In the passion of the civil rights campaigns of 1964 and 1965, Jonathan Kozol gave up the prospect of a promising career in the academic world, moved from Harvard Square into a poor black neighborhood of Boston, and became a fourth grade teacher. He has since devoted nearly his entire life to the challenge of providing equal opportunity to every child in our public schools.
Death at an Early Age, a description of his first year as a teacher, received the 1968 National Book Award in Science, Philosophy, and Religion. Among his other major works are Rachel and Her Children, a study of homeless mothers and their children, which received the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award, and Savage Inequalities, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1992. His 1995 best-seller, Amazing Grace: The Lives of Children and the Conscience of a Nation, received the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 1996, an honor previously granted to the works of Langston Hughes and Dr. Martin Luther King. Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison wrote that Amazing Grace was “good in the old-fashioned sense: beautiful and morally worthy.” Elie Wiesel said, “Jonathan’s struggle is noble. His outcry must shake our nation out of its guilty indifference.”
Ten years later, in The Shame of the Nation, a description of conditions that he found in nearly 60 public schools, Jonathan wrote that inner-city children were more isolated racially than at any time since federal courts began dismantling the landmark ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. The Shame of the Nation appeared on the New York Times bestseller list the week that it was published.
Jonathan’s most recent book on childhood and education is Fire in the Ashes, a sweeping narrative that follows a group of children in a destitute community out of their infancy and elementary grades, through their secondary years, into their late teens, and beyond. Some of their stories are painful and heart-breaking, but others are dramatic tributes to the resilience and audacity of courageous children who refuse to be defeated by the obstacles they face and find their way at last to unexpected and triumphal victories.
This June, Jonathan published his most personal book to date, a story of his father’s life as an eminent physician -- a specialist in disorders of the brain -- and his astonishing ability, at the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, to diagnose himself, explain the causes of his sickness, and then to narrate, step by step, his slow descent into dementia. The title of the book is The Theft of Memory. Reviewers have described it as a poignant and fascinating story of the bond between a father and his son and the way that bond intensifies even as the father’s cogency and verbal gifts progressively abandon him.
To Jonathan’s friends and allies in the world of education: Jonathan wants to make it clear that he does not intend to give up the struggle for our children and the challenges our schools are facing in an era of persistent inequality and obsessive testing. He continues to visit children in their classrooms and to give encouragement to overburdened but devoted principals and teachers. He’s been doing that for over fifty years. He isn’t stopping now.