When his father had Alzheimer's, Jonathan Kozol learned how bleak gerontological care can be: "Good god, what happens to people who don't have the advantages we had?"

In his new memoir, Jonathan Kozol takes on our dysfunctional healthcare system – much as he has our failing schools

Published August 29, 2015 10:30PM (EDT)


I don't think anyone who read "Savage Inequalities: Children in America's Schools" by Jonathan Kozol would easily forget it. It took me, a child of the leafy suburbs of affluent North Dallas, to a place that was unimaginably cruel and dehumanizing, where schools go without basic needs, such as heat, textbooks, running water and functioning bathrooms; where there are holes in the floors and ceilings, dead rodents and roaches in classrooms, plaster falling from walls into the hallways, and sewage invading the lunchroom.

These were the schoolhouses I never knew existed, that low-income black and brown children attended in ghettoized cities across America – a sharp rebuke to a generally agreed-upon narrative in the media at the time that so much progress had been made in America on race.

Over the years since its publication in 1991, "Savage Inequalities" and Kozol himself have become a favored object of criticism from the education reform crowd, who insist his calls for equitable funding of schools serving poor kids are misguided and phony.

That fans of education reform insist either money doesn’t matter or poverty is not a major impediment to education attainment is a telltale sign of how much current education policy doctrine is a front for the same conservative ethic that has always wanted to end government programs that seek to help the least empowered in our society: children, low-income families, the unemployed, the elderly and those in ill health.

Others in the school reform community knock Kozol for, in subsequent books, his continued exposure of the utter failing of the reform movement to improve the education lives of underserved children. In a critique of his more recent book "Fire in the Ashes: Twenty-five Years Among the Poorest Children in America," founder and leader of Teach for America Wendy Kopp chides Kozol for not recognizing all the wonderful work school reform organizations and charter schools have done to "alleviate the conditions" poor children face – a really hard criticism to make stick given evidence that reform policies have exacerbated education inequity and injustice.

But Kozol has always been a rebel against authoritative orthodoxy, so well demonstrated when he, much earlier in his career as a classroom teacher in a school for disadvantaged kids, was fired for reading poetry by Langston Hughes to his students.

In Kozol's newest book, he takes aim at a much different target – our dysfunctional healthcare system. But he does it in the context of telling the very personal story about his father's affliction with Alzheimer's disease, his family's struggles with finding quality care, and the final days of both his parents.

"The Theft of Memory: Losing My Father One Day at a Time" is a tender account of Dr. Henry Kozol's affliction and passing away, and a celebration of a renowned clinical psychologist who counseled, among many others, the famous playwright Eugene O’Neill and evaluated criminal defendants including Patricia Hearst and the Boston Strangler, Albert H. DeSalvo.

As Kozol renders scenes of his father in nursing homes, doctor's offices and home care, he reveals the bleakness of gerontological care in our country while also praising the people in that system – the "low hires" paid by the hour – who are often the most heroic and effective caregivers.

Salon recently talked with Kozol about his new book and the state of education policy in America. An interview edited for brevity and clarity follows.

This book is quite a bit different from all your other books, deeply personal in a way the others aren't. What motivated you to write it?

Something wonderful happened in the way I related to my father after he became ill, and the way our relationship changed through the years. I just felt it was important to me. Also, in changing focus from young children at the beginning of life's adventure to someone at his end of life, I saw it wasn’t such a drastic shift because so many of the same issues are there, especially the primacy of these econometric policies that I've spent my life trying to reverse in any way I can.

You say in the book that you were on a journey with your father. What was the journey?

We had been very close when I was a child. We had had a wonderful relationship – long walks in the evenings, fishing together. Then for a period of 10 years there were tensions between us because of my career choices. Ultimately that was reconciled. Then when he became ill, I had some sense of us being in a deeper journey.

What was deeper about it?

We had much longer conversations than we ever had in any time since I was a child. The crucial part was trying to figure out what he meant to me now when his verbal skills were in such disarray and such large blocks of his memory were gone.

What did you learn about yourself as you were having this journey?

I learned how not to have artificial conversations with him that I find are all too common for people to have when spending time with elderly patients in nursing homes – you know, the "How are we doing today" conversations. I could pick out a word or two that I knew was connected to something that was very important to him in his life. Or when he said something that didn't make sense, I wouldn't just pass it by; I would ask him about it. Also, I learned how to uncover his meanings and stimulate him to unearth other memories.

I found it interesting that despite the word "memory" being in the title of the book, you don't really write very much about the subject of memory, at least from a scientific or psychological point of view. You embed the subject almost entirely in a narrative about relationships.

I didn't want this to be a treatise on memory. Also, much of the book depends on my memories of my parents, so there are several layers of memory here. But the only confirming evidence I had of memories came from the fact my father had left me an attic full of documents where I could find that what he told me was exactly true.

Another type of relationship you spend a lot of time describing is the caregivers – you call them "reliable companions" – whom your father and then eventually your mother needed for their support.

The relationships he had with the companions and one of the nurses he had at the nursing home compensated greatly for the dereliction on the part of his actual MDs. This left me with a tremendous amount of respect for what is often called the "lowest level" in the medical profession. They were in fact his real clinicians. They also enabled me to feel at ease.

I'm sure you know these are the kind of relationships that most Americans can no longer afford.

I had a lot of problems with my father's doctors. His medical treatment was sometimes dreadful. I often had this uneasy feeling that beneath the doctors' high-minded statements there was a sense of the economic realities of our society and the unwillingness of our society to spend money on people who are no longer productive and contributing to our tax base. So I often thought, good God, what happens to other people who don't have the advantages my father and I had. What troubles me so much is I think that the impersonal and bureaucratic way he was treated when he became ill is not true in just my father's case but true in general in all of medicine. What it implies is a loss of the therapeutic power of personal attachments. It's a total capitulation to economically determined policy.

Another arena where relationships are very important but often underappreciated is in education, a topic you more often write about.

I see a very strong parallel to what's happening in education. Kids are being looked at not in terms of their deserving to have happiness but looked at as production units – are they getting the types of skills that will help them be appropriate and useful employees in the corporate system? There's this tremendous emphasis on utility. What sort of job will this child be useful for? Even in this debate about expanding preschool, it seems you can't just make a moral argument that it would be great for all little kids to have wonderful early childhood development just as wealthy children do. It seems you can't make that argument unless you show how it will save money later on. It's all about econometrics.

You and I first met at a protest gathering in Washington, D.C., called the Save Our Schools March. It was in 2011. What has happened in education since then?

Certain things have gotten worse. The testing regime that relies on metrics is worse because it's now being applied more venomously and punitively to teachers. The corporate attack on public education through the instrument of charter schools is gaining ground everywhere to the point where it seems to be irreversible. Also the applications of the Common Core – for instance, increasingly substituting technical books for poetry and fiction – is another victory for the corporations. It takes so much of the humanity out of teaching and of being a child.

There's some good change: As the result of a lot of hard work of some very good educators – for example, Karen Lewis, the Chicago Teachers Union president, who was in Washington with us that day – parents have been learning a great deal about the damaging effects this testing and accountability mania is having on their children's education. Parents and students in many cities are building a real wave of disenchantment with the test-and-measurement policy. Congress is obviously aware of this. It's also important that some of the voices being heard are affluent and politically influential parents who detest the testing agenda all the more because they themselves have had very rich and good educations.

What should we be doing instead?

We should take all these billions of dollars that go to these huge testing corporations and textbook corporations and pour it into giving every child in this country rich, happy, developmental preschool that includes pre-literacy and pre-math instruction – and not any kind of drill-and-kill regime but in the comfortable and relaxed way children actually learn. Until we give poor children the early learning opportunities wealthy parents buy for their children, the tests they're taking in elementary school are meaningless. Also we should make certain we are giving respect to the individuality of teachers who are innovative and creative and who have strong and exciting personalities and love children. We should do all we can to keep their spirits high and help them retain their, what I call, special sense of mischief and subversion in the face of mandates coming down from Washington, D.C.

So you would do no kind of testing at all?

The only kind of testing we should do – the only kind that is really useful to a child and a teacher – is diagnostic testing. This cannot be done by standardized exams. It cannot be done by means of a bubble test. It can only be done by the teacher who, one-on-one with the child in the classroom, taking maybe 30 minutes, in oral and written forms, ascertains where the child's strengths and weaknesses are. Those kinds of tests are really useful, and you don't need to wait six months to get the results back from some place in Iowa. You know right away, and the teacher knows where the child needs more help. That's the kind of testing I had when I was a child.

Some would say we can't go back to the good old days, that we have to move forward to something totally new.

The irony is that the ideas of the so-called reformers are not new. Their ideas are an exact reincarnation of the values that were held at the beginning of the 1900s. In the first 20 years of that century there was something very similar to what so-called school reform people are advocating now. The idea then, as now, was that business has a right to determine what our children will learn and to test them relentlessly in order to make certain they are going to be useful to the corporations. The same people behind this movement were the same people who developed the IQ test and were in the eugenics movement that was advocating for ways to determine who ought to be allowed to reproduce on the basis of their intelligence. The distinctions were ethnic, of course. Also these people who believe we'll save money by running these small, efficient, self-selective charter schools, they're not going into the future either. Then there's this awful economic term, "How much value has been added to the child," as if children don't have value already. That's a term I remember from when I lived in England and had to pay a value added tax on everything. It's an economic term.

Also some would say we don't have enough money to do what you're calling for.

Regardless of the ups and downs of the economies of each individual state, this country can still afford to give its children the very best we have while they're still children. Other nations can do that. We can too. It's simply a matter of priorities.

What else would you like to see?

I'd be so happy to see Fred Rogers, if he were alive, replace Arne Duncan as secretary of education – have someone in charge who really likes children.

By Jeff Bryant

Jeff Bryant is a writing fellow and chief correspondent for Our Schools, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He is a communications consultant, freelance writer, advocacy journalist, and director of the Education Opportunity Network, a strategy and messaging center for progressive education policy. His award-winning commentary and reporting routinely appear in prominent online news outlets, and he speaks frequently at national events about public education policy. Follow him on Twitter @jeffbcdm.

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