On his first visit back to his alma mater in more than 50 years, author and activist Jonathan Kozol told the assembled student body that he knew that reading his books (which include "Death at an Early Age," "Rachel and Her Children," "Savage Inequalities," and "Shame of the Nation") sometimes made students like them feel guilty.
It did seem a bit jarring to see Kozol – who has made a career of studying and writing about the very poorest schools in the United States and the children who attend them – standing in the posh auditorium of Noble and Greenough School, one of Boston's most prestigious private institutions, a school with a 9-to-1 student-faculty ratio, an average class size of only 13, and a 187-acre campus which includes a castle built by famed architect H.H. Richardson.
But Kozol spoke of his own education at Nobles (as the school is known) with nothing but affection. "Nobles prepared me for the work of the world," he told his young audience. "It gave me the courage" to "turn my back on privilege."
From Nobles, Kozol went on to Harvard, studied in Oxford as a Rhodes scholar, went to Paris to write a novel ("The Fume of Poppies," published by Houghton Mifflin in 1958), and then returned to Boston to become a substitute teacher in one of the city's poorest neighborhoods. His experiences there (before he was fired for stepping outside the curriculum to teach his students a poem by Langston Hughes) became the basis for "Death at an Early Age," which went on to sell more than 2 million copies and win a 1968 National Book Award.
Kozol spoke with passion to the Nobles student body about the concern that has driven his career and his books: his outrage over the inequities of US public schools – a situation that he believes has only gotten worse in the 40-plus years that he has been working in the field.
He railed against standardized tests (which he said were devised by "people who are not very happy"), charter schools (which he believes weaken other public schools), and political conservatives like Pat Buchanan. He made the students laugh by assuring those who might be Republicans that, "it's not your fault, you'll recover."
Kozol finished his remarks to the students by urging them to make good use of their time. He praised the school's service programs, but added that "service is charity and charity is not a substitute for systematic justice." Public service, he said, should not be "an end but a starting point."