Archive for October, 2008

The Schtick of Jonathan Kozol

October 4, 2008

The Reviews

By  S. H. Pearson

     This critique was course-work that I submitted for graded credit in a required class.  Keep in mind that I was courting academic credit, but had to open both barrels on this one.

     Without literacy there can be no democracy.  This appears to be the theme of Dr. Kozol’s excerpt from his book Illiterate America.  In his opening paragraph the author delves into a quote from James Madison that charges a society cannot govern itself without the accessibility of knowledge.  Fair enough.

     After French planters handed over the reins of government to new freedmen in Haiti, bedlam and poverty ensued.  Despite the well-intended Constitution of 1805, what happened in Haiti is an example of how illiteracy can thwart the self-government of a people.  Emperor Jacques Dessalines’ utopian hopes were fast truncated.  The fall of Haiti’s infant government would support the statement made by one of our Founding Fathers, James Madison:

     A people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives.  A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both (Kozol, 347).


     Embracing the obvious givens of Kozol’s excerpt, there is an arguable sentence at the end of paragraph four.  He affirms that “…at best, of those two thirds whose wealth, skin color, or parental privilege allows them opportunity to profit from the provocation and instruction of the written word” (Kozol, 347).  Public schools are free to even the most impoverished inner-city children.  There is no excuse for not learning to read in these United States.  In the rural areas, likewise, every child is afforded the opportunity of a free public education.  A former slave, Frederick Douglas, used his wiles to learn to read against the greatest odds.  Desire is a strong propellant.  These days there is no slavery and the glistening pool of academe is ready to receive any willful swan-diver.

     For illiterates, voting is precarious at best.  They must depend on word-of-mouth advice for their candidate choices.  More often they sit out the opportunity to vote, dejected by their ignorance.  Hence, they are not represented.  This is well developed in Kozol’s excerpt.  The author calls illiterates “half-citizens” due to this premise.

     The many pitfalls of illiteracy are covered and well developed.  This is illustrated in why parenting cannot be well done by illiterates.  They are at the mercy of a reading society when it comes to ordering from a restaurant menu.  They cannot read medical instructions on prescription drug labels.  They must guess at what foods they are buying at the grocery stores if the food is in cans or other obscuring containers. 

     When it comes to traveling they are geographically paralyzed.  They cannot read maps, road signs or street names.  Many illiterates lead a life of sitting at home because they do not even have a driver’s license.  Many country women suffer this fate because they are ashamed to take the driver’s test.  To study the driver’s manual one needs to be able to read.  The test these days is taken on computer with the written word ruling the day.  Even in urban America, if one can get by using public transit, he must still be able to read in order to decide which subway or bus stop to take.  Kozol supports his discussion of travel pitfalls very well.

     Kozol’s claim in paragraph 32 is inappropriate.  He asserts that the U. S. Government is guilty of “malign neglect” in the area of this widespread illiteracy.  To this one might pose “do we not have public school systems?”  His claim here is not well-supported.  The government cannot just wave a magic wand over a host of underachievers who are too slovenly of mind to embrace the literacy that is free of cost and guaranteed to everyone.  It takes personal effort from each individual in order to learn anything.  The government cannot be blamed for those who choose to become denizens of mediocrity, and worse even than that, non-functioning illiterates. 

     In summary, Kozol bewails a situation that is what it is based on demographics.  In Capitalism there is a certain “sink or swim” factor that exposes reality.  If Kozol wants to over-simplify this and say that it’s all about skin colour, he is free to do so with the rest of the apologists.  Dude, we already have a welfare state that fosters under-acheivers, single mothers and cradles criminals.  What more do you want? 

     It can’t be Communism?  Because Communism dictates “To the State according to your abilities — from the State according to your needs.”  That would sink your whiny little boat altogether.  The Commies would never fund your schtick.

     Looks like we’re back to square one then, Mr. Kozol — where one reaps what one sows.  If one sows nothing, one reaps nothing.