The Obama administration seems to live in a parallel reality, oblivious to the racial animus that has become the hallmark of late-stage Obama and to the ethnic strife that wreaks havoc on the rest of the world. Inside its own Platonic cave, the thinking is: Over half the world is polyglot, so why not us?
Its latest policy statement, issued jointly late last week by the departments of Education and Health and Human Services, advises states to instruct early childhood students in home languages different from English, and to help them retain separate cultural attachments.
The administration warns that “not recognizing children’s cultures and languages as assets” may be hurting them with school work. “Over half the world’s population is estimated to be bilingual or multilingual,” the statement lectures almost plaintively.
The answer is to celebrate and preserve the differences of dual language learners, or children who speak a different language at home.
The policy statement calls for a range of practices, from creating curricula and educational systems that “support children’s home language development,” to urging states to hire more teachers who “speak the language and/or share the cultural background of children who are DLLs [dual language learners] in the community.”
States must move with alacrity because these children will soon make up a “sizable proportion of the workforce” and their linguistic and cultural assets will be needed in an “evolving global economy.”
“The growing diversity of our nation’s children requires that we shift the status quo,” says the statement, in order to “build a future workforce that is rich in diversity, heritage, cultural tradition, and language.”
Tolerance and respect are not sufficient—early childhood programs must “embrace and celebrate their diversity.”
If this last bit of compulsive affirmation finally perks up your ears, it should. So should hearing for the umpteenth time about this administration’s zest for shifting the status quo.
In a Heritage Foundation issue brief published this week, I argue that policy statements of this sort raise generalized concerns because they may be deemed coercive and intrusive into areas of primary state and local jurisdiction.
The administration has no authority under the federal statutes governing education, such as Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the implementing regulations, to require bilingual education or retention of “cultural assets.”
But the problems with this policy approach are much more fundamental. Speaking a second, third, or more foreign languages is indubitably a bonus for an individual, but it is far less clear that societal bilingualism or multilingualism helps cohesion or economic success.
The administration disregards a whole field of academic research that finds a high correlation between ethnic stratification and conflict.
One of the papers, by Alberto Alesina and others at Harvard, considered the gold standard study in the field of ethnic fractionalization, finds that countries with high linguistic and ethnic divisions have many societal dysfunctions.
Well before Harvard, the ancients (or if you’re a believer, a Higher Authority) drew a distinction between individual wisdom (which Proverbs 8:11 rightly says is “better than rubies”) and fracturing society linguistically, which was the punishment for the hubristic planners of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:7—“let us go down and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech”).
If Harvard studies or Revealed Truth don’t convince you, here’s what liberals have said on the matter.
More than a century ago, John Stuart Mill warned that:
“Free institutions are next to impossible in a country made up of different nationalities. Among a people without fellow-feeling, especially if they read and speak different languages, the united public opinion, necessary to the working of representative government, cannot exist. The influences which form opinions and decide political acts are different in the different sections of the country.”
And closer still to our time, the historian and eminent public intellectual Arthur Schlesinger, also a liberal, asked in 1991, “In the century darkly ahead, civilization faces a critical question: What is it that holds a nation together?”
A few questions later, Schlesinger answered himself: “If separatist tendencies go on unchecked, the result can only be the fragmentation, resegregation, and tribalization of American life.”
This is why American leaders from the time of the founding, in recognition that it was even then a land with a high number of immigrants, have pursued an approach that is actually more inclusive than what the administration proposes today: It encouraged the foreign born to feel as though they were natives. They knew that a polity needs a single language.
This administration, always seeking in haste to “shift the status quo,” is only too happy to overlook the carnage that divisions between so many Hutus and Tutsis, Serbs and Croats and Pashtuns and Hazaras have created.
Even in industrialized allied nations like Belgium and Spain, or our northern neighbor Canada—which are high gross domestic product per capita societies with concomitant high levels of education, health, and other advantages—official bilingualism has pitted region against region, neighbor against neighbor.
Perhaps Congress can take a look at this new Tower of Babel and ask some questions.
Mike Gonzalez, a senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation, is a widely experienced international correspondent, commentator and editor who has reported from Asia, Europe and Latin America. He served in the George W. Bush Administration first at the Securities and Exchange Commission and then at the State Department, and is the author of, "A Race for the Future: How Conservatives Can Break the Liberal Monopoly on Hispanic Americans."
Editor's Note: This piece was originally published by The Daily Signal.