Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education, Community Development and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)


Jonathan Kozol publishes Illiterate America

In 1954, the Supreme Court rule in 'Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka' that segregated schools were unconstitutional ... What seems unmistakable, is that the nation, for all practice and intent, has turned its back upon the moral implications, if not yet the legal ramifications, of the Brown decision ... The dual society, at least in public education, seems in general to be unquestioned. (Jonathan Kozol, quoted in Strong 1992, 51).

Jonathan Kozol's brilliant and radical book, Illiterate America, played an important role in starting the disillusionment of the American public about their desperately segregated education system. Through Illiterate America, Kozol wanted to make the American public aware of the large proportion of poor people who grow up never having learned to read or write because of their inadequate and segregated schooling. His book became a voice for action against American illiteracy.

Jonathan Kozol was born in 1936 to a wealthy Jewish family from Boston. He led a privileged life attending prep school before entering Harvard University, and later, Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar (Strong, 1992). In the summer of 1964, instead of pursuing law, medicine or formal politics as his family envisioned, Kozol answered an ad to volunteer at a 'freedom school' (an offspring of the civil rights movement) at a black church in Roxbury (Raney, 1998). Kozol was amazed at the appalling discrepancy between his privileged education and their substandard education. Many of the children could not read or write despite their obvious intelligence. To Kozol's amazement, it was not only the children who were illiterate, but also most of the adults in their community (Kozol, 1985). He began to write books on the injustices of the education system. In 1968, he won the National Book Award for Rachel and Her Children. His fame brought unprecedented exposure to the sufferings of poor Americans. In 1980, he was asked by the Cleveland Public Library to design a literacy plan for the major cities in the United States. The State Library of California later used his plan as a model for literacy (New York State Writers Institute, 1997).

Kozol wanted to further his impact on eliminating literacy. To this end, he wrote Illiterate America, which was based on the impoverished and illiterate black families of Roxbury. Kozol explains,

I wanted to write a book about what happens to the poor when they leave school. They don't have the skills to navigate society: They can't earn a living or hold a decent job, they can't understand the forms they get -- the welfare applications, the tax forms, the mortgage forms -- and some of them can't read a telephone directory of a newspaper. It's a terrible existence and a lot of them are driven to crime or prostitution (Strong, 1992, 56).

The American public could not ignore Kozol's honest and frightening depiction of the blatant segregation in education practices between rich and poor people. Illiterate America helped to spark a national campaign to take action on adult literacy. Despite Kozol's difficulties in getting the book published because of its candidness, it became a "bestseller in the midst of the Reagan age" (Strong, 1992, 56).

Jonathan Kozol remains an incredible and relentless advocator for adult and child education in the United States. He continues to write on issues of race, poverty and education. Following Illiterate America, he wrote Rachel and Her Children: Homeless Families in America, Savage Inequalities: Children in America's Schools, and most recently, Amazing Grace: The Lives of Children and the Conscience of a Nation (New York State Writers Institute, 1997). One of Kozol's books, Savage Inequalities, was so powerful that the editors of Publishers Weekly, a trade magazine in the States, used the front cover of their magazine as an open letter to President Bush challenging him to refute Kozol's book (Strong, 1992). He finishes off his interview with Morgan Strong by saying, "I try to portray a vision of what a just society should do, could do or would do. That's all I'm trying to do in life. I can't say any more. Is that enough?" (1992).


Kozol, J. (1985). Illiterate America. Garden City, NY: Anchor Press/Doubleday.

New York State Writers Institute (1997). Jonathan Kozol. [Online]. Available: (March 25, 2000).

Raney, M. (1998). Interview with Jonathan Kozol. [online]. Available: http://www.technos.not/journal/volume7/3kozol.htm. (March 25, 2000).

Strong, M. (1992, May). Playboy interview: Jonathan Kozol. Playboy Magazine, 447, 51 66.

Prepared by Kelly Russell

Citation: Russell, Kelly (2000). 1985: Jonathan Kozol publishes Illiterate America. In Daniel Schugurensky (Ed.), History of Education: Selected Moments of the 20th Century [online]. Available:  (date accessed).

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