Orwell, Foucault, and the State of Urban Public Schools

Jonathan Kozol’s recent Harper’s essay, “Still Separate, Still Unequal: America’s Educational Apartheid” is one of those pieces that makes you want to just crawl into a corner and sob–right after you find somebody to shout at because of the terrible pain in your gut.

Documenting years of visits and conversations with children, teachers, principals, and education bureaucrats at state and federal levels, Kozol paints the picture of a nation that is clearly going backwards. Fifty years after the supposed ‘victory’ of Brown v. Board of Education, Kozol shows that civil rights legislation hasn’t erased racism, and that legislation for equality needs to be backed up by tax laws that could actually fund equality–but we all know that in that respect, America is headed down the wrong road. Not even Democrats have the courage to talk about raising taxes anymore! I confess to feeling overwhelmed by the direction this nation is headed. How does this happen?

Kozol provides a stark picture by considering the “head start” that suburban white children get, and shows up the ridiculous language of “accountability” that we get from the “No Child Left Behind” Act:

Three years later, in third grade, these children are introduced to what are known as “high-stakes tests,” which in many urban systems now determine whether students can or cannot be promoted. Children who have been in programs like those offered by the “Baby Ivies” since the age of two have, by now, received the benefits of six or seven years of education, nearly twice as many as the children who have been denied these opportunities; yet all are required to take, and will be measured by, the same examinations. Which of these children will receive the highest scores? The ones who spent the years from two to four in lovely little Montessori programs and in other pastel-painted settings in which tender and attentive and well-trained instructors read to them from beautiful storybooks and introduced them very gently for the first time to the world of numbers and the shapes of letters, and the sizes and varieties of solid objects, and perhaps taught them to sort things into groups or to arrange them in a sequence, or to do those many other interesting things that early childhood specialists refer to as prenumeracy skills? Or the ones who spent those years at home in front of a TV or sitting by the window of a slum apartment gazing down into the street? There is something deeply hypocritical about a society that holds an eight-year-old inner-city child “accountable” for her performance on a high-stakes standardized exam but does not hold the high officials of our government accountable for robbing her of what they gave their own kids six or seven years earlier.

If this isn’t haunting enough, he goes on to provide a picture of urban school regimens that sound like they’re lifted right out of the pages of Foucault’s Discipline and Punish or Orwell’s 1984. The picture is so overwhelming, it’s hard to know how to respond except in a psalm of lament.