History of Education: Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education, Community Development and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)


Jonathan Kozol Publishes Savage Inequalities

As the 1980s come to a close and the frantic echoes of A Nation at Risklinger in the corridors of America's public schools, the realities of lives and learning within these schools moves further and further away from the foundation of equity and democracy upon which public education in the United States was built. One short year before the presidency moves out of the hands of Republican leadership, Jonathan Kozol's publication of Savage Inequalities exposes the gross disparities existing between public school districts serving the poorest of the poor and the most affluent sectors of American society. And because such economic disparities are often colored by the lines of racial discrimination, single motherhood, and lacking legal protections for youth, Kozol's work also sheds light on overlapping inequalities emergent in public education at the dawn of the 1990s. Such disparities merely reflect the growing gap between rich and poor exacerbated by Reganomics of the previous decade--and the public schools, Kozol shows us, do little to rectify these ongoing American "savage inequalities."

Continuing on a prolific course, Kozol's seventh book follows a long line of powerful writings on education, poverty, homelessness, and hope for the future of young people. In Savage Inequalities, Kozol guides readers through public schools across the United States and introduces us to the lives of children, adolescents, teachers, and administrators who learn and work in them. Through their words and actions, Kozol masterfully brings these people to life, and in the case of the children, forces us to hear and contemplate their dreams and desires for a complete adulthood. While many of these dreams are similar across economic, racial, or gendered lines, we learn that the paths for reaching those futures are unevenly paved.

This is all too clear when Kozol begins to describe the disparate quality of education that exists between poor and rich school districts in the Untied States. Entering schools in East Saint Louis, poverty stricken sectors of New York and Chicago, in the ghettos of Washington D.C., and economically disenfranchised Camden, New Jersey, Kozol describes buildings, faculties, curricula, and school boards that are all but falling apart. School overcrowding forces some classes into bathrooms in these schools; lacking funds make it impossible to teach science labs or have textbooks for students to take home; in other cases rivers of water pour through stairwells because there is simply not enough money in the budget to fix aging plumbing. Meanwhile, in such affluent suburban schools as Chicago's New Trier High or Rye, New York's Morris High, students enjoy the luxuries of campuses boasting newly remodeled auditoriums, student lounges, wood-paneled libraries brimming with books, extensive computer laboratories, and excellent teachers whose average salaries will soon reach $70,000. In these schools, students typically study foreign languages for five years, and approximately 40% of the student body enrolls in Advanced Placement course work. The inequities are salient--the opportunities afforded the children in these separate and unequal school sites as different as day and night.

At the heart of these inequities, and the heart of Savage Inequalities, is the disturbing inequitable allocation of tax dollars to fund schools and school districts in the United States. These economic inequities are gross and inexcusable. For example, in one of the wealthiest districts on New York's Long Island, the per pupil spending amounts to $11,265 annually. Meanwhile, impoverished sectors of New York City see only $5,590 per student--approximately half the amount funneled into the rich school districts. Because of the ways American public schools are funded, Kozol demonstrates, the rich are afforded greater access to knowledge and cultural capital which will insure their continued affluence. Likewise, the poor remain segregated in dwindling public schools whose lack of funding often determines their students will learn little more than how to function in a service-sector economy, or worse yet, to assume a position within the growing underclass of unemployed American citizens. In the end, the price for such disparities need to be considered. As a school principal in the Bronx eloquently puts it:

Will these children ever get what white kids in the suburbs take for granted? I don't think so. If you ask me why, I'd have to speak of race and social class. I don't think the powers that be in New York City understand, or want to understand, that if they do not give these children a sufficient education to lead healthy and productive lives, we will be their victims later on. We'll pay the price someday--in violence, in economic costs. I despair of making this appeal in any terms but these. You cannot issue an appeal to conscience in New York today. The fair play argument won't be accepted. So you speak of violence and hope that it will scare the city into action.

Savage Inequalities is first and foremost an appeal for fairness in American public education--it is an appeal against the foreboding words of this principal in the Bronx. Ultimately, Jonathan Kozol's Savage Inequalities is a work dedicated to insuring that the life of every young person in the United States be afforded dignity, respect, and the hope for worthwhile future. In part, this must begin with an equitable education for all American youth.


Kozol, Jonathan (1991). Savage Inequalities. New York: Crown Publishers.

Prepared by Alison Kreider (UCLA)

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