Jonathan Kozol’s Tactics for Teachers: How to Challenge the School System

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Jonathan Kozol’s Tactics for Teachers: How to Challenge the School System

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 11, No. 6, November/December 1979, p. 26–27

Jonathan Kozol is a familiar name within the circles of alternative education. As teacher and author1, Kozol has experienced many facets of the public school system and has had a great deal of personal contact with administrators, teachers, parents and students. Recently he has completed a manuscript entitled “Fighting Back”, in which he speaks to the frustrations and feelings of ineffectiveness of many educators and concerned individuals. Kozol offers in his text an entire strategy for change ranging from subversive activities within the classroom to small victories within one’s community. Not surprisingly, Kozol’s faithful publishers, Houghton-Mifflin and Bantam Books, refuse to publish and distribute his handbook.

Kozol is well aware of the problems in American society and its public school system. Solutions require skill in developing political awareness, time-consuming work, patience, and a specific plan based upon small gradual steps. One other requirement in the mechanism towards social change, and the most important, is people. a great number of people with common concerns seeking a common goal. This too is something Kozol has become acquainted with in his years of traveling and meeting people:

It would be deceptive to attempt to build a sense of common cause where none exists. Wherever it does exist, however—but where people who have most to gain through recognition of that common cause don’t know that it exists—then it seems that we are in an ideal “breakthrough situation.”

Organization of these people is also a key factor in working toward social change:

Clearly, then, with something more than accidental preparation parents, kids and teachers can develop sweeping and long-lasting power to transform their schools.

Following is a summary of 20 tactics that Kozol includes in his manuscript. These can be used in the classroom setting and many can be adapted for science classes.

1. Expose the purpose of the schools by quoting a) famous educators such as Horace Mann. For example:

… in regards to those who possess the largest shares … of worldly goods, could there, in your opinion, be any police so vigilant and effective, for protection of all the rights of person, property and character, as such a … system of common schools could be made to impart … Would not the payment of a sufficient tax to make such training universal, be the cheapest means of self-protection and insurance?

b) certain Boards of Education such as Arizona: “It is not the job of the schools to create a new social order … ” The job is to “augment a child’s love of country, ideals of the home … ”

c) school regulations for curriculum content to point out that “schools exist to serve the flag they fly”.

2. Speak out in the first person; let students realize that teachers have feelings and emotions. Include in this process discussion of personal experiences that differ from curriculum textbooks.

3. Expose the myth of history and the story of “progress”. Teach an alternative history—that of the ordinary man and woman—generally a buried viewpoint. Example: Thoreau.2

4. Make students realize it is okay to say no. Teach them to question the contents and habits of classes, schools, and societies that demand unquestioned obedience. A teacher’s own political involvement can set the best example.

5. Break the myth of the infallible authority figure. Show that someone like a teacher can be wrong by inviting another teacher(s) with whom you disagree into the classroom and debate an issue in front of the class.

6. Introduce alternative materials, including radical books (SftP materials), films, music, etc.

7. Quote extreme views of the radical patriots and radical scientists that you learn about from the alternative materials.

8. Include more women’s history: e.g., Emma Goldman, Helen Keller, Dorothy Day. (See the article by Margaret Alic in this issue of SftP for more information).

9. Open school records to students, let them see what’s been said about them.

10. Expose the carefully planned learning and “discovering” that students undergo by giving them the Teacher’s Guide to various curricula.

11. Write a textbook with the students. Demonstrate that we are part of history and anyone can create it. Examine textbook formats and viewpoints.

12. Involve students in real struggles within the community and in the investigation of the underlying politics. For example, help at a daycare center, recycle discarded bottles, or work with a tenants’ council.

13. Confront painful contradictions: face up to and deal with those of us who are well off and those of us who aren’t, those who exploit and those who are exploited.

14. Resist the Pledge of Allegiance. Compare what it says with what really exists. Document your resistance, write a new pledge.

15. Teach about repression and U.S. imperialism in what textbooks call the “Free World”, Latin America, etc.3

16. Become involved with struggles within your community. Seek small but visible victories. Picket a racist organization or a company that is polluting the environment: organize a mass mailing to a government representative concerning a local issue.

17. Build coalitions with parents, students and teachers: share school records, honesty and friendship: unionize: form teacher centers.

18. Teach hardcore basic skills.

19. Take issues to court, such as refusing to say the Pledge of Allegiance. Use the press and TV.

20. Don’t fear taking initiative and following through

>> Back to Vol. 11, No. 6<<


  1. Kozol has written three books that we’ve found especially valuable: Death at an Early Age (Bantam Books, NY 1968), The Night is Dark and I Am Far From Home (Houghton-Mifflin, Boston, 1975), and Children of the Revolution (Delacorte Press, NY, 1978).
  2. An Underhanded History of the USA. by Nick Thorkelson and Jim O’Brien, available from New England Free Press, 60 Union Sq., Somerville MA 02143. $2.00.The History Book, Pal Rydberg and Gittan Jonsson et al, 1974. Available from Midnight Special, 13351, West Washington Blvd., Venice, CA 90291.$5.95.
  3. The Washington Connection and Third World Fascism (The Political Economy of Human Rights, Vol. 1), by Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman. South End Press, Box 68, Astor Station, Boston, MA 02123. $5.50.