Last week, my former boss, Newt Gingrich, threw a much-needed conceptual bomb into the jejune public dialogue of presidential aspirants. Amidst the platitudes, banalities and evasions that constitute pre-presidential debate these days, Newt argued (in a speech last weekend) that bilingual education only encourages students to be linguistically "living in a ghetto:
"The government should quit mandating that various documents be printed in any one of 700 languages depending on who randomly show up" [to vote] … "The American people believe English should be the official language of the government … We should replace bilingual education with immersion in English so people learn the language of prosperity, not the language of living in a ghetto. … Citizenship requires passing a test on American history in English. If that’s true, then we do not have to create ballots in any language except English."
Predictably, the PC riot squad screeched into the media to suppress such clarity of language. Peter Zamora, co-chair of the Hispanic Education Coalition, intoned: "The tone of his comments were very hateful. Spanish is spoken by many individuals who do not live in the ghetto." CNN and other news outlets started raising the question had Newt gone too far this time?
But, of course, there was nothing hateful in Newt’s language or in his thoughts: The case is completely to the contrary. Newt has always sincerely wanted to help poor people and legal immigrants become successful, fully integrated American citizens.
Back in 1995, he was mocked for warning the public that inner-city kids would be left out of the computer-filled future if we didn’t get computers into inner-city (largely black and Hispanic) schools just as suburban (largely white) parents were providing computers for their kids. Only years later did liberals recognize the very real danger of the socio-economic "digital divide" as a threat to poor kids. Newt was the first to notice the danger — and he was the first to try to actually do something about it.
Mr. Zamora and the others in the media who have pounced on Newt’s mention of the ghetto either willfully or ignorantly misinterpret the significance of the ghetto reference. Originally, the word ghetto was used to describe that part of the city of Venice, Italy, where Jews were required to live.
It wasn’t the Jews’ fault. It was the fault of the others who wanted to deny the Jews the right to live fully integrated lives. Of course, even in medieval times, Jews around the world spoke a noble, historic language. The fact that it was also spoken in the ghetto was no reflection on the language — but rather a reflection on the repressive culture in which many Jews were forced to live.
Likewise today, Spanish is a magnificent language proudly spoken by people around the world. But in the United States, while the language remains beautiful and noble, those Hispanic-American children who are discouraged from learning English (by a bilingual policy that retards rather than advances the learning of English) are and will continue to be culturally and economically ghettoized by their inability to read, write and speak English.
It is not hateful of Newt to point that out. It is hateful of ideological "civil rights" activists to try to intimidate any politician who would dare to liberate kids from the linguistic ghetto that serves the political power of these "civil rights" activists. Once these kids have mastered English and fully entered American life, they will no longer be vote fodder for the "civil rights" activists’ political ambitions.
The special interest ethnic activists prefer to have a new generation of clients, rather than a new generation of fully integrated American citizens. And what they fear is an honest and open debate on the bilingual teaching method.
Teaching in the native language (bilingual ed) combined with ballot measures and government and consumer information in the native language is establishing a dubious result today — as millions of immigrants are given just enough such linguistic help to let them function minimally in America (without learning English), but not enough to participate fully in our great country, economy and culture.
But there is a magnificent historic record for total immersion in English as the best pedagogic method of teaching immigrants English. During the great immigration waves of the 19th and early 20th centuries, peoples from the four corners of the world came by the millions to America — and within a generation were speaking English like natives and ready to reap the full benefits of American citizenship.
That is the objective that we must strive toward today. That is what Newt’s recommendations are realistically aimed at realizing. Other major political figures should join the debate (making objective arguments on either side of the policy debate) — rather than being scared off by the hateful accusations of the cynical PC enforcement squads.