AMERICA IS facing illiteracy. Depending on which study you believe, 10 to 40 percent of high school graduates can’t read well enough (in any language) to get a good job or one better than the job they have. Many New York City residents seem to have given up finding work at all.
A great nation, which was the most literate in the world when it was founded 200 years ago on the principle of equality, is about to become nations: one that produces television and one that just stares at it.
The old WASP establishment has been replaced by a multiethnic meritocracy lording subtly over an underclass of increasingly illiterate, increasingly incompetent fellow citizens.
Among the many reasons for this disaster is the failure of American education, and one of the biggest factors in that failure is bilingual education, written into the Civil Rights Act some dozen years ago.
The theory behind bilingual education is that an immigrant child learns best in his or her maternal language. The resulting programs, funded to hundreds of millions of dollars by federal and state governments, segregate the children of (among others) Hispanic, Haitian, Chinese and Polish-speaking immigrants into classes of their own where literature, history and the sciences are taught exclusively in that maternal language from the first to the 12th grade. English is learned on the side. As a second language. Slowly and badly.
The result of more than 10 years of this policy, of course, is thousands of children, most of them born citizens, for whom English will remain forever a foreign language. They have missed what every teacher knows is the natural point in a child’s life for becoming fluent in a new language – the first few years of preschool and primary school.
The only English they really know well is the simplest street language, the kind whose use instantly disqualifies an American these days for the best colleges and the better jobs.
Another result of bilingual eduation is a vast bilingual “establishment” of teachers and administrators who owe their jobs to this wacky program. Their solution to the dilemma of these forever foreign children they have helped create is to demand that second-rate colleges and second-rate jobs be provided for them. These educators know that their clients can’t rebel, because they don’t understand English well and their parents can’t understand it at all.
Another result of bilingual policy is especially ugly – the resegregation of the public schools. There are schools in New York with two separate groups in the cafeteria, two separate floors for after-school programs, two separate administrations for curriculum. Nor will they, nor can they, speak to each other.
There are even schools in New York that sing the national anthem of every nation in the Caribbean at assemblies, but have to be reminded to sing the “Star-Spangled Banner.”
An organization, US ENGLISH, which was founded by a Japanese-American and has members from every ethnic group in the great American bouillabaisse, is trying to remedy this worsening situation by having all U.S. schoolchildren taught English early and quickly. If we are to carry any weight in the world, we must carry on our public business in a single language, pave the road for the talented by teaching all our citizens to be fluent in it, and give each American the chance to learn several other languages besides. Bilingual education makes all three of these goals difficult, if not impossible, to achieve.
William R. Everdell teaches at St. Ann’s School in Brooklyn and is a member of the New York City unit of US English.