In the melting-pot America of legend, plunging straight into the English language in school was a matter of pride and sheer survival. The pain of learning, and of leavings one’s immigrant parents behind, was justified as necessary for progress and assimilation. But by the 1970s, prevailing notions about education and ethnicity had changed. It was believed that the cultural heritage of each student should be preserved. Accordingly, new waves of immigrant children, the majority of them Hispanics, were provided with bilingual education, as the Federal Government prodded schools to give them instruction primarily in their own language until they acquired English skills. But many students stayed in such classes for years.
Critics now assail “bilingualism” as expensive, impractical and un-American. None are more eloquent — or surprising — than Richard Rodriguez. A Mexican American by birth who trained as a scholar of Renaissance literature, Rodriguez, 36, is a writer of rare precision and grace. His new book, Hunger of Memory (Godine; $ 13.95), is a perceptive and touching memoir about growing up in an immigrant family and about the emotional costs of studying his way to secure place in the Anglo intellectual hierarchy. in the book, Rodriguez bears knowledgeable and compelling witness against America’s recent methods of educating the under-privileged, and especially against bilingual education.
Rodriguez, in fact, is his own best case history. “I have been haunted by how my education has made me different.” he says. As a “socially disadvantaged” son of Spanish-speaking parents, he entered a Roman Catholic grammar school in Sacramento, Calif., when he was six, speaking barely 50 words of English. By day, in class, he sat silent and unlearning. At night he luxuriated in the warmth and intimacy of his family’s Spanish language and the separate, private world of his home. It was only when his teachers finally prevailed on Rodriguez’s parents to try speaking English at home that his education began. And so did “the inevitable pain” of growing away from his parents culturally. That process of growth and separation, he insists, is part of all education.
Rodgriguez has scant patience with middle-class ethnics, “filled with decadent self-pity,” who resist entering the mainstream of American life. Today’s bilingual classes, he maintains, keep children “poised at the edge of language too long.” Using black English or Spanish in school is crippling because it reduces learning and delays assimilation; hence it reinforces a public form of separateness, a distinction that ultimately keeps minorities in their ghettos. “What I needed to learn to school was that I had the right — and the obligation — to speak the public language of los gringos,” writes Rodriguez. “Only when I was able to think of myself as an American, no longer an alien in gringo society, could I seek the rights and opportunities necessary for full public individuality.”
“Minority student” is a label that Rodriguez dislikes and regrets having accepted for himself, first at Stanford, then as a graduate student at Columbia. By the time he won a Fulbright scholarship, he was in no way “socially disadvantaged.” Yet in 1976, when fellow graduate students were scrounging for teaching jobs, Rodriguez found himself overwhelmed with offers from top universities, not because he was a skillful scholar-teacher — which he was — but simply because he was a member of a racial minority. Disilusioned by what he regarded as the unfairness of academic affirmative-action policies based solely on race, he turned down all the professorships offered and became a writer. Rodriguez realized that “the policy of affirmative action was never able to distinguish someone like never able to distinguish someone like me from a slightly educated Mexican American who lived in a barrio. Worse, affirmative action made me the beneficiary of his condition.” Today, he believes, colleges do nonwhite students a disservice by recruiting them without due regard for their preparation or chances to succeed. “The revolutionary demand,” Rodriguez writes, would be for “a reform of primary and secondary schools.”
Eventually Rodriguez spoke out in favor of the Bakke decision, which upheld a white applicant’s complaint against a minority admissions quota at the University of California medical school at Davis. At a time when the Reagan Administration is cutting back funds for bilingual education and backing away from affirmative action, his views take on political significance. He has been quoted and courted by an array of right-wing politicians “for whom,” he says, “I would never vote,” and called a “brown Uncle Tom” by minority groups. Commenting on Hunger of Memory, Oral Historian Studs Terkel, a supporter of affirmative action, warns, “I don’t want to see the book of an exceptional individual used by others to make a general case.” Rodriguez, who now lives simply in a small San Francisco apartment, shares that concern. Says he: “I’ve always been in favor of affirmative action, but only if class was the criterion rather than race.”