The pot melts no more

The concept of these United States as a melting pot was alive and well until a generation or two ago. Today, multiethnicity is in; 100 percent assimilation is out.

While I hold no brief for making all Americans carbon copies of one another, I do recall with nostalgia how things used to be.

At P.S. 82 in Manhattan, 90 percent of the students had European-born parents. Our teachers were mostly of Irish origin, and they tried hard to homogenize us. We might refer to ourselves as Czech or Hungarian or Greek, but we developed a sense of pride in being American. Our country was the land of opportunity, a haven for those seeking a better life. The U.S. flag, the words and music of “America the Beautiful,” our stirring though hard-to-sing national anthem, even our school song gave us goose bumps.

There were two unifying factors: The attitude of our teachers and the English language — rich, intricate, itself of multiethnic origin. At home, we might prefer the languages of our ancestors to our parents’ imperfect English, but the home language was only that — the language spoken at home. After we started school, we spoke only English to our siblings, our classmates and our friends. We studied and wrote in English, we played in English, we thought in English.

Then, in the 1960s, came bilingual education. It was a simple concept at first: Why not teach children English by means of the home language? A decade later, these “disadvantaged” children were still being taught in their parents’ language. As federal money poured into the program, it gradually became self-perpetuating.

Bilingual education is hardly a new idea. Between 1830 and 1890, 4 1/2 million students attended German-language public schools in Pennsylvania and Ohio. Early in this century, Hebrew-English classes were set up for Jewish children on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. All these programs ultimately disappeared. Today, however, bilingual education seems to be developing into a permanent means of ethnic compartmentalization.

Cultural pluralism may be the norm for multiethnic nation, but it is the family’s role to build a cultural identity in children. The school’s role is to help them enter the mainstream of school life and, eventually, the mainstream of the United States of America.

Fotine Nicholas taught almost 30 years in the New York City schools and still writes an education column for a Greek American weekly.

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