Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Prime defect of liberalism

Liberalism has a lot to offer. Its economic results are better than laissez-faire and much better than a command economy. Its core value of fairness extends to everyone; people can be who they are under a liberal government.

The prime defect of liberalism is that it's not simple-minded, and many voters are. If you have to explain anything beyond the superficial to them, they glaze over and vote for the pandering idiot. Conservatives have proven over and over again to be superficial themselves (Sarah Palin) or at least willing to pander in order to win.

Here's an example: Initial reports indicate that English language immersion for non-native speakers is not working for the Boston Public Schools. It was legally mandated by ballot initiative in 2002, and I voted against it.

There are several points to make about this news story:

  • The drop-out rate got worse for foreign speakers, but it got worse for native speakers at about the same pace. I suspect the change is mainly the result of better counting.
  • Nonetheless, the new law banning traditional bilingual education has not (yet?) lived up to its promise.
  • The school system's failure to make better efforts to provide support services is unconscionable and must be remedied. "Once it's the law of the land, it has to be done well," said Miren Uriarte, ... coauthor of the report.
More to the point, the whole debate is filled with extremes that benefit no one. One commenter (probably more) recounts how his father was immersed in English in the 1920s and emerged with no accent. Most stories like this are bullshit seen through rosy lenses of nostalgia. Most people who succeeded this way started very young and had more help than any of their ideologically committed descendants find convenient to admit. Even if some immigrants did succeed at this, that in no way shows that sink or swim is the best way to learn to swim.

The hard fact about bringing immigrants to English is that it's difficult and complicated, not subject to the easy answers that both extremes want - that the nativist, anti-immigrant bigots want most of all. A few facts:
  • Immersion works well for young children. They soak up English without much effort. These children become interpreters for their parents.
  • Native language support (where the Boston schools are failing) is essential to give older kids a chance. Even so, it's just a chance, not a guarantee.
  • Traditional bilingual education is not a guarantee, either.
My observation: Immigrants I've talked to, often in a patois of my broken Spanish and their broken English, may have given up on English fluency for themselves, but they haven't given up on it for their children.

Chances are, if you got here, you're already a liberal. After all, this was complicated and nuanced.


Jens said...

This is a thoughtful piece. When I first saw the title of this post, I nearly clicked away. I am amazed at the shortsightedness and bigotry of the comments on the two Boston Globe articles. It's nice to see the careful thought put into your response. Thank you.

lovable liberal said...

Jens, newspaper comment threads often make me worry about the future of democracy. They are often as venom-filled as right-wing talk radio - I suspect the same people dominate both. I confess my title was meant to sucker them in.

I hope you'll keep coming back.

globeisatrocious said...

suckered me - mission accomplished