Law of the Jungle Education

Originally published at The Benfell Blog. You can comment here or there.

I’m remembering a passage from Jonathan Kozol’s book Savage Inequalities1:

A lot of wealthy folks in Texas think the schools are doing a sufficiently good job if the kids of poor folks learn enough to cast a vote—just not enough to cast it in their own self-interest. They might think it fine if kids could write and speak—jut not enough to speak in ways that make a dent in public policy. In economic terms, a lot of folks in Alamo Heights would think that Edgewood kids were educated fine if they had all the necessary skills to do their kitchen work and tend their lawns.2

Kozol visited a number of impoverished urban school districts in the course of writing this book. He observed a strong correlation between race and class in education and recounts horror stories of classes meeting in restrooms, roofs that didn’t merely leak but let through torrents of water, and a clear message to children that they aren’t seen as worth the investment. Kozol’s book is now nearly twenty years old but it cannot be said that schools have improved in the interim.

Even though I remain unemployed, I’m giving up the substitute teaching. Why? I wasn’t getting very many assignments, I was having trouble telling from the information the automated substitute teacher calling system offered what I was actually getting into, and most importantly, I connected how I saw kids being treated with the anti-intellectualism that is so prevalent in the United States. That anti-intellectualism is a large part of my problem and I felt that by participating in this system, I was contributing to making it worse.

And it will only get worse. Robert Reich has a disgustingly long list of budget cuts at all levels of education. He writes, “Over the long term, the only way we’re going to raise wages, grow the economy, and improve American competitiveness is by investing in our people — especially their educations.”3 That’s precisely what we aren’t doing—and have not been doing for a very long time.

I have heard stories that whenever troubled Oakland city schools actually come up with a program that starts to make a difference, the rug gets pulled out from under it. Those who tell me these stories believe this is no coincidence, that it is the result of malice.

And while I was attending California State University, East Bay, voters passed a proposition that increased funding for community colleges and for the elite University of California—but left out the State University system, which has absorbed year after year of budget cuts and whose students have faced steadily rising tuitions and fees. Reich is correct when he writes, “Universities have to tame their budgets, especially for student amenities that have nothing to do with education.”4 I don’t know the situation at UC Berkeley, where Reich teaches, but at CSU East Bay, somehow those amenities—fueled by university presidential egos and rationalized with hopes that non-educational experiences would lead to students donating money back to the university after they graduated—continued to develop, at least partly through the Student Association’s acquiescence to administration demands that effectively make student organization money an adjunct to university budgets.

Higher education, the only hope most people have of a life with dignity, is increasingly an exclusively upper class phenomenon. The rich have their own system of education that is insulated from all of this, where opportunity isn’t even just about which Ivy League schools they attend but the social organizations they join at those schools and the very expensive prep schools that specialize in getting students into those universities.5 6

Something else Kozol wrote:

The system has the surface aspects of a meritocracy, but merit in this case is predetermined by conditions that are closely tied to class and race. While some defend it as in theory, “the survival of the fittest,” it is more accurate to call it the survival of the children of the fittest—or of the most favored.7

He was writing of the school system in the South Side of Chicago, but added, “Similar systems exist in every major city.”8 Now it extends throughout education.

  • 1. Jonathan Kozol, Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools (New York: HarperPerennial, 1991).
  • 2. Kozol, Savage Inequalities, p. 216.
  • 3. Robert Reich, “The Attack on American Education,” December 22, 2010. Retrieved from Archived at
  • 4. Reich, “The Attack on American Education.”
  • 5. Peter W. Cookson, Jr. and Caroline Hodges Persell, “The Vital Link: Prep Schools and Higher Education,” in Thomas M. Shapiro, Ed., Great Divides: Readings in Social Inequality in the United States, 3rd Ed. (Boston: McGraw Hill, 2005).
  • 6. G. William Domhoff, “The American Upper Class,” in Thomas M. Shapiro, Ed., Great Divides: Readings in Social Inequality in the United States, 3rd Ed. (Boston: McGraw Hill, 2005).
  • 7. Kozol, Savage Inequalities, p.60.
  • 8. Kozol, Savage Inequalities, p.60.

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