broader — he views things through the lens of a teacher and activist, while Klein does so mostly as a former student at one of the country’s most celebrated high schools. But faith in the potential of public schools to be great agents of change is what matters.

“Letters to a Young Teacher” could have collapsed under the weight of its own sincerity, but to Kozol’s credit, it doesn’t (although it’s hard to imagine that he didn’t prep these letters for publication, so measured are they and so witheringly analytical — often in the same paragraph). Although it sounds contrived, the “Dear Francesca” that begins each chapter (this name, Kozol tells us, is used to disguise the teacher’s identity) turns out to be an appropriately personal, old-fashioned way to hold forth on a gray topic like the endangered state of public education, especially given that Francesca’s charges are about 6 or so. Also, the conceit of a conversation between a wise elder and his young acolyte is a welcome departure from an extended activist essay that, however impassioned, can quickly sound like an echo chamber.

Kozol clearly revels in being a kid again. He visits Francesca’s class frequently and vicariously delights in the whole bumpy journey of first-time teaching (Kozol also spent his first teaching year in the Roxbury area in 1960). “Letters” allows Kozol to freely reminisce, reflect, recall his own mistakes and to connect with a new generation of students. The basic revelation here is that Kozol, the perennial bearer of bad news about segregated and underfunded schooling, is also an indefatigable idealist who is as inspired by inner-city kids as he is appalled by the conditions in which they are expected to learn. Making matters worse is the American education-industrial complex, which traffics in jargon and stresses things such as high-stakes testing as primary “accountability tools” that in Kozol’s mind are uncreative, punitive and rob black and Latino students of their humanity and sense of self-worth.

In “The Uses of Diversity,” a brief, devastating chapter, he explores our ongoing abuse of the concept of diversity — calling schools with only black and brown faces “diverse,” for instance, or teaching kids on Martin Luther King Day that non-diversity is a thing of the past — and suggests that it is one of the worst intellectual crimes of the age. Yet none of this dampens Kozol’s enthusiasm for the education game. What “Letters” does best is chart the positive tension between his lifelong indignation and the renewable joy of being in the classroom, something essential to all good teaching whether one is in Boston, Manhattan or Los Angeles.

Klein may not be the best person to tell the story of Stuyvesant, a school for the gifted and talented that is the most rarefied of several New York public high schools that have entrance exams. Admittedly, it’s hard to generate sympathy for students geared from birth for a fabulous success that most of us will never experience. But Klein doesn’t help by coming off at times as smug and self-congratulatory, and by forcing drama in many story lines that are really observations.

“A Class Apart” is not without some intrigue. There’s freakish math whiz Milo, who’s only 10 but already on a high-school track; his teacher Mr. Siwanowicz, brilliant but chronically depressed and living with his parents; slight, self-destructive Jane, who shoots heroin and pens some of the most incisive poetry her English teacher has ever read. But all this obscures the larger picture, which is that Stuy is a factory turning out super-students — that is, students who live and die by test scores, rankings, GPAs and the various rituals of college prep, preferably Ivy League. Klein’s students are likable, sweet but dull; they risk nothing. I expected more from genius.

The chapter “Open House,” a quick profile of Stuy’s demographics, bolsters Kozol’s argument that diversity has become an elastic idea that means whatever people want it to mean. According to Klein, in a city where 70% of public school students are black and Latino, Stuy has 2% black enrollment and Asians account for 55% of the student body. To Klein, these are simply facts, not a paradox. Of the three black students he follows in the book, two are apolitical and, as it happens, biracial. (Klein’s emphasis on this is bothersome — is his point that being half-white makes these students better than black? More deserving?) Nor does Klein challenge a reverence among his subjects for the American dream, a writ of individual hyper-achievement that has supplanted an ambitious but short-lived American dream of integration. Klein uses problematic words such as “quotas” when he addresses criticisms of Stuy’s lack of diversity. To Klein, having Asians, Russians and gays on campus is diversity. He is not wrong, but his vision is incomplete.

In his epilogue, Klein lauds Stuy for its solid Jeffersonian ideals. “The founding father,” he says, “believed in the ideal of making education available to every citizen as a way to ward off tyranny, but he also believed in fostering an aristocracy of talent.” Klein wants it both ways in public school, which is admirable, but what he doesn’t or refuses to realize is that aristocracy beats availability hands down. “Aristocracy” is not simply about money: Plenty of Stuy parents are of modest means. But they are repeatedly characterized as hard-working, immigrant cabdrivers and deli owners who cherish education; by implication, native blacks and poor Latinos living beyond Stuy’s multimillion-dollar facade do not.

But back to commonality. Among Kozol’s more uplifting chapters, “Teachers as Witnesses,” is an open letter to educators, reminding them that they are natural activists and agitators and that despite the education-industrial complex, they should never shy away from that role. He tells a story of how he once read Langston Hughes’ poetry to his students, to great response, and subsequently got fired because Hughes’ poetry was “out of compliance.” Kozol says teachers must always question compliance, an attitude certainly shared by the unorthodox teachers at Stuy whom Klein so affectionately describes. That kind of intellectual activism is as much the job of a teacher at a vaunted school as it is for a teacher anywhere else: Compliance can be used to maintain an unsatisfactory status quo; it can allow low expectations to masquerade as high ones. Schools like Stuy internalized this decades ago, but many others have not. Summing up the students’ grueling year and the liberation of graduation, Klein remarks: “There is only what lies ahead.” How different that sentence plays in Roxbury. U.S. education, alas, is far from being one story.

Erin Aubry Kaplan is a contributing editor to The Times’ Opinion page.

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‘Letters to a Young Teacher’

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