Jonathan Kozol

Keynote Speaker

Title of talk: Fire in the Ashes: The Deepening Crisis in Our Public Schools — Victims and Survivors

Time and Location: Oct. 17, 7:00 p.m., Shafer Auditorium, Allegheny College

Co-sponsored by Allegheny’s Black Studies, Values Ethics and Social Action (VESA), and Women’s Studies programs along with the William Beazell Memorial Fund.

Biography: In the passion of the civil rights campaigns of 1964 and 1965, Jonathan Kozol gave up the prospect of a promising and secure career within 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 within our public schools to every child, of whatever racial origin or economic level. He is, at the present time, the most widely read and highly honored education writer in America.

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. Now regarded as a classic by educators, it has sold more than two million copies in the United States and Europe. Among the other major works that he has written since are Rachel and Her Children, a study of homeless mothers and their children, which received the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award for1989, 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, was featured on the Oprah Winfrey Show and 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 powerful expose of conditions he found in nearly 60 public schools in 30 different districts, 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, which appeared on the New York Times best-seller list the week that it was published, has since joined Amazing Grace, Savage Inequalities, and Death at an Early Age as required reading at most universities.

On August 28, Jonathan will publish Fire in the Ashes, the major book of his career, a powerful and stirring culmination of the stories he has told over a quarter-century about the children of the poorest urban neighborhood in the United States. Fire in the Ashes follows these children out of their infancy, through the struggles of their adolescence, into their young adulthood. Some of their stories are painful and heart-breaking, but others are thrilling and dramatic tributes to the courage and audacity of fascinating children who refuse to be defeated by the gross inequalities of U.S. education and arrive at last at gloriously  unpredictable and triumphal victories. Fire in the Ashes is a sweeping narrative—early critics say it reads like a compelling novel–but the stories are interwoven with the crisis in our public schools and the decency of teachers who fight against the odds to defend the dignity of kids who are largely written off by our society.

When he is not with children and teachers in their classrooms, or at universities speaking to our future teachers, Jonathan is likely to be found in Washington, where he has spent much of the past two years attempting to convince his friends within the Senate leadership to radically revise the punitive federal testing law No Child Left Behind.

Jonathan received a summa cum laude degree in English literature from Harvard in 1958, after which he was awarded a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford University. He has been called “today’s most eloquent spokesman for America’s disenfranchised.” But he believes that children speak most eloquently for themselves; and in his newest book, so full of the vitality of youth, we hear their testimony.