Jonathan Kozol and America's Public School Dilemma
Sharing His Enthusiasm
Late last year, I attended an event for Creative Nonfiction Week at the place I complain a lot about taking up much of my time: Columbia College Chicago. I went to see renowned educational activist, Jonathan Kozol, speak to a crowd of students and teachers one night downtown. Jonathan, now 72, continues his tireless fight for the rights and needs of children; how our nation's public schools are nothing short of blatantly ignored. He's written many books about his experiences in city schools (which all should check out immediately: Death at an Early Age, Savage Inequalities), garnishing him a number of awards and putting the issue on the national political agenda.
This man's speech moved me. Covering a broad and disturbing rap sheet, he stressed the importance of art and creativity within the lives of children, how these classes are the first to be quashed when funding is staggeringly low. He stressed how minorities are the first (and arguably only) to suffer, and how pay and recognition for our public school teachers is so nearly nonexistent that worthy educators often find themselves seeking other work. The effect: kids are left with no adult they trust will stick around. It's a brooding cycle that feeds into its own downward spiral and ultimately strangles the childhoods of far too many.
Regarding much of his travels to inner-city public schools, he stressed that on the walls of kindergarten classrooms were not the cut-out paper hands of the children or colorful student drawings, but "mission statements" about discipline and the state of the market (yeah, kids know what "the market" is), and even advertisements for companies like Kraft Foods.
But his doomsday speech was interlaced with humor and heartfelt memories. Like when he read poetry by Langston Hughes to a second grade class, the children absolutely enthralled. How one child, a young girl who had been particularly wary of Kozol since his start teaching there, ended up memorizing another poem by Hughes, reciting it to the class the very next day. His heart bloomed, as did mine when he spoke.
In the end, Kozol was fired from that school because of that instance, for "deviating from the proposed reading," but it remains one of his proudest memories.
The power of a poem by someone you can relate to is something every person should experience. The earlier, the better. The fact is clear: children's needs are the same across the globe, no matter their race or ethnicity, and kids need creativity.
Now, all of this had me thinking. Recalling a recent tirade about how the general public feels estranged from the artistic realm, I left the seminar with new perspective on this issue: people don't appreciate art because something doesn't connect with them at an early age. We all know the brains of children are sponges, soaking up and retaining nearly everything that passes through their ears. So I don't know how it didn't occur to me sooner that not having art class in kindergarten or beyond paves the way for not appreciating the creative realm later in life.
It is because our children aren't introduced to their own creativity that they inevitably feel separated from it as they age. Art has now become pretentious, highbrow and borderline snobby, especially writing and the world of painters. People just don't read like they used to. Yes, Netflix, Xbox, and Instagram have a lot to do with it, but so does early education.
But art needs to be relatable. Kids need to be exposed to more than one type of author, or artist, because not everyone can relate to Shakespeare or Hemingway. Don't get me wrong, there is a place for them! They were obviously masters, whom I admire, but there is more to literature and the theater than the likes of them, especially when it comes to a younger audience. There has to be variety. The needs of children may be the same, but the interests and backgrounds are not. If kids aren't exposed to art they can appreciate, they'll grow up not caring about it.
Some of the best books I've ever read were ones I had to think about and it saddens me that most people just don't care to try. And some of those old, white men who died before women could even vote happen to be creative geniuses with ideas that ignite the soul. But, for some reason, it's all been banished to the academic realm. Not all kids relate the same, and teaching as if they do only furthers disengagement.
Isn't art supposed to empower the working class? Isn't literature? Why have these things been exiled to the upper class over the years? Is it because of dwindling public school funding?
I remember writing poetry in my second grade classroom. In third, I remember getting to write my own stories, creating mini novels, complete with binding and a copyright page, and it was especially great because we got to draw pictures for it and design our own covers. In sixth grade, I remember teaming up with a friend and writing a story where the reader must make the decisions for the protagonist and then find the page that shows the result, leading to many different endings. Now that I think about it, I had art class every year.
Children of all ages need assignments like those. Otherwise, the cultural anti-intellectualism so brilliantly displayed in Mike Judge's film, Idiocracy, could one day become reality.
Jonathan Kozol was onto something a long time ago. Children need to be taught art in schools because art is truly the power of the people. Don't let it be what separates us.
© 2009 B DeGroat