Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Savage Inequalities

Is fairness less important to Americans today than in some earlier times? Is it viewed as slightly tiresome and incompatible with hard-nosed values? What do Americans believe about equality?

            Jonathan Kozol asks the above questions of the reader in his book, Savage Inequalities, Children in America's Schools. In the book, Kozol discusses the terrible conditions that exist in many of the nation's public schools. He examines schools in St. Louis, Chicago, New York, Camden, and San Antonio and describes the conditions of these schools, which include terribly inadequate materials, outdated textbooks, underpaid teachers, high drop-out rates, and dangerous conditions.
            As I read the book, one of the questions that came to my mind was: ‘Do we, as members of an independent school community, have a responsibility to improve the conditions about which Kozol writes?’ The answer, in my mind, is: 'Yes.' But this answer then raises another question: 'What can we do to act on this responsibility?' One of the obvious responses is: ‘Community service.’
            The continual involvement by the middle school with several less-fortunate Nashville schools is the best example of Harding student-involvement in community service. Another way is when the school rallies around Second Harvest and the food drive. This opportunity is a chance for the entire Harding community to demonstrate its emphasis on service. In fact, every grade level now has at least one dedicated service project to which they are committed. The continued commitment to, and growth of, the service program is a positive step.
            These examples, however, are only one way where students are going to make a true impact on social change in schools, or anywhere else for that matter. It's also the way they behave when they set out into the world beyond Harding—when they have more power to effect change—that's going to be important. We have to ask ourselves: 'Are we helping to mold the kind of people that are going to, in turn, make a difference?' There is little question in my mind that these same students, knowing their character as I do, are going to be the ones to effect change on a broader scale.
            The curriculum, to be sure, gives our students motivation, and their experience in the community service program teaches them about empathy. They have parents and siblings that model community involvement and they have teachers that show their own bias toward helping the larger community. I have to think that what we do at home and at school is only one piece. We teach excellent lessons about civic duties, and our responsibilities, but more importantly, we must continue to demonstrate our involvement with action. Otherwise students are quick to see the hypocrisy.
            It's hard to believe that there are students who go to schools like Martin Luther King Junior High School in St. Louis. The school was evacuated after sewage overflowed into the school in the same week as the school system announced 280 teacher layoffs. In reference to the irony of the school’s name, one student tells the author, "All that stuff about 'the dream' means nothing to the kids I know in East St. Louis. So far as they're concerned, he died in vain…Don't tell students in that school about 'the dream.'"
            It was interesting to think about this child’s experience, as so different from ours, as I traveled through Nashville recently to an afternoon meeting. On the highway at 60 miles an hour or in an airplane, it's almost impossible to discern the haves and have-nots about which Kozol writes. But when you slow down and take a closer look, the full measure of those differences are apparent.
            We spend a lot of time teaching our students about 'the dream,' but also that they are living part of 'the dream,' and that they have a responsibility toward fulfilling Dr. King's vision for others as well. The change will not come easily and will not come quickly and I hope that we are giving our