Assimilation? Hah! Even If They WANT To Assimilate, They Can`t
February 12, 2008, 01:38 PM
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A book review (Tales Out of School; not yet online, and requires a subscription, anyway) by Sandra Tsing Loh in the just-arrived Atlantic Monthly for March is less a review—nominally of Jonathan Kozol`s new Letters to a Young Teacher —than navel-gazing on Loh`s part about her own thoughts on public education. (See this article by Sol Stern in City Journal for all you need to know about Kozol.) Loh lives in Los Angeles, specifically the Van Nuys neighborhood of the San Fernando Valley, and has a couple of young daughters in public schools. She writes, cluelessly,

[A] First World family`s entry into Los Angeles`s 21st-century urban public schools can be daunting. Yes, one`s uniquely American expectations of giving one`s children a better life than one had growing up can be challenged. On simple demographics alone, the landscape startles.

In other words, though she`s apparently a life-long Southern Californian"of German-Chinese extraction"—she`s startled that Van Nuys is about 80% Hispanic! (This doesn`t speak well for the powers of observation among us physicists—Loh has a BS in physics from Caltech.) But what does this have to do with assimilation? Well, near the end of her meandering review, Loh writes:

That so many of L.A.`s English-speaking families are fearful of letting their children come into contact with great numbers of English learners is ironic. The terror is that, like rockets losing heat tiles, Dylan and Taylor will drop a vocabulary word here or an SAT point there, and thus be doomed to Pitzer instead of Brown. Meanwhile, the far more vast and gloomy possibility is that most immigrant children will plunge off the college map entirely. In their isolated, maxed-out schools, they won`t master the higher-level English they need if they are to succeed. Such language acquisition could be greatly speeded via meaningful contact with native speakers, but, as the authors of Learning A New Land: Immigrant Students in American Society point out, few immigrant youngsters have "even one native English-speaking friend."

The last line in that passage strikes me as a graphic—even startling—refutation of the usual soothing assurances that today`s immigration will work out fine, just like in the 1880 - 1920 Great Wave. It`s not that we National Question patriots think it`ll all work out fine, but the line Loh quotes puts the fact that it won`t quite memorably. Put another way, even if they want to assimilate, they can`t. (But they probably don`t want to. Also see this.) Despite that show-stopper, Loh remains adamantly, liberally optimistic, presumably not surprising for someone who`s a regular on public radio:

We will (...) speak English at them until they turn blue. We must invest in the poor urban school, not because of any moral authority a la Jonathan Kozol exhorts us to, but because that school is our school. And in return, we get to be infused with the energy of hopeful immigrants ready to try anything, in a brave new land that, to them (...), itself represents optimism, resources, and a better and better future.