Jewish World Review July 19, 2004 / 1 Menachem-Av, 5764

Joanne Jacobs

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Consumer Reports

Parents for English, French not for Potter; The Power of Optimism | 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.

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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.

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JWR contributor Joanne Jacobs, a former Knight-Ridder columnist and San Jose Mercury News editorial writer, blogs daily at She is currently finishing a book, Start-Up High, about a San Jose charter school. Comment by clicking here.


© 2004, Joanne Jacobs