Those are rough translations in five languages of a phrase long thought to express one of the generative ideas of America: The melting pot. Give me your Poles, Germans, Croats, Italians, Ruthenians, Swedes, Dalmatians, etc., yearning to be free, and in a generation I will show you a new breed of English-speaking Americans. Today, the melting pot isn’t working as it used to, and the very idea is under attack. The unifying force of English is being eroded. In the old days, immigrants were taught in English in the public schools.Today, they are taught in Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Arabic and 107 other languages funded by 139 million federal dollars.
Do we know what we are doing?
It is a classic story of good intentions going badly wrong. It began in the heady liberal ’60s of civil-rights reform. Mexican American children were seen to be disadvantaged in English-speaking classes. So, in 1968, Congress voted $7.5 million for an experimental program of bilingual education. It left the method of removing the disadvantage to the discretion of the schools.So far, not so bad. The intention was clear: It was to help the children to assimilate by learning English.
Big Brother was soon flexing his muscles. In 1974-78, Congress took away school discretion. Federal dollars were henceforth available only if the school taught in the child’s native language, be it Jicarilla Apache or Passamaquoddy.
The cover story was that teaching in the native language helped children learn English quicker and improved academic performance all round. It sounds suspicious, and it was. The evidence that bilingualism in this form is a panacea is at best half-baked, often crooked. The program reached too few minority children altogether. Hispanic children still perform way below the national average, way below Asian American students who receive less bilingual education. Of course, social factors come into it, but mandatory native-language instruction is at least unproven academically and could be divisive.
In truth, ethnic and especially Hispanic politics have gotten into the act. Bilingualism has come to mean not a year or two’s transition to English, but a means of retaining Spanish language and culture. In Boston, for instance, as many as 40 percent of the Hispanics have been taught in Spanish for up to eight years. In 1984, Congress even voted funds just to maintain student competence in the native language. Bilingualism has become a badge of separateness, not a route to assimilation. The director of the Georgetown University Bilingual Education Service Center, Ramon Santiago, sums it up: “The melting-pot concept has been disavowed as not representative of U.S. society. Instead, the salad-bowl or mosaic concept is preferable. Groups should be allowed to keep their distinctiveness.”
Now there is, of course, everything to be said for pride in one’s past, be it Mexican, Chinese or Indian, and the U.S. cherishes its enrichment by diverse immigrations. But the Swedes, Germans and Italians who became Americans in earlier generations preserved as much of their national culture as they wished at home while embracing assimilation in public. As much as the past, there is something to be said, is there not, for the future? For the future of America, for pride shared in common as Americans, for the English language that has proved so socially cohesive — in contrast to societies such as Belgium, Canada and Sri Lanka, where language has become politicized? And there is something to be said for the future of the child who needs English to enjoy equal opportunity but has so subtly become a pawn of politicians and educators.
The children need help, more of it, but Congress must change the law, as Education Secretary Bennett has urged. In 1984, in a grudging admission that something was amiss, Congress conceded that native-language instruction, by order of Washington, need not be universal. It allowed funding of other methods. But though applications for such funding run to 25 percent of the total, Congress put a cap of 4 percent on local discretion. Four percent of wisdom represents shortchanging the American dream by some 96 percent.