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BOOKS AND THE CULTURE Why the Hewers of Wood Can’t Read Jr ONATHAN KOZOL begins his latest book by recalling the circumstances which produced his first, Death at an Early Age, the story of his experiences as a fourth grade teacher in the Boston Public Schools: “I saw before my eyes a world of suffering, of hopelessness and fear, that I could never have imagined in the privileged and insulated decades of my childhood and schooling.” He goes on to describe how he was in effect being introduced to the dismal lives and futures of the children of his family’s live-in maid, a woman whose own children went without her attention so that young Jonathan could receive her “love unstinted.” In 1964 I learned at last, and with a wave of shame and fear that turned before long into an unbounded and compensatory rage, that the children of our colored -maid had been denied the childhood and happiness and care that had been given to me by their mother. . . . I had been the recipient of stolen goods. What had been stolen from them seemed unspeakable: a crime, an evil past imagination. It is to Kozol’s credit that he can frankly confess to being an unconscious accessory to an ongoing social crime, and it is yet true that for most of us the contradictions of class society never appear in such stark and personal form. Generally, they are disguised by ghetto boundaries, superhighways, and railroads tracks, and rare is the child of privilege who looks back upon his comfortable upbringing with more than misty nostalgia. Kozol notes that most of the children whom he taught in 1964 have since grown up to lives of poverty, ignorance, welfare, and crime and that they were and are, like the maid who raised him, illiterate. It is illiteracy, and not more generally the disastrous state of public education, that is the subject of this book. Like Faulkner’s Sutpen, he asserts, we have denied our children the many millions of underclass illiterates ignored and abandoned by our educational and social systems and Michael King is a regular Observer contributor on matters cultural. we shall pay for our crimes: “Societal denial of the crime by which it lives demonstrates political ineptitude and ethical betrayal; but it also tells us of that civic pride that goes before a fall.” Kozol has written an unapologetically impassioned book about the astonishing levels of illiteracy which persist throughout American society by his rough ILLITERATE AMERICA By Jonathan Kozol Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1985 270 pp., $15.95 estimates, some 60 million Americans, or one-third of the adult population, He has spent much of his adult life either teaching illiterate young people or working in programs devoted to teaching reading skills to adults, and this book is an attempt to describe that problem in detail to a wide audience and to exhort that audience to action. It is an honorable and necessary effort, and one can in the first place only applaud it and hope that it has some tangible and positive effects. Unfortunately, while Illiterate America is a laudable and insistently wellintentioned book, it also seems to me flawed in persistent and important ways in aspects related to the somewhat curious moral Kozol derives from the story of his childhood maid. That she was illiterate is undeniable; that her children, and the children of countless other black and Hispanic and poor white families are illiterate, is also undeniable but to move implicitly from that deplorable circumstance to the identification of illiteracy and impoverishment is both misleading and potentially dangerous. For such an equation confuses a symptom with a cause, and it suggests that it is only a lack of literate education that is keeping millions of people in economic and cultural bondage: that, had Kozol’s apparently nameless maid and her children been able to read, the doors of American opportunity would have somehow magically opened for them and the millions of others like them and they would no longer be maids or menials or on the dole. Kozol himself never says this directly, but his whole book implies that the poor they are illiterate, when in actual and ineluctable fact the poor are illiterate because they have no jobs that is, because they have no money, and no prospect of any. Children, especially non-white children, who are born into the American underclass, are not stupid they look about them, to the lives of their parents and their neighbors, and learn in their bones very quickly that neither virtue nor ambition is likely to be rewarded, and that other means will be necessary to secure whatever “success” they are likely to have. Another reviewer, Stanley Aronowitz, has pointed out that Kozol never asks the crucial question, “Is social mobility really available to poor people who can read?” He never asks because he too knows the answer, and yet the argument of his book and his work is based upon the exhortation to his audience that an effective literacy campaign is the key to the social advancement of poor Americans. “Teach them to read,” he wants to suggest, “and they will find their way to the good life” and add millions of dollars to the economy, and save the failing publishing industry, and educate their own children, and improve military preparedness, and transform the culture, and make peace with the Russians. . . . Kozol himself is a little bit embarrassed by the extravagant claims he finds himself making for the benefits of universal literacy, noting that one publisher had rejected his manuscript because he had not sufficiently “hit the reader in the pocketbook.” But when he is not suggesting that millions of suddenly literate poor people will be able to find jobs in newly emerging technical fields, he is hinting that they will also save the staggering economy, by enormous increases in tax revenues and productivity. BUT IT IS, of course, “in the pocketbook” that the American social structure -is particularly resistant to battering, at least when the expense comes for an obviously broadlybased social good like mass public education. Kozol admits that there are no serious monies available for the improvement of public schools, let alone for extension programs like adult liter By Michael King 1 8 AUGUST 30, 1985