Repeal bilingual education restrictions

California citizens will vote in 2016 to repeal a long standing law (Prop. 227, 1998) that restricts availability of K-12 Bilingual Education. ¡Que bueno! This is a good thing!

When I read that news last week in a back issue of EducationWeek, it made me think of a book I read not long ago – and the ongoing fight that I have with that book.

First, a bit of background: I grew up in Chicago – a rather long time ago – in a multi-cultural, multi-lingual environment. There was much immigration then, especially from Germany, Austria, and Eastern Europe. In addition, there were large numbers of African Americans emigrating North from Southern states. Our grandmother and aunties often took my sister and me for little excursions via bus or streetcar. During those rides on public transit we were treated to so many pretty shades of humanity and the fascinating, sweet din of many languages; they were a “normal” part of our life.

Now, as a community college student in California, when I walk across campus everyday I am, once again, treated to the music of multiple languages – even more than those I heard in Chicago: Spanish, yes, of course. African-American slang; Portuguese; Chinese; Russian; Japanese; Hebrew; Arabic; Farsi; Hindi; Tagalog; Tongan; Vietnamese. The other day, I thought I heard someone say, “Namaskar.” A Sanskrit expression, “namaskar” means, “I love you with my mind and with my heart.”

The sound mix in my everyday life, makes me feel at home. It is familiar. Although I am old enough to be mother or grandmother to most of my fellow students, I feel I belong here – in great part due to all the immigrants and foreign visitors, their places in the language orchestra or chorus of daily life. And I feel so lucky and nourished being here, part of a learning community that welcomes the languages and cultures of so many.

Back to the book I am fighting. Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez, an autobiography, is a complicated, sad story about the loss of cultural identity in pursuit of education.

Rodriguez, whose parents emigrated from Mexico, knew only 50 words of English when he started his schooling in Sacramento. He ended his formal education with a Ph.D., doing research in a British museum.

Unfortunately, Rodriguez’ education came at a cost.

He was the only native Spanish speaker in the class and the only non-white. Too, he was the only working class kid from a low-income family in a private Catholic school full of white upper middle class children. He went to that school because his family lived around the corner from the street with all the big houses where lived the upper class children. The only place Ricardo heard Spanish was at home, or when visiting with relatives.

He began to perceive the language of his family as the language of privacy, of intimacy; and he concluded that English was the language of the public domain, the language of power in a predominantly English speaking country. Of course he was correct about the power equation – to a point; however, apparently none of the adults around him suggested that he could learn to read and write English, read all the books he hungered to read and, at the same time, appreciate and own his family’s Mexican culture and language, his native Indian ancestry, his brownness.

Rodriguez’ education cost him an expense that had nothing to do with money. He lost a major part of his identity, perhaps his spirit!

In his own words: “…education require[s] (my emphasis) radical self reformation.” While thinking about Rodriguez’ experience and opinions, I argue with him (and, implicitly, with his teachers).

Is the act of adding a second language to one’s communications toolbox an act that should ask a student to lose one’s cultural identity?

Apparently, the young Ricardo was left alone with that conclusion. He received no validation for his totality. The strongest, most consistent positive attention he received throughout his education was for his performance as a student. And he became an outstanding student, the sort that becomes a “scholarship boy,” about whom Rodriguez writes:

“…All his ideas are clearly borrowed. He seems to have no thought of his own….The scholarship boy is a very bad student. He is the great mimic, a collector of thoughts, not a thinker.”

Thus, Rodriguez missed out on yet another potential benefit of education, support for his creativity, so he grew to believe himself unable to “think outside the box.”

To continue my argument: there is untold value in bilingual education: teaching children how to read, write, and speak English, so they can function well in an English-speaking world, while also teaching them all the other subjects in their native language, until they become fluent in English. It seems so obvious to me.

And what a rich learning experience for native English speakers to engage with fellow students from so many parts of the world, students who own other languages and cultures! How could any educator, or California voter, choose to ignore that reciprocal benefit?

Hopefully, come November 2016, a majority of California voters will be more mindful than in 1998 and vote to repeal Proposition 227.