Savage Inequalities Summary
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A non-fiction, sociological book, Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools (1991) discusses disparities that can be found in America educational system of between schools of different classes and students of different racial backgrounds.
A young man in 1964, Kozol teaches grade school under poor conditions in an inferior school, which is segregated, understaffed, and in terrible physical condition. He loses his job, his first teaching position, when he questions the racial segregation. He leaves the educational field only to tour the schools of America years later, to see if conditions have changed; they have not.
In _____, Kozol goes to the decrepit inner city of East St. Louis, Illinois. Factory sewage and toxic waste are dumped directly into the town. Playgrounds are built of toxic metals, poisoning children. The roof of a cheaply built grade school collapses. The family and friends of students are murdered in violent fights. The schools are mismanaged. Sewage floods the lunchrooms. Shortages of books, chalk, computers, and even toilet paper are expected. Science classes lack tables and test tubes, running water and heat. There is toxic mold; there are no tools for industrial arts. Teachers are underpaid to teach too-large classes. Almost every child is a visible minority. The white schools will not accept them.
In the area of Lawndale, Chicago, where Martin Luther King experienced the worst racism of his life, conditions mirror those of St. Louis—danger and filth in all the non-white schools. There is a distinct focus on the teachers; they are apathetic and underpaid, the only people willing to work for such low wages. The government claims schools do not need more money, but better teaching methods. Kozel strongly disagrees. To prove his point, he highlights one particularly caring, passionate, and dedicated teacher, just down the hall from the uncaring ones. Her methods, he says, are free to be learned. Kozel uses statistics that illustrate thousands more are spent yearly on each white pupil in neighbouring areas. Property taxes determine the money the school is given, meaning rich neighbourhoods are receiving more because of the adjacent suburbs’ value. White schools are known to brag about their almost entirely white student bodies.
Next Kozol visits New York, with near identical results. Within the district, the money spent on outlying suburban schools is more than double that spent on inner city schools. One school is so badly run, the administration does not even know which students have already dropped out. Some admitted they are glad to see dropouts, as it means fewer children to teach. Conservative media adds to this problem, claiming that smaller classes will not affect test scores. This cannot be true, Kozol argues, as the white schools would never agree to enlarge their class sizes.
Kozol visits one of the fancier schools in Rye, New York. He claims that, contrary to students of his time, the privileged children in Rye are indifferent to the challenges non-white students must face.
The next stop is Pyne Jr. High, a local high school in Camden, New Jersey, the fourth poorest area in the United States. Computers are non-existent or have melted because of the extreme heat in unmaintained buildings. African American teachers are surprisingly without hope, as though the situation is inevitable. Children cannot read books because pages are missing, and they are told to give up on their dreams because, in the case of one prominent student, her English was not good enough to become a lawyer. Chemicals from nearby factories cause major untreated illnesses. New Jersey child Raymond Abbott’s parents protest his poor education in court. The State hires expensive lawyers but still loses, but by then it is too late for Raymond, a cocaine addict in jail.
In Washington, DC, a city planner admits that the poor accept the duality between white suburbs and non-white slums only so that the whites—along with their political power and money—will not leave altogether. Once again, the media blames the victims, portraying non-whites as foolish and frivolous with their money. Hiring non-white administrators does not work. The currently ultra Conservative Supreme Court rules that evening things out among schools would punish the rich. Much later, President George H.W. Bush says money is not the answer.
In San Antonio, Texas, Kozol argues that direct discrimination against other people’s children seems too obvious and makes Americans feels guilty. Less direct forms still exist, however, and are supported by the legal system. The 1920s Foundation Program is intended to tax everyone equally, expecting the federal government to make up the difference, and then send extra money to poor schools. In fact, this extra make up money goes primarily towards white schools. This is clear in Alamo Heights, a beautiful, rich school on a hill that receives extra funding, while the poor schools in the slums down the valley barely remain standing. The buildings crumble, the teachers are underpaid, and most children are poor enough to rely on lunch at school as their main meal of the day. In 1968, the parents of Demetrio Rodriguez went to court for equal funding for their school. Twenty-one years later, the court rules in the parents’ favour, but by then it is too late for Demetrio and his peers.
The biggest surprise comes from the impoverished white children, who are also discriminated against and come from poor schools. A poor, overcrowded Appalachian school resembles every inner city school Kozol visits.
Kozol concludes by emphasizing the pattern: disadvantaged minorities; greedy whites who are unwilling to share; incompetent, indifferent governments that do nothing and block the success of the poor.
In 1967, in DEATH AT AN EARLY AGE, Kozol accused the Boston public school system of miseducating black schoolchildren. In 1991, in SAVAGE INEQUALITIES, Kozol, having visited inner-city schools in East St. Louis, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and New Jersey, finds black and Hispanic schoolchildren to be isolated from white schoolchildren and shortchanged educationally. Only by closing the gap between rich and poor school districts in the amount of tax money spent on education, Kozol contends, can we give poor minority children an equal chance. To show just how high are the barriers to learning arising from inadequate school funding, Kozol paints a bleak picture of severe overcrowding; dilapidated school buildings; a shortage of supplies and aids to learning; and teacher salaries too low to let a school either attract good teachers or do without substitute teachers. He repeatedly contrasts inner-city austerity with the bounty of suburban schools.
Kozol blames an unjust and uncaring society for inner-city children’s low levels of academic performance, high rates of dropping out of high school, classroom discipline problems, and low levels of college attendance or completion. Although the emphasis on societal guilt can be overdone, it has value: Learning about overcrowding in ghetto high schools makes the dropout phenomenon easier to understand.
Kozol’s perspective on the woes of inner-city schools is incomplete. Improving student performance requires not merely spending more tax money but also getting parents to take more interest in their children’s educational progress. Kozol, who concedes that equalization might alienate affluent parents, shows that spending more tax money might help poor schoolchildren; he offers no airtight case either for funding equalization as a panacea, or against such remedies as choice plans or magnet schools. Yet by letting readers hear the voices of studious, articulate inner-city teenagers, he combats stereotypes; by challenging comfortable assumptions, he contributes to public debate.
Sources for Further Study
Chicago Tribune. October 13, 1991, XIV, p. 5.
The Christian Science Monitor. October 21, 1991, p. 13.
Library Journal. CXVI, September 15, 1991, p. 92.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. October 6, 1991, p. 2.
The Nation. CCLIII, November 18, 1991, p. 620.
National Catholic Reporter. November 22, 1991, p. 38.
The New Republic. CCV, December 16, 1991, p. 18.
The New York Times Book Review. XCVI, October 6, 1991, p. 7.
The New Yorker. LXVII, October 28, 1991, p. 119.
Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVIII, August 16, 1991, p. 40.
The Washington Post Book World. XXI, October 20, 1991, p. 3.