Washington Post

Sunday, October 26, 1997

Out of A Linguistic Ghetto
By GEORGE F. WILL, Syndicated Columnist

SAN FRANCISCO—The conservative case for a welcoming policy toward immigrants is that the very act of immigrating is an act of entrepreneurship. Passive, risk-averse people do not immigrate. So immigration leavens a successful, complacency-prone society with a ferment for change from below.

It is, therefore, appropriate that the campaign in this state to make bilingual education voluntary, which would virtually end it, is being organized by a conservative entrepreneur inspired by an insurrection of immigrant parents. The spark was a boycott protesting compulsory bilingual education at an elementary school in downtown Los Angeles. The growing campaign will culminate next June when Californians, as is their wont, take lawmaking into their own hands. They will vote on the initiative which, if passed, will emancipate immigrant children -- primarily Hispanics -- from a linguistic ghetto.

A Los Angeles Times poll shows that 80 percent of white Californians and 80 percent of all Californians support it -- and 84 percent of Latinos do, too. As Ron Unz says, "There is almost no support for the existing system." Indeed, the opposition includes most teachers -- other than those involved in bilingual education.

Unz, 36, grew up in the San Fernando Valley, studied theoretical physics at Harvard and Cambridge, then made a lot of money in the Silicon Valley, in the software business. His libertarian conservatism prompted him to challenge the incumbent, Pete Wilson, in the 1994 Republican gubernatorial primary. Unz got 34 percent of the vote, but any challenger with a pulse and conservative credentials would have done about that well, such was the hostility of conservatives toward Wilson at that time.

Unz is more comfortable dealing with policy than politics, and he had a dandy time looking eloquently incredulous when, in a television debate, James Lyons of the National Association for Bilingual Education declared that "adults are much more efficient and quicker language-learners than children." Among the many who disagree is the honorary chairman of Unz's "English for the Children" campaign, Jaime Escalante, the teacher whose success in teaching advanced calculus to high school students in an East Los Angeles barrio was the subject of the movie "Stand and Deliver."

Lyons's theory, although eccentric, serves as a rationalization for assuming that it takes at least five to seven years for children of limited proficiency in English to acquire proficiency. Twenty-three percent of California's pupils -- 1.3 million children -- are classified as limited. Most parents whose children are assigned to bilingual education and are often taught for all but 30 minutes a day in a language other than English believe their children are being shunted onto a slow academic track.

Compulsory bilingual education is not simply another case of compassion that cripples -- of misguided government solicitousness that weakens the social competence of the intended beneficiaries. Precious little real compassion enters into this grab for government money. This is a matter of perverse incentives: School districts get extra jobs and government payments totaling more than $320 million for bilingual education.

One argument against a welcoming immigration policy is this: that such a policy was fine a century ago, but is incompatible with today's welfare state, which acts as a magnet for persons immigrating in search of comfortable dependency. A second argument is that in the 1990s, unlike in the 1890s, a significant portion of the American intelligentsia does not much like America. This portion's ambivalence about America is expressed in the ideology of multiculturalism. It is the doctrine that a common culture is "oppressive," and that Americans should be disaggregated into groups, each cultivating its cultural distinctiveness, resisting assimilation in the name of "diversity."

The weakness of the first argument is that there is scant evidence of a "magnet effect" of the welfare state. The vast majority of immigrants are motivated by a desire to participate in, not be parasitic off of, the American economy. And they believe that the sooner their children learn English, the better the children will be at participating. Regarding the second argument, the support of Latinos for Unz's initiative is a powerful refutation of the fear that immigrants accept the "diversity" argument by which anti-American Americans advance their agenda of Balkanization.

America has long been, in the words of the Hispanic-American writer Richard Rodriguez, "a marinade of sounds." But as Rodriguez wrote in "Hunger of Memory," his brilliant meditation on language and the immigrant experience, those who are not proficient in English risk "being lured into a linguistic nursery." Next June Californians can empower parents to rescue their children from confinement in that nursery.