Parents for English, French not for Potter

Latino parents in New York City want their children taught in English, but can't get them out of  dead-end bilingual classes, writes Samuel Freedman in the New York Times.

On a sultry night in late June, when the school term was nearly over, two dozen parents gathered in a church basement in Brooklyn to talk about what a waste the year had been.

Immigrants from Mexico and the Dominican Republic, raising their children in the battered neighborhood of Bushwick, they were the people bilingual education supposedly serves. Instead, one after the other, they condemned a system that consigned their children to a linguistic ghetto, cut off from the United States of integration and upward mobility.

. . . Gregorio Ortega spoke about how his son Geraldo, born right here in New York, had been abruptly transferred into a bilingual class at P.S. 123 after spending his first four school years learning in English. Irene De Leon spoke of her daughter being placed in a bilingual section at P.S. 123 despite having done her first year and a half of school in English when the family lived in Queens. Benerita Salsedo wondered aloud why, after four years in the bilingual track at P.S. 145 in Bushwick, her son Alberto still had not moved into English classes. Her two other children were also stuck in bilingual limbo.

Bilingual education became a source of patronage jobs, Freedman writes. It has defied reform. Its advocates are bureaucrats and teachers. Its opponents are “Spanish-speaking immigrants who struggled to reach the United States and struggle still at low-wage jobs to stay here so that their children can acquire and rise with an American education, very much including fluency in English.”

It’s not just New York City. In my experience, Mexican immigrant parents in California prefer teachers who can talk to the family in Spanish but teach in English. Non-English-speaking parents are very aware of the handicaps of not being fluent in the language of the country.

The Power of Optimism

Blacks from immigrant families outperform native-born blacks in school, notes Clarence Page, a black columnist, somewhat belatedly. Why? Page says it doesn't take a Harvard study to figure out the answer:

Immigrant kids work harder.

They work harder, in part, because their parents work harder -- and their parents work harder because of their relentless optimism: Where others see a dead-end job, immigrants of all colors see an entry-level opportunity.

Where others may see inequities, immigrants tend to see a ladder to be climbed. With a hyper-optimism, they move ahead, upward and outward, undeterred by discrimination, short-term poverty, substandard housing, lack of financial capital or any other barriers that fate throws in the way of their hopes and dreams.

And they pass this spirit of enterprise on to their children. A University of Chicago study in 1995, for example, found children from a variety of minority groups whose mothers are immigrants outperform students from their same ethnic group whose mothers were born in the United States. "Family optimism" about the future played a crucially important role in determining school success, according to sociology Prof. Marta Tienda.

In the 20th century, optimistic blacks moved from the rural south to the industrial north, Page writes. But that spirit has been lost and needs to be revived.

The French Don't Get Harry Potter

Spitbull and SCSU Scholars comment on a debate in France's Le Monde magazine over the meaning of the Harry Potter series.

A French literature professor at a teachers' training institute thinks Harry "glorifies individualism, excessive competition and a cult of violence," which he thinks is bad. A philosophy professor responds that Harry Potter is a socialist tract. The Star summarizes:

The five Harry Potter books -- enormously successful in French translation -- are stuffed with "neo-liberal stereotypes" which caricature approvingly the "excesses of the Anglo-Saxon social model," (Ilias) Yocaris wrote.

Thus all representatives of the state (the Ministry of Magic) are lampooned as ridiculous, or incompetent or sinister. Harry goes to a "private" school, whose "micro-society" is a "pitiless jungle" that glorifies "individualism, excessive competition and a cult of violence."

Public institutions are unable to protect individuals. Au contraire, Harry Potter and his friends find that they have to break the magical state-imposed rules to protect themselves from evil forces.

...Le Monde last week published an equally erudite reply to Yocaris. Far from being a capitalist lackey, Harry Potter is the first fictional hero of the anti-globalist, anti-free market, pro-Third World, "Seattle" generation, according to Isabelle Smadja.

...Harry and his friends show great concern for the "house elves," the unpaid servants of the magical world. The fact that the elves are mostly content with their lot is, says Smadja, a "pertinent" critique of globalization.

Even worse, many of the wicked characters have French names, such as Voldemort (flight of death) and Malfoy (bad faith).

Actually, the Harry Potter books are about optimism and hope, argues King at SCSU Scholars, quoting Diane Durante of (shudder) Capitalism Magazine. Good can triumph over evil, if it's got the guts to fight.

The Potter series is very popular in France, perhaps indicating that not everyone there is a left-wing intellectual.


Chuck Morris of Greenville, S.C., writes:

I agree completely with the comments about comic books. They are an excellent entrance into the world of literature for young people. Too bad the educated among us are so sophisticated that they can not understand that.

About the decline in adult reading, I think it is a matter of time. I used to read several novels a year only five years ago; now I don't have time. I do read reports, training manuals, certification text, professional journals, field reports, etc. and I write proposals and activity reports. It is true that I have a high-tech job, but I believe that is true of more and more people now. We can't read for fun, because we spend all of our time reading for work!

I have even dropped some journals. They were sitting for six months and not getting read. No time.

Nancy McInnes of Gainesville, Fla., writes:

As a reading teacher, it is scary that children don't read, adults don't read enough and some lousy teachers (backed by lousy administrators) are pushing lousy "literature" (if that's what it can be called) on their students, due to political correctness and laziness. But you left out a huge factor in public school education: the use of videos in class. As a high school reading teacher, I had difficulty competing with the English core curriculum that gave priority to videos over books.

We have watered down education in the name of making it "interesting" for disinterested students. In essence, we have given up on many students, especially the lower-level kids who need to have goals set for them, high goals that can be obtained through hard work. We want an easy class day, we don't want to anger the generally apathetic parents (who only contact the school when you expect their child to actually perform) and we want to show that we have mostly A and B students in our classrooms.

Caring about students doesn't mean more $$$ for education. It means reform and a cut in the top positions at the administrative levels.  

Dan Henke writes:

Kudos on your article "Johnny Won't Read." It is a pity that reading is becoming a past pastime. I agree that television and computers (video games and the Internet) are the prime culprits in this tragedy. How ironic, though, that I am typing this message on a computer so I can send it via the Internet. I can't wait to finish so I can get back to that game of Blitzkrieg.

There is an abundance of high-quality books available now, but how do you get people to read them? My two boys are prime examples. My 11-year-old is very bright, and he will read some, but not nearly as much as I would like. My 15-year-old is not stupid, but he reads about as much as he eats vegetables, which is not at all.

I try to set a good example: I read between 10 and 15 thick history books per year on the average, and have a large library at home. I have tried encouragement, and getting the boys bookstore gift cards. Usually they buy music or DVDs with them, if they have the choice. If they are told to buy a book, it often goes unread. When I tire of the carrot approach I will use the stick and order them to read. However, they never quite establish reading as a habit. As a result, they are both rather inarticulate and lacking in ability to express themselves in writing. And yes, the 15-year-old chats with his buddies on line and uses all the "cool" shortcuts to express himself.

Maybe I'll take him through one of the crummiest trailer parks in the county and tell him these are his chat buddies 15 years from now when no one will give him a decent job. I am sure there is a lot number with his name on it.

The only thing which sets our nation apart from the rest of the world is our level of education and ability to be innovative and express and convey that innovation in a marketable manner. With a generation of more or less illiterate or inarticulate people coming along, I wonder how long it will be before the majority of Americans are living a Third World existence.

Tony Zito of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., writes:

When I was seven my mother took away my copy of the very first Incredible Hulk and locked it in our storage bin, because she thought I was "too young for that stuff.” (I never saw it again, but I often grieve when considering what it might be worth today!). The comic books are OK with me, as opposed to total video immersion. My observation has been that in families where television and computer games are strictly rationed, reading is more frequent and at a higher level. I'm not convinced we need a big study to show that TV trains people in anti-reading skills.

Joanne Jacobs writes about education and other issues at She's writing a book, Ride the Carrot Salad, about a start-up charter high school in San Jose.

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