Publishers Weekly (Publishers Weakly in my book), though it is one of the most depressing magazines in America, obviously considers itself a sprightly, thoughtful, and somewhat “irreverent” publication, gifted with the insight to see that the emperor has no clothes on and blessed with the courage to stand forward and say so. In the bold tradition of Jeremiah and St. Paul, Voltaire and Swift, Samuel Butler and H.L. Mencken, Mailer and Vonnegut and Donahue, PW (as it is known affectionately in the trade) performed the daring and unprecedented act of placing on the cover of its number for September 27, 1991, “An Open Letter to President Bush,” which said in part, “Dear Mr. President: Because you have made education policy an important part of your administration . . . [w]e urge you to read a startling and disturbing new book, Savage Inequalities by Jonathan Kozol, due shortly from Crown Publishing. . . . It is the story of how, in our public schools, we are creating a country profoundly different from the one our founders envisaged. It is the story of two nations that are separate and unequal in their educational facilities, and tells how this unfair imbalance has been largely created and maintained by the inequitable distribution of public funds. Clearly, something must be done about American education, but too often those who work to reform it do so through notions of ‘choice’ and ‘competition,’ market terms that have no place in a debate on the needs of our poor children. In the end, there is no doubt that we will have to spend money, and a lot of it, to bring genuine equality to our schools.” This letter was succeeded on the following two pages by excerpts from Kozol’s book, and on the third by a special editorial by the editor in chief, John F. Baker, who endorsed both the letter and Kozol and called for “a coordinated, industry-wide program” in which publishers can work to help solve the crisis of educational inequality in America.

That’s called sticking your neck but. (Who says literary folk are natural cowards?) It would help, though, if there were a brainpan at the end of it. Judging from the excerpts selected by PW, I would have to say that Kozol’s book rests on politically directed emotionalism, not on sustained, analytical argument. Both Kozol and Baker dismiss the premise of the Bush administration’s America 2000: An Education Strategy that, “Excellent schools don’t have to cost more.” If that is so. Baker demands, “then why is so much money consistently being spent on the better ones?” as Kozol implies that it is. The answer to that question, of course, is, “How much better are the ‘better’ schools?” The SAT scores, along with the rest of the national statistics, say, “not much.” High school students who cannot locate their home state on a map are not restricted to the innercity schools. In 19th-century America, one-room schoolhouses such as those in which Laura Ingalls Wilder taught (and was taught) routinely produced students whose knowledge of mathematics, history, geography, and literature was greatly superior to that of most public high school teachers today, though they were expected to provide their own pencils and slates and often read their lessons out of the same book their seatmates used. The question is not whether black and white pupils learn in the company of one another, but whether anyone learns anything at all. Ah, well (we old book-review hands may say), PW’s forte isn’t educational policy, but at least its heart is in the right place. And where do you suppose that would be? “In the end, there is no doubt that we will have to spend money, and a lot of it.”

You have to understand that the American book publishing industry is on the ropes at the start of the recessive 90’s, having blown huge sums of money in the prosperous 80’s in the attempt to make like Trump Enterprises. (It wasn’t just the purveyors of video equipment, home computers, and junk bonds who succumbed to corporate hubris in what Jonathan Kozol calls “the Reagan era.”) Huge advances paid to “authors” like Stephen King to prevent them from signing with the competition ultimately could not be earned out, since the finite expansion of chain stores like B. Dalton and Waldenbooks was necessarily unable to keep pace with the infinite greed of writers and their agents.

Many publishing houses merged with one another; many more, like Simon & Schuster and Random House, were purchased by vast conglomerates whose directors knew (and still know) nothing of publishing, let alone of books that they regard as so many marketable units like cars or tubes of toothpaste. As a result of these changes, a different type of person was drawn into the publishing “industry.” Publishers have always tended to be second-rate businessmen and third-rate intellects, but at least they used to love good books and respect the people who wrote them. Today, editors are increasingly people whose formation is not literary but commercial and whose experience is in marketing and sales rather than in literature. To them. Third Avenue is an easier, more glamorous, and romantic version of Wall Street or Sunset Boulevard, allowing you to drink all night with Norman Mailer or visit the discos with Jay McInerney, get to the office at eleven, and take Alice Walker or Jonathan Kozol to lunch at the Four Seasons at noon. In present day publishing, very few manuscripts are actually read, most “editing” is done by freelancers, very little talent or even competence is applied to very little work, and hardly any money is made. Indeed, a great deal of it is lost. Having long ago forgotten what ought to be their main goal—namely, the acquisition and publishing of good books—publishers today have literally no idea what they are doing, or even what they want to do. As for the schoolbook departments, they are confronted with declining school enrollments and increasing illiteracy and ignorance on the part of faculties as well as of their student bodies. In response to the situation, school publishers invest large sums in audios and videos and other “learning aids,” while their trade-book counterparts search diligently for Stephen King imitators and celebrities willing to cooperate with ghostwriters to produce “intimate autobiographies,” and hope everything turns out for the best.

Meaning, of course, that they may make a lot of money. Publishers Weekly and John F. Baker are coy about this, trying to vitiate accusations of self-interest by anticipating them. “We supply,” Baker writes, “the textbooks and reading materials most of [the schools] use; it is very much in our interest, as business people as well as citizens, to want to see an educated populace that can read and enjoy books.” What cant. A glance at the rest of the issue suggests PW’s idea of “reading,” of “books,” and of the nature of literary enjoyment. After television and the American public educational establishment, the American publishing industry has done more to subvert and destroy standards of taste, literacy, and intelligence than any other institution in the national life. For two decades at least, they have been busily “down-leveling” the textbooks they market to a captive school system, just as they have worked deliberately to degrade the so-called adult trade market to a standard largely of their own creation.

Now they are upset about the mess that is public education in this country, to which their answer is “an industrywide program” to involve themselves in matters for which they have no professional competence or experience whatever. If only they could just get back to the business of intelligent book publishing, they would be doing all that civic duty could possibly require of them.