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Jewish Journal

Bilingual Blues

Politics

by Joel Kotkin

June 19, 1997 | 8:00 pm

Here we go again. For the third time in four years, Californians are about to be treated to another racially tinged slugfest, this time over bilingual education.

Slated for the June 1998 ballot, the measure -- called "English for Children" -- would direct California's educational resources away from bilingual programs, which seek to teach children in their native language before moving them to English with the more traditional "immersion" method. Its leading proponent, Silicon Valley entrepreneur Ron Unz, sees the initiative as necessary for ending California's continuing slide toward educational mediocrity, and as critical for helping our large immigrant population gain greater self-sufficiency. The measure also calls for some $50 million more to be spent on adult English education.

Of course, many, particularly in the left-leaning media and among the political and academic elite, will no doubt castigate "English for Children" as yet another example of roiling anti-immigrant, racist-inspired politics, the legitimate offspring, as it were, of propositions 187 and 209.

Unz, a conservative Republican who ran against Gov. Pete Wilson in the 1994 GOP primary, has already been accused of harboring "anti-Latino racism" by Nativo Lopez, president of the Santa Ana School Board.

But before signing up to fight Unz's initiative, even knee-jerk Jewish liberals should think twice. For one thing, Ron Unz may be a conservative, but he also strongly opposed Proposition 187, not only with words but with hundreds of thousands of dollars of his own money. Indeed, Unz has been one of the nation's most fervent, even uncritical, supporters of immigration; that was one reason for his 1994 challenge of Wilson.

More to the point, there is compelling evidence that bilingualism does not serve the interest of immigrants -- indeed, many Latino parents have campaigned openly against the education establishment's insistence on steering their kids into bilingual programs.

Nor is "English for Children" easily dismissed as anti-teacher; many teachers, and even union officials, including the late American Federation of Teachers boss Albert Shanker, have long been critical of bilingualism.

Indeed, for Jews, most of whose parents and grandparents learned English through immersion, belief in English-dominated education should be as natural as lox and cream cheese on bagels. As Irving Howe noted in his "World of Our Fathers," a situation close to hopelessness existed even for the most learned Jews in turn-of-the-century New York. "There are many intelligent people," he quotes the old Yiddish Forward, "[who] spend their lives in a candy store on Ludlow Street, or a paper stand, wasting way...."

Substitute Spanish for Yiddish, Mexicans or Salvadorans for Jews, and Pico Union or East Los Angeles for New York's Lower East Side, and you can see the analogy. Jewish immigrants learned English, often painfully, and, in the process, lost Yiddish and much of the shtetl culture. But they gained a new world and a brighter future.

And, over time, the English language and American culture also gained some of its most brilliant voices -- Malamud, Roth, Bellow, to name a few. In the coming decades, we should be able to look forward to a comparable effervescence of Latino-American culture, as we can already see in the writing of brilliant essayists, such as Richard Rodriguez, or in the music of Los Lobos.

Yet if the right choice on "English for Children" seems clear, I would join the Unz crusade, but with one critical concern. Attached to the anti-bilingualism drive comes a new ideology -- captured in the term used by Unz, "one nation" -- that expresses a stronger, and potentially dangerous, reaction to the dangers of the multiculturalist agenda. Having been driven to distraction by the destructive tribalism of the left, the "one nation" ideology answers with a

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