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Book Review: Fire in the Ashes: Twenty-Five Years Among the Poorest Children in America by Jonathan Kozol

African-American girl standing near a pole.Summary:
Jonathan Kozol’s books about his social justice work among inner city children in the 1980s and 1990s brought attention to the starkly uneven educational opportunities presented to children in America.  Now the children he originally met are young adults, and through this memoir telling of his friendships with them, he explores their lives and what it means to be successful when everything is stacked against you.

Review:
Long-time followers of my blog know that my undergraduate university (Brandeis University) seeks to instill in its students a sense of social justice, and that certainly worked with me.  So when books like this pop up, I’m instantly interested in reading them.  True equality means equal opportunities and safety for all, and a book like this is a bit unique in that it doesn’t just look at inequalities but also examines the long-term effects of attempts at intervening and helping people who basically got the short end of the stick.  Kozol succeeds quite well in analyzing what has worked and what hasn’t in the Bronx where a large part of his social justice career has been.

The chapters each focus on a different child, although a couple of children get their own chapters.  Kozol met the children either in one of the infamous 1980s NYC homeless shelters or at an after-school tutoring program offered at a church (St Ann’s) in the Bronx.  There are a few things that are immediately apparent from observing the long-term trajectory of these kids, which is why a book like this is so valuable for social justice work.

First, all of the kids who were homeless or who spent a long time in homeless shelters had many more problems and difficulties later in life.  It is clear that homelessness has a long-lasting negative impact on children, no matter how many good opportunities come to them later in life.  Similarly, girls seem to stand a better chance than boys of climbing out of the poverty they grew up in.  Kozol never makes any clear speculative statements as to why he thinks this is, but the multiple lives we observe clearly demonstrate that boys are more targeted than girls both by the crime lords and by the police.  They are both presumed to want to participate in crime and presumed to already be participating in crime.  If you live in just this neighborhood and see just this world where almost everyone you see except maybe a parent or a teacher expects you to become a criminal, it’s no wonder that the boys are struggling more than the girls.  This is a great example of how patriarchy hurts men too.  These assumptions about masculinity and roles in the community are hurting them.

The other big theme of the book is of course how educational inequality entrenches classism and racism.  Kozol has spent most of his career working in improving education so it’s not surprising this is a theme of the book.  One thing that stood out to me was how quickly kids are lost if they never get a firmly established literacy and sense of confidence in their ability to learn.  Once kids start getting held back a grade or fall below grade level, it is incredibly easy to become discouraged and turn to what appears to be an easier life of crime.  And it’s not the kids’ fault that they are struggling at school.  The class sizes are too large, the teachers are frequently inexperienced or, in the case of one school, were never even trained as teachers at all.  There is frequent teacher turnover, too heavy of a focus on just getting the kids to pass the achievement tests and not establish real learning and literacy.  There is a real problem with violence and bullying.  The list goes on and on.  It goes beyond the schools though.  Outside of school the children are never truly safe.  There are shootings and stabbings and rapes, and we’re not talking down an alley. We’re talking in the lobby or stairwell or elevator of their apartment buildings.  How can anyone focus on learning and growing up when that is all around them?  It’s a big problem, and one that is not easily solved.

Kozol ends the book by talking about what he sees as progress and how the now grown-up kids he worked with see possible solutions.  He’s adamant that even small gains are gains.  He views any child whose life ultimately is one of peace and self-worth as an accomplishment, whether they even completed high school or not.  To a certain extent I agree with him, but to a certain extent I agree much more with one of the grown-up kids (who just so happens to be about my age) who argues that small changes aren’t good enough.  That the inequality is so deeply entrenched that we must truly rock the system and not just save one child at a time.  She does ultimately agree that the small changes are still worthy of praise and is working on a degree in sociology so she may go back to the Bronx and focus in on small changes. That then is the question at the heart of this book and one for which there are no easy answers. How do we fix this problem?

It’s difficult to say who this book will appeal to.  It’s not a clear treatise on the educational system or social justice.  It is one man’s observations of the lives and life stories of inner city youth he worked with.  It is not academic per se but it’s also not exactly a memoir either.  I think perhaps that it will appeal most to anyone whose day to day job involves having small influences on the education of individuals.  It clearly shows how much impact one person can have on another person’s life, particularly when it comes to education and literacy.

Overall then I recommend this to those who work in education whether formally or informally.  It is encouraging to see the perspective of an older person who has clearly seen how his life work has impacted the kids he worked with.

4 out of 5 stars

Source:  Netgalley

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Bloggers’ Alliance of Nonfiction Devotees (BAND): December Discussion: Truth in Nonfiction

December 14, 2011 6 comments

BAND is a monthly discussion group of book bloggers who love nonfiction!  If you’d like to join us, check out our tumblr page.

This month Erin of Erin Reads asks us: How do you determine truth in nonfiction?

I feel like the quest for truth has been one of my primary activities since I was a very young child.  I’ve never been the type to just believe something because someone in authority tells me it’s so or because it’s the widely accepted belief or….well, you get the picture.

Everything I’ve pursued in my career and education has gone to back up this aspect of my personality.  My first chosen major in undergrad was History, which is largely focused on determining the truth and not just the accepted cultural myths.  Lessons I learned from my wonderful, intelligent professors stick with me to this day in reading nonfiction:

  • Are there multiple accounts or scientific studies that come to the same conclusion or provide the same information?
  • Does the conclusion the document or observer draw make sense based on known facts about the world?
  • Does the document address opposing viewpoints and provide valid, factual rebuttals to them?  A piece of nonfiction that ignores opposing viewpoints is generally one that cannot be trusted.

So those are the basics I use when I investigate a belief system and proceed to draw my conclusions.  It was this method that I learned in undergrad that led to me deconverting from the religion I was raised in.  (I’m currently an agnostic).  It was this same method that proved to me that eating meat is wrong, so I don’t do it anymore.

Now that I’m older and have a few firm beliefs that I’ve vetted with research, the first question I ask when approaching a piece of nonfiction is: Does this go against what I know to be true?  If it does, I may read it anyway just to help me understand where someone with a different viewpoint is coming from.  But I take everything in it “with a grain of salt.”  These books usually take me a while to finish since anything I can’t disprove immediately, I go out and do research on.  Sometimes this leads to me adjusting my viewpoint, but generally not for things I’ve already researched.

If the nonfiction work I am reading is about something I just really haven’t researched much before then I approach it differently.  I look to see how well-documented and carefully researched the book is.  Did the author cite primary sources in her bibliography?  Are these primary sources from well-respected journals or archives or scientific studies?  I am going to trust a book with 10 pages of bibliography much more than one with 2.  If the author is saying something that doesn’t make sense to me, then I hunt down what she’s cited and read it for myself.  I think through the facts, consider the author’s possible biases (her own race, gender, economic group, educational background), and consider my own known biases before drawing conclusions from the material presented.  If it’s something I can try out for myself like a new recipe, a budgeting system, or an exercise move, I try it and see if it works!

I know that probably all sounds like a lot of work, and IT IS.  Being an educated citizen of the world is really hard work.  But that’s our job.  We’re supposed to constantly be educating ourselves, questioning ourselves, seeking to understand the world and those around us.  How can we ever expect to improve things if we just take everything at face value as handed down to us?  And once you’ve studied something once you can’t just stop studying it.  Science has shown us that.  New evidence comes into play, and we need to reevaluate.  There’s nothing wrong with saying I once thought this was so but now I know I was wrong.  That’s all a part of growing and learning, a part that is, unfortunately, not as encouraged in the American education system as it should be.  It’s part of why I became a librarian.  I want everyone to do this throughout their life.  Because it’s not just truth in nonfiction that we need to question and determine for ourselves.  It’s truth about the world around us.

Check out the nonfiction books I’ve read and reviewed since the October discussion:

Wolf Bite Wednesday (Impossible Graduate Assignments)

February 10, 2010 2 comments

Dear professors and adjunct professors who teach graduate level courses,

I’m imagining there must be some super-secret meeting of you folks where you all agree upon how to be evil to us as some form of rite of passage to earn our graduate degrees.  It’s not enough that we’ve already fought our way through high school, the SATs, freshman year of undergrad, the rest of undergrad, and the epic painful life choice of what the hell am I going to do for a career.  It’s also not enough that most of us are working real jobs while we also partake in endless hours of class and homework.  For some reason, these are not enough dues paid.  We must pay more.  Enter the class work or homework that you, the professor, know has no answer or solution.  The unsolvable problem.  The unattainable quest.

I have never encountered this in my education before.  I may have banged my head against the table attempting to solve for x in high school algebra, but I was always confident that there was indeed an answer.  My teacher could never be so cruel as to assign an unsolvable problem.  Other things may have changed throughout my education–citation style desired, writing style desired, form notes should be taken in–but this one thing remained true.  There was always an answer to the problem.

Then grad school came.  I will never forget the endless hours I spent attempting to figure out how to update a mythical library’s computers so that all of them would run in a similar capability level within a certain budget only to find out after the assignment was handed in that the problem was impossible! Hah!  See, what I learned there is, in the real world, sometimes there is no solution.

Well duh!  I know that sometimes it sucks in the real world.  I know sometimes there’s just not enough money for what you need.  I didn’t live on a intern’s salary of $120 a month and expect to be able to eat anything beyond pasta and olive oil.  This, however, is not the real world.  This is school.  You are not being creative.  You are not teaching us a valuable lesson.  If you really were concerned about this, you could do something like tell us in lecture that sometimes your budget isn’t big enough to do what your boss wants you to do.  Or sometimes databases suck and won’t work to find what you need.  Or you could create an actually useful assignment that doesn’t lie to us and tell us “your boss is being an asshole and expects you to do all this with this minuscule amount of money. Figure out the best solution you can that might make him happy.”

You are not being creative when you make us do class work consisting of attempts to find articles in databases that you know won’t be there.  You could just tell us “this database is only good for these types of things.”  I mean, isn’t that what grad school is for?  To teach us the librarian-fu secrets that will make us look bad-ass on the job?

For the love of god, we are paying enough dues already.  We’ve been running on less than healthy amounts of sleep since we were around 16 years old.  We’ve chugged unhealthy amounts of caffeine, studied endlessly for standardized tests, filled out confusing as fuck application forms, and more.  Grad school should be about helping us, not giving us more hoops to jump through.

So, please, please, stop giving us assignments you know are impossible to solve.

If you don’t, I swear I’ll stop caring about them altogether.

Sincerely,

One annoyed grad student