This is a book like very few that have been published in our generation. It is a book that tries—in every way a book or author can—to reach beyond the limits of the printed word in order to confront the reader with a concrete mandate and a concrete call to action. Five years in preparation, it has already appeared in Mexico and has been in circulation in the U.S. for the past two years in several thousand Xerox copies of its early draft.
School, writes Jonathan Kozol, is a consumer fraud. It advertises education. What it offers is indoctrination. Its function is not to educate humane and decent people, but safe citizens: “manageable voters, manipulable consumers and, if need be, in the case of war or crisis, willing killers.”
In this, the major work of an already notable career, Kozol scrutinizes and dissects the causes of our nation’s seeming anesthesia in the face of Absolute Evil. How, exactly, he asks, does our education render us incapable of comprehension, and prevention, of the murders and atrocities that are committed in our name?
Unlike both his earlier books, The Night is Dark… speaks less of the destructive education of the victim of the U.S. social order, more of the desensitizing education of the victimizer; less of the well-documented torment of the slumlord’s tenant, more of the indoctrination of the slumlord’s children. Its subject is the education of the children of the rich.
In the aftermath of visits to approximately forty cities, coast to coast, Kozol concludes that nine tenths of the present literature on school reform is either naïve or dishonest. Innovations that amount to nothing more than “open” classrooms, gerbil cages and bright paint are insubstantial. Their only function is “to make the prison cells more pleasant—and the bars less visible.”
Some will view this as a book on education; others, as work on ethics; still others, as straightforward manifesto. It is all these in part, yet it is also something else. It is a document of almost unabated indignation—and sustained rebellion—in a decade of ordeal.
Praise for The Night is Dark
Barbara Hoctor, NBC News
“A chilling indictment of our public school system as systematic, intentional brainwashing which teaches our children too well how to obey—not to think, question, and disobey.”
“A courageous cry of the heart—both strength and solace.”
“Jonathan Kozol’s best book so far and terribly important.”
John Howard Griffin, Author of Black Like Me
“Jonathan Kozol is one of the most brilliant, brave and humane thinkers we have. In The Night is Dark and I am Far From Home, he uses his powerful gifts to clarify issues that torment so many of us these days. I am personally grateful…for his passionate refusal to equivocate.”
Read an Excerpt:
The Night is Dark
Chapter One: Deceptions of the
U.S. education is by no means an inept, disordered misconstruction. It is an ice-cold and superb machine. It does the job: not mine, not yours perhaps, but that for which it was originally conceived. It is only if we try to lie and tell ourselves that the true purpose of a school is to inspire ethics, to provoke irreverence or to stimulate a sense of outrage at injustice and despair, that we are able to evade the fact that public school is a spectacular device, flawed beyond question but effective beyond dreams. The problem is not that public schools do not work well, but that they do.
The first and primary function of the U.S. public school is not to educate good people, but good citizens. It is the function which we call—in enemy nations—“state indoctrination.” In speaking of the U.S.S.R., for example, we feel little hesitation to apply this term like “socialization” may temporarily dignify and, in some ways, complexify the process. It does not, however, make that process either less debilitating or less brutal in its impact on our children.
Three points seem essential to establish before going on:
1. There is, to start with, a familiar liberal defense. “Don’t we need some sort of social ‘glue’ to hold us all together in one land?”
This is naïve and, in certain situations, consciously diversionary question. It is, of course, the truth that social order finds some ways to socialize young people. The fact becomes important, and the question of the power of the school becomes intense and urgent only is we feel that there is something, in particular, destructive, evil or dehumanizing in of socialization or, on another level, in the kind of life defined as normal in this nation.
I am not opposed to the idea of adult “imposition” on the minds of children. Indeed, I am convinced that there is no way by which to overcome such imposition. The Afro-Indian scholar, JoaoCoutinho, has established the transparent truth of this in writing published in the Harvard Educational Review five years ago.” There is no neutral education,” he observed. “Education is either for domestication or for freedom.” I know very well that I can spare myself objections in some liberal readers if I will agree to blur this point and to adopt instead the customary code-words of romantic child-adulation: “Kids are neat. Why don’t we let them be, to grow, and blossom, and explore, according to their own organic and spontaneous needs?” To me, this statement strains all credibility. “Spontaneous Growth” does not exist within a nation governed by stage-managed views. There is either the uncontested bias of the state or else—in those combative situations which I seek at every chance to bring about—a number of forms of counter-imposition, competition, provocation, dialectic. Whether we choose this loaded labeled (“dialectic”) or one of the less intimating terms, the point at this stage can be summarized in a few words: I am not in political or pedagogical opposition to the risk of adult imposition on a child’s mind. I am in the strongest possible opposition to the present social order of the U.S. and for this reason only, to the lies which are inevitably purveyed by schools which sand in service to its flag and anthem.
2. There is a viewpoint, popularized by many authors now, that schools may be “a good deal less decisive” in the evolution of a child’s life, or ideology, or income, than was previously believed. This point of view, which has some merit in specific subject-areas, is not relevant to this book. The question here is not if school is (or is not) the one, most potent and effective means of ideological and ethical manipulation in the land. It is enough that schools do exercise a devastating impact in the realm of moral values and political indoctrination. Whether the root-cause lies in the “whole economic system,” in homes, in neighborhoods, in T.V. studios or in the boardroom or large corporations, the bias of the school itself is clearly anti-ethical and anti-human. If certain evils (hard self-interest, for example) do not start within the public school, then it is clear at least that they are deepened and authenticated there. It is pointless, therefore, to debate the possible degree to which we now confront, in public school, a “prime mover” or a law-mandated ally of the murderous values which prevail within the nation as a whole.
Words like these should not astonish us. School historians point out that, from the first, school indoctrination was not intended but one open, clear-cut and consistent function of the public schools. Horace Mann, addressing himself primarily to business interests during 1844, made the argument for public school as agent of indoctrination and class stratification in straightforward terms: “Finally, in regard to those who possess the largest shares in the stock of worldly goods, could there, in your opinion, be any police so vigilant and effective, for the protection of all the rights of person, property and character, as such a sound and comprehensive education and training as our 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?”
It is apparent to us all that there are many other forms of self-protection for the ruling class. Wherever else, however, there is ideological bias in the field of forces that surround a child as he grows up in this land, all but school are random, casual and inconsistent. Only public school presents a law-mandated, certified, non-optional realm of childhood-indoctrination. For those who are children of the very rich, in prep schools governed by Trustees instead of School Boards, there is a parallel version of indoctrination. Somewhat more subtle, it is also more effective. The bias of both, however, is the same.
3. Teachers often speak today, and at great length, of wishing to see the public school less rigid, less oppressive in its operation, more “free,” more “democratic” and the like. Yet they are not willing to confront, at the same time, the one, exclusive and historic function of a system that runs counter to these goals. It is not even the benevolent case of “getting done some buts of good right here and now in pleasant, non-subversive ways,” as wistful teachers often say, ”even If we have to wait to deal with larger issues until later on.” If it were this, the willingness to get down on the floor with kids and loosen up the mood and have some fun, it would, from a kindly point of view, be unassailable.
I am convinced, however, that, far from real liberation, such as process, if divorced from larger goals, does the reverse. It does not break the bars, but fashions them more strong while rendering less visible. It does not undermine the basic function of the school, but helps to save it from important condemnation by the introduction of bright-colored paint, soft cushions, gerbil cages.
“School,” Jules Henry has written, “is an institution for drilling children…The early schooling process is not successful unless it has accomplished in the child an acquiescence in its criteria, unless the child wants to think the way the school has taught him to think.”
The lip service paid today wot words like “open education,” out of keeping with that pretense of free options that has long been useful to the process of indoctrination, must not delude us as to the real goals for which our schools exist. Rather, it should serve as a reminder that indoctrination, in a nation dedicated to the idea of free conscience, must be far more subtle than in nations that are openly totalitarian. In a social order such as ours, Galbraith has said, people need to think themselves unmanaged, independent, free, if they are to be controlled with maximum success.
The point seems of special import in the present decade, when so many people are expending vast amounts of time to make the school appear less binding than before. I do not believe that many of these women and these men are grateful to be told exactly what is that they are really doing. What that is, in my own view, is to assist the process, well-described by Galbraith and Jules Henry, of enabling the imprisoned to feel free and the crippled to interpret their toe-movements as real ambulation
Schools that have evolved the most sophisticated pretenses of freedom are often those whose pupils are least free, and educators who devise the most intriguing methods of “free learning” are today the most effective narcotizers that we have. “Educationalists,” Jules Henry has observed, “have attempted to free the school from drill…always choosing the most obvious ‘enemy’ to attack…With every enemy destroyed, new ones are installed…educators think that when they have made arithmetic or spelling into a game; made it unnecessary for children to ‘sit up straight’; defined the relationship between teacher and children as democratic; and introduced plants, fish, and hamsters into schoolrooms, they have settled the problem of drill. They are mistaken.”
The statement is true. It is for this reason that I find some of the most intriguing work of those of my colleagues I admire most, so dangerous. Their greatest contributions stand today in the same relationship to freedom as those of Einstein did to the preservation of life. Bruner’s discoveries about how people acquire information and remember it, John Holt’s view on how our children fail and how they learn, are now being used by corporations such as I.B.M., Xerox, and E.D.C. in order to develop the most clever methods ever known to teaching children how to phantasize a sense of freedom that does not exist. Scott Foresman, and my old schoolteacher with her foolish list of “favorite modifiers,” seem innocent indeed beside the skillful methodologies of his new age of Innovative Bondage.
To put on blinders, and pretend we do not see his point, is too much like the willingness to co-exist with knowledge of an operable cancer. If we are to live our lives as honest people, we cannot work with teachers and develop classroom methods and materials for their use unless we simultaneously set out to introduce specific strategies for raising consciousness about the function which those teachers are compelled to carry out—and then assist them in the struggle to transform the function. We cannot play the disingenuous game of trying to participate in trivial and non-substantial innovation, while hoping to “slip in a little hint of ethics now and then, when nobody is looking.” We cannot do this if, in fact, we know that schools do not exist with these ideals in mind and that even those state-authorized “alternatives” which School Boards now and then allow will be permitted only if they serve priorities that are not ours. To cruise along, make prettier classrooms and less candidly manipulative tools, if at the same time we perceive the prime indoctrinational purpose of the schools and are not willing to engage in realistic tactics to confront this goal, is to decorate the evil we perceive with charm, and to invalidate our own worth.
In my belief, few books on education published in the past ten years are ethical books. They are not ethical because they are not invocations to lived visions. They tell of challenges, refer to agonies, comment on difficulties. They do not ask an answer in the form of action from the reader. Their power begins and ends within the world of words and paragraphs alone.
If the present book does not compel transformed behavior, in the life of its own author and in that of its authentic reader too, then it does not merit the expense of labor which it now commands and has commanded for the past five years; nor can it justify the pain and anguish I would with it to provoke within the conscience of an undefended reader.
People who are looking for “a lot of interesting ideas,” and hope to dabble here for a little more, offend the other and degrade themselves. They would do well to stop right now. Those who read in order to take action on their consequent beliefs—these are the only readers I respect or look for. Atrocities, real and repeated, proliferate within this social order. The deepest of all likes in our will not to respond to what we see before us. When we declare that we are troubled with the lockstep life that has been charted for us by the men and women who now govern and control our public schools, what we are doing is to state our disavowal of an evil and unwanted patrimony. We are not living in an ordinary time, but in an hour of intense and unrelenting pain for so many human beings. It is not good enough to favor justice in high literacy flourish and to feel compassion for the victims of the very system that sustain our privileged position. We must be able to disown and disavow that privileged position. If we cannot we are not ethical men and women, and do not lead lives worth living.