Jonathan Kozol, the award-winning author and moral authority on inequities in American public education, will be speaking at the Power Center for the Performing Arts this evening. It is important for students to hear what Kozol has to say. He speaks with a profound knowledge of American schools, based in the research for his books, as well as his own experience as a teacher. To thoughtful citizens, the implication of Kozol’s argument extend far beyond public schoolyards – and into the realm of higher education.

Sarah Royce

Though books such as “Death at an Early Age” and “Savage Inequalities,” Kozol has for decades brought the nation’s attention to the gap between its rhetoric of equal opportunity for all and the reality of an education system that too often fails to help those already disadvantaged. Kozol’s new book, “The Shame of a Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America,” focuses on the increasing segregation of our public schools today.

More than 50 years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregated school systems were illegal in Brown v. Board of Education, many minority students continue to attend schools that can only be described as both separate and unequal. De facto residential segregation often condemns minority students in urban areas to underfunded, crumbling schools – a fact that should not surprise students from the Detroit metropolitan area, which is the most segregated region in the nation.

The prevalent segregation of public education – what Kozol calls apartheid schooling – hardly receives the attention it merits in a political climate more concerned with making sure taxes are low and gays are unable to marry. Remembering the white backlash that frequently accompanied court-ordered bussing integration plans, politicians just avoid the topic. Instead, they offer unhelpful proposals for reforming education in urban schools, such as trying to increase accountability by instituting mandatory testing – which, as Kozol points out, often leads to a lifeless, rote curriculum of teaching to the test.

Restricting children’s interactions with members of other races by educating them in largely segregated schools does little to improve race relations in a nation with a sad history of racial oppression and violence. And the low-quality education minority students too often receive strikes at the core of the American ideal that this is a land of equal opportunity.

The Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, which would prohibit affirmative action in University admissions, will appear on the ballot next year. As campus groups both for and against affirmative action marshal arguments supporting their vision of a just society, we all need to take heed of the staggering inequalities that exist in our primary and secondary schools.

Opponents of affirmative action will argue that equal opportunity means race should never be a factor in college admissions. That argument would be far more convincing if our society provided a public education of equal quality to all children, regardless of their parents’ skin color or wealth. As long as such disparities exist, the need for affirmative action will remain.

Despite the encouraging anecdotes about dedicated teachers and individual students fighting to overcome the odds that dot Kozol’s writings, it is difficult to walk away from his work about our schools without feeling that something is profoundly wrong with our society. It is particularly disturbing that our society’s indifference to educational inequality in its schools seems to be increasing faster than the inequality itself. By paying attention to these issues and talking about them, students can help reverse that trend.

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