This essay is reproduced here as it appeared in the print edition of the original Science for the People magazine. These web-formatted archives are preserved complete with typographical errors and available for reference and educational and activist use. Scanned PDFs of the back issues can be browsed by headline at the website for the 2014 SftP conference held at UMass-Amherst. For more information or to support the project, email email@example.com
A Review of The Night Is Dark and I Am Far From Home
by Ann Arbor SftP Science Teaching Group
Listen! We just read an incredible book. It’s called The Night Is Dark and I Am Far From Home, and it’s by Jonathan Kozol. Kozol demands that we gaze unflinchingly at the source of our feelings of impotence about changing society- the public school system. As Paul Simon once observed, “As I look back on all the crap I learned in high school, it’s a wonder I can think at all.” The success of high schools in teaching students not to think is astounding.
What did we learn in school today? Kozol says that we learned about how most of the world is hungry and poor, but that has nothing to do with the fact that our parents make $20,000 a year and live in suburbia. We learned about how famous people like Martin Luther King have changed the world, but how we could never aspire to such actions. We learned about how to listen to an expert’s opinion, but not how to listen to ourselves. How often have we heard that we are being too radical and must compromise, that we shouldn’t be so emotional and should talk about things rationally?
How can we be rational and unfeeling about mass murder and starving peasants? Why must we compromise on issues of freedom from hunger and oppression, Kozol asks. Even in the most progressive schools, students are allowed the freedom to discuss issues, but action is discouraged. The normal “solution” to problems is “write your congressman” or an exhaustive series of bureaucratic meetings where we are politely heard and equally politely refused. Nothing Is Changed! We must stop deluding ourselves that “things are getting better.” They’re not. As Kozol points out, the conditions of the poor are not better than they were 20 years ago. In general, they’re worse. Yet the school system insists that we’re making progress.
The inequities of our present system survive, and to a great extent we have the public school system to thank for that. Kozol stresses that we are taught not to rock the boat and that the system we have now is fine and will correct itself. Our history books, which could be inherently radicalizing, are bland. They present history, not as a series of struggles to free people from oppression, but as a mere accounting of the “facts.” Radicals and revolutionaries become detoxified. For example, Helen Keller, that kind and courageous blind and deaf woman, could never have said of war, “the few who profit from the labor of the masses want to organize the workers into an army that will protect their interests.” But she did. That, though, is not something the school system wants to teach you. In The Night Is Dark, Kozol destroys our naivete about the function of the public school system in America.
So where does that leave us? Our next step is to have confidence in our power to change things and then to begin changing them. Unfortunately, on this point, Kozol is unclear. He gives us little direction as to the kinds of actions he feels are most useful and what little he suggests is dubious. He states, for example, that those who enjoy the privileges of being middle class are as guilty of oppression as those who have both money and power in our society. He argues that that money is acquired by exploitation and thus we must stop enjoying those privileges in order to stop our oppression and relieve ourselves of our guilt.
But relinquishing our access to good medical care because many can’t get it does little to change that fact. In addition, guilt-tripping people is not the most effective way of motivating them towards political action. His real purpose, to make individuals take on the responsibility for social change rather than continually shirking it, becomes lost. He feels that asking for specific actions from radicals is too often an excuse for inaction (“If you don’t have a better plan, then don’t say anything”) and he apparently is writing a book of concrete ideas for change in the classroom (tentatively entitled Fighting Back). But the lack of solutions in the book is painfully evident.
One other fault is that the book is written for middle to upper class people. Perhaps this was intentional since they are most likely to read it and maybe more prone to radicalization by the book. Also, he does show how liberal reforms (like free schools) that the middle class finds so appealing are equally stifling, which is an important point to make. But how should the poor who can’t enjoy the luxuries of a free school relate to Kozol’s critique?
It is also necessary to criticize Kozol’s sexist use of pronouns. Despite his apologies in the preface, his use of “he” for the child and “she” for the teacher perpetuates the current usages and stereotypes and is inexcusable.
In spite of our misgivings, this book is a powerful statement that will be meaningful and thought provoking to many. We therefore highly recommend that you read it.
This article was written by the Science Teaching Group of the Ann Arbor chapter of Science for the People.