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Review | Fire in the Ashes By Jonathan Kozol

Posted by Rebecca G. Aguilar, M.Ed. on August 24, 2012

ISBN-13: 9781400052462
Publisher: Crown
Publication date: 8/28/2012
Pages: 368

Education activist and writer Jonathan Kozol established a charity supported by readers of his books to assist children living in impoverished neighborhoods of the South Bronx near St. Ann’s Episcopal Church. Their stories are featured in his new book Fire in the Ashes: Twenty-Five Years Among the Poorest Children in America to be released August 28 by Crown.

Kozol’s books are firsthand conversations with men, women and children who experience extreme marginalization despite the wealth in our society. In Fire in the Ashes, Kozol shows that for some of them, philanthropy from caring people resulted in “dramatic consequences.” He argues this kind of intervention only succeeds marginally and unevenly compared to the significant good we can achieve by offering equal educational opportunity to every child.

“Charity and chance and narrow selectivity are not the way to educate the children of a genuine democracy.”

Over the course of many years, Kozol shared the stories of South Bronx children and their families by writing about them and advocating for their communities and schools.

Critics of Kozol’s passionate advocacy use the fashionable word “accountability.” They claim that communities, parents, teachers and students themselves are responsible for their outcomes, even in circumstances caused by massive unemployment or the flight of business and industry. NCLB and other so-called “education reforms” have only administered harsh punitive remedies for the failures of poorer districts and their schools.

“For the children of a ghettoized community, the pre-existing context created by the social order cannot be lightly written off by cheap and facile language about ‘parental failings’ or by the rhetoric of ‘personal responsibility,’ which is the last resort of scoundrels in the civic and political arena who will, it seems, go to any length to exculpate America for its sins against our poorest people.”

A former Boston public school teacher, Kozol was fired after a year for reading a Langston Hughes poem, apparently not part of the curriculum.

For Fire in the Ashes, Kozol relied on interviews with families he conducted in the late 1980s and early 1990s. These families relied on New York City’s welfare and homeless agencies for shelter in crumbling hotels bordering the Mott Haven areas and Beekman Avenue, places notorious for crime, violence and illegal drugs.

The families were allowed to stay in these hotels as long as they actively searched for alternative housing and agreed to perplexing rules and regulations Kozol claims served as “deterrence strategies to discourage” those asking for shelter in an overburdened system.

Kozol saw a rise in two disparate New York Cities at the time: one where the rich and privileged thrived and the other where the poor and underserved were marginalized. Ironically, Les Misérables, a play about poor children in nineteenth century Paris, was opening to acclaim on Broadway. Some children from the hotels would walk the twelve blocks to the theater district to panhandle and their presence was not welcomed by owners and patrons.

“The last thing that they wanted was to come out of the theater at the end and be obliged to see real children begging on the sidewalk right in front of them.”

Fire in the Ashes by Jonathan Kozol is a highly worthwhile read that will take us past the promises and rhetoric of education reform in America to advocating for justice in public education.

Category: Nonfiction, Education

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