"Lift every voice and sing, till earth and heaven ring, ring with the harmonies of liberty ..."
"Lift Every Voice and Sing" has long been known as the Negro National Anthem. I wonder how our nation would be different if we had made this song the official national anthem. What if we celebrated unity in the beautiful words of James Weldon Johnson instead of glorifying "the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air?" Imagine!
Jonathan Kozol's new book, The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America (Crown), deplores America's failure to imagine a system of public schools where all children's voices would be lifted together.
Better than almost any other school critic, Kozol explicates the relation of education to power by contrasting the kind of education given generously to children of privilege with schooling that is made available for poor children — especially children of color in big cities.
Kozol's subject is the hypersegregation of schools today in America's metropolitan areas. Statistics demonstrate stark trends. While privileged White children attend schools together in middle-class and wealthy suburbs, poor children — and especially poor children of color — attend under-funded and majority-Black or majority-Hispanic schools in the urban core.
What messages do schools convey to their students?
"The insult to aesthetics, the affront to cleanliness and harmony and sweetness, are continuing realities… for children who must go each morning into morbid-looking buildings in which few adults other than their teachers would agree to work day after day," Kozol writes. "There is no misery index for the children of apartheid education. There ought to be; we measure almost every other aspect of the lives they lead in school."
Here are the words of a girl studying at Fremont High School in California: "Why is it,' she asked, 'that students who do not need what we need get so much more? And we who need it so much more get so much less?"
The children interviewed by Kozol clearly understand the messages their schools teach them about their own worth.
Kozol laments the widespread emergence in inner city schools of a dumbed-down curriculum based on rote memorization, reward and punishment and relentless drilling of rudimentary skills. He points out the irony of the disparity between the language educators use to describe the expectations they hold for their students and the reality: "Although the principals and teachers in these schools are constantly reminded to hold out high expectations for low-income children, I thought the expectations here were very low… . The intellects of children were debased when they were asked to parrot language that they did not understand and weren't invited to explore and figure out."
Kozol believes that much of today's school reform, an exercise in improving separate schools, is no more than an acquiescence to the world-view of Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 U.S. Supreme Court decision that justified school segregation as "separate but equal." Segregation allows those who would experiment to do it on somebody else's children.
When such experimentation happens in city schools in an environment of grossly diminished spending on the education of poor children, Kozol believes the result proves the wisdom of the1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v.Board of Education: "In the field of public education, the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place … . Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal."
In light of the emergence of a rote-rudimentary curriculum for poor children and an enriched curriculum that stimulates critical thinking and the imagination for more privileged children, Kozol despairs that our schools are further separating the experiences of demographic groups of children: "The further these two roads divide, the more severe and routinized these race-specific pedagogies may become, the harder it will be to find a place of common ground … ."
Kozol's newest book is the 11th in a series that began with Death at an Early Age in 1967. For nearly 40 years, these books have documented our national failure to realize the promise of Brown.
"Virtually all the children of Black and Hispanic people in the cities that I visited, both large and small, were now attending schools in which their isolation was as absolute as it had been for children in the school in which I'd started out so many years before ...," Kozol writes. "If we have agreed to live with this reality essentially unaltered for another generation or for several generations yet to come, I think ... we need to recognize that our acceptance of a dual education system will have consequences that may be no less destructive than those we have seen in the past century."
The Shame of the Nation is a very sad book, but there remains a chance to rectify the injustices explicated here. The choice is ours. Will we imagine a future where all children in the United States can lift their voices to sing together?
The Rev. Jan Resseger is the United Church of Christ's minister for Public Education and Witness.