I came to this country with my family at age 8, and spent my formative years in East Los Angeles (Montebello), where most of my elementary school peers were Mexican American.
Needless to say, with few Korean students at my new school, I had both greater opportunity to practice English and the incentive to learn English as quickly as possible, so I could fit in with my new peers. In the process of absorbing English and playing with my new friends, I also picked up various customs and cultural practices that would help me adjust and integrate into American society.
Basically, I am trying to stress the importance of learning English, and forming diverse social networks, as quickly as possible among immigrant children. Many bilingual education advocates tend to de-emphasize the importance of mainstream classes and the value of assimilation for new immigrant children.
I would like to argue that the opportunity to rapidly learn English and participate in integrated, mainstream settings is an essential and probably the most important benefit that public schools can offer to children.
Any system of education which segregates apart young children of particular immigrant groups for more than three years does great harm to the life chances and future learning of these children, and undermines the shared sense of civic community necessary for a democratic society.
In fact, it is this shared aspiration of immigrant parents and children to integrate into American mainstream middle-class society, and the desire of native-born citizens to assist this process, which fueled Prop. 227’s success.
In the mixed classroom, the immigrant child not only picks up the English language, the language of global commerce and the Internet, but also cultural fluency in the various habits and customs which would enable her to succeed in our diverse society–the richest and most dynamic nation on Earth.
Successful integration into the American mainstream offers immigrant children nearly unparalleled choices, compared to other countries, to learn and pursue their life aspirations.
The diversity of aspirations and interests among immigrant offspring is enormous, and educational professionals should not simply assume that preserving the original language and culture of the immigrant group is their most cherished goal.
Educational professionals should concentrate on empowering immigrants into the American mainstream, whereupon these individuals can decide for themselves which of the world cultures to absorb and which aspirations to pursue.
Of course, nobody assumes that the process of integration is easy or smooth. However, I wonder how separating Asian and Latino immigrant children from regular classrooms for four to ten years can ameliorate racism, boost the self-esteem of immigrant children, or encourage the integration of diverse students into a common community?
All these objectives seem to be better met in integrated classrooms, where students of diverse backgrounds learn to play, converse, and work with each other.
While caring teachers and administrators can ameliorate some of the ordeal, the process of adjustment and integration to a new society is an inherently painful and doubt-ridden process. Only after such growing pains can the immigrant child develop the self-esteem that comes from empowerment and performance in her new society.
The future of our democratic society crucially depends on the formation of a shared sense of civic identity and community among our diverse ethnic peoples: in a shared civic community, citizens recognize and act on a sense of mutual obligation to each other, including those from the most disadvantaged and racially different backgrounds.
The Public Policy Institute of California has already documented the flight of white families from public schools, fueled by the resentment of bilingual education and prejudice against new immigrants. It seems that a policy of encouraging immigrant and native-born children to mix from the earliest ages would do much more to reduce ignorance and resentment, and to encourage cooperation and a shared sense of identity, than a policy of separating the two groups.
Lest we forget, the historic Brown vs. Board of Education decision more than 40 years ago was also a one-size-fits-all experiment, imposed by the Supreme Court and fiercely resisted by local school districts. However, it symbolized and influenced a shift in political consensus from group-based segregation towards full integration, based on individual (not group-based) equality and freedom.
Similarly, the debate over bilingual education is fundamentally about competing visions of the common good and the future of our multiethnic, democratic society.
Many minority activists seem to have lost faith in the American assimilation model, and prefer institutions which treat and separate people differently by descent-based ethnicity. However, most immigrant parents and many local community leaders remain committed to the goal of full integration and participation in American society for their children.
Proposition 227, which promises to immerse immigrant children in the English language, has tapped into the assimilationist hopes and concerns of both immigrants and native-born citizens in California.
Joseph Yi is a graduate student in political science at the University of Chicago.