Jonathan Kozol

Advocate and Author, Fire in the Ashes

Jonathan Kozol

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.  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 for 1989, 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.”

Ten years later, in The Shame of the Nation, a powerful exposé 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 EducationThe 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.

In the fall of 2012, Jonathan published 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 — critics have said 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 his time in recent years trying to free our schools and children from the punitive and unsuccessful federal testing law No Child Left Behind — and to convince his friends within the Senate leadership that an obsessive emphasis on “teaching-to-the-test” is unhealthy for our children and degrading to our teachers.

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.

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