Children in Prison

Village School Downtown

by Peter Schrag
Beacon, 208 pp., $5.95

Death at an Early Age: The Destruction of the Hearts and Minds of Negro Children in the Boston Public Schools

by Jonathan Kozol
Houghton Mifflin, 240 pp., $4.95

One of the most striking and painful social events of our time has been what can only be called the downfall of our big city schools. It has helped drive out of the city millions of people whose wealth, training, talent, and interests might otherwise have helped to make or keep our cities civilized and satisfying places. At the same time, it has increasingly alienated from the city and its institutions and culture more and more of those people whom poverty and/or color oblige to remain there. The schools claim, with some reason, that they are among the victims rather than the causes of urban decay, but the fact is that, despite their always difficult problems and often good intentions, they are at least as much cause as victim.

How bad are our city schools? How did they get so bad? For answer, these two books lift the lid off the schools of one city—my own city of Boston. They do so in very different ways. Schrag’s is an outsider’s view of the whole school system—thorough, inclusive, well-researched, and as objective as a deeply concerned educator could make it. It is also witty, perceptive, and fair. Kozol’s book, on the other hand, is an insider’s wholly personal cry of outrage and pain at the things he saw done to Negro children in the schools where he taught. He is in no sense objective; though truthful, he is hardly even fair. He is not concerned, as is Schrag, to give the devil his due, but only to show what the devils are doing.

From Schrag we learn, first of all, that:

More than a third of the city’s schools are over fifty years old; several are now into their second century, while 18 of the 20 schools that are more than 90 per cent Negro were built before World War I. Dilapidated structures, some of them over-crowded and ill-used, litter the older neighborhoods.

Nevertheless, “For two years the city has not built a single new school, even though $29 million in construction funds has been approved by the Mayor and city council.” The equipment is no better than the buildings.

In some [schools], teachers try to conduct classes jammed with 45 children; in others they must operate in the basement or in temporarily converted auditoriums and lunchrooms. Few of the junior high schools have libraries, and the elementary schools have none. Many of the texts are outdated, torn, dirty, and often, when they are modern, there are not enough to go around.

What is most to the point is that neither the administrators nor the elected School Committee seems concerned about the problem, or even willing to admit that there is a problem. Thus, Schrag tells us, “In Pittsburgh the administration publishes pictures of obsolete buildings in an effort to rally public support for new construction, fliers are issued describing the inadequacies of the system…. But not in Boston. Instead of calling administrators …

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