John R. Silber is like the little boy who kept insisting that the emperor had no clothes: No matter how much the crowd tries to ignore and denigrate him, he keeps making his point.
The emperor, in this case, is education in general, and last week it was bilingual education in particular.
At its meeting last week, the Board of Education, of which Silber is chairman, adopted regulations that eased some of the requirements around bilingual education that have been in place since 1971, and it endorsed Gov. William F. Weld’s bill to alter the system even further.
Opponents of change were vocal and bitter, even as they realized their objections were falling on deaf ears. On top of that, they had to sit through Silber’s sermons on the subject.
The people at the meeting were uncomfortable when Silber took apart a letter he had received from a Dorchester High School student in this country for two years.
In fact, the spectacle was unnecessarily cruel, even if the youth wasn’t identified, and it took everyone’s attention away from two crucial points Silber was making.
The first was that he and the board had been subjected to form letters from people who had been agitated with misinformation about what was happening to bilingual education. The letter he criticized was the only one he received after writing each student in the class to solicit an opinion they hadn’t copied off the blackboard.
The second point was the sublime self-assurance expressed, however erratically, by the student about his mastery of English and ability to get any job. He may not be able to spell it, but he has self-esteem.
Silber believes that public schools should teach children English and, in the case of those who come to school unable to speak or read English, teach it to them as quickly as possible. Those who think that’s what the schools are doing have not been paying attention.
The hand-wringing and moaning that greeted Silber’s statement that kindergarten should be only in English was amazing to behold.
Equally surprising was the assertion by a Haitian man that it is the school’s responsibility to render children literate in their native language as well.
To educationists obsessed with multiculturalism and political correctness, Silber is their worst nightmare. He is, however, correct.
English language is a powerful tool. Besides being the common language of the nation, it is an international language. The new English prime minister, campaigning for office last month, reminded voters of the advantage they have, speaking the same language, more or less, as the Americans speak.
And it is an advantage to be able to speak the languages of most of the Western Hemisphere, but that doesn’t seen to occur to some of the advocates of endless transition.
That said, it is not easy speaking a foreign language in this country. The natives are relentlessly monolingual. English is a bewildering language and American society can be a daunting experience.
What schools can do to children frightens English-speaking natives, too.
But as they learn English, students become capable of reading the rich vein of literature produced by the children of those who came to this country not speaking English. Experiences ranged from families that never acknowledged they were in a different country to those that ruthlessly expunged any memory of their former land.
Students from immigrant families often have to cope with the clash between the American attitude that one can do and be anything one strives to be and the mores of the old country that recoil from social and intellectual mobility. And that has nothing to do with language.
In school, the very existence of immigrants, their language, their culture, their religion, was often derided as a matter of formal policy. It still happens, but lacks official sanction these days, at least in most schools.
For all the complaints about “racist attacks” leveled against him, Silber uttered not one word that even hinted at any denigration of other languages or cultures.
However, it is the Silber style to create the impression that he dearly wants to be your enemy, and it’s not merely impressed upon reporters. Last week, he departed from the agenda to rant about students who want education to be fun and about the Springfield schools that dropped spelling bees as too stressful for young scholars.
He spoke about spelling bees, but these remarks apply as well, first to the bilingual agitators and secondly to the students struggling with the language of their new country.
Silber said: “Instead of the Roaring ’20s we have the Whining ’90s, in which we are trying to make victims out of everyone and to pursue sensitivity at all costs without ever recognizing that some level of courage, integrity, and some capacity to withstand disappointment and adversity is an important part of the moral education of children. “