The Education of a Would-Be Obamacon

It probably hasn’t escaped any regular readers of this blog that I’ve been flirting on and off with the question of whether I am an “Obamacon” – someone who generally considers himself conservative but nonetheless had lent his support to liberal Democrat Barack Obama in his quest for the Presidency. See, for example, here, where I don’t fret about Obama’s Wright “problem;” here, where I wonder whether Obama might “advance the argument” and lead to a better liberalism and, subsequently, a better conservatism; here, where I basically minimize the importance of the surge’s success in evaluating the two Presidential candidates; here, where I try to convince myself that an Obama judiciary won’t be terrible; and here where I compare Barack Obama to Kermit the Frog (and I can think of no higher possible praise). I don’t want to take this too far – I don’t think I’ve written anything especially gushing about Obama, nor have I written anything especially scathing about McCain. But I don’t think I’m revealing anything that wasn’t already obvious by saying that I find the Obama candidacy interesting, both because of his particular characteristics and because of the particular characteristics of this moment in history.

But his recent comments on how “your children need to learn Spanish” are just so monumentally wrong that I feel like I’ve taken a much-needed cold shower.

How wrong? Let me count the ways:

- We do not want a formally bi-lingual America. We don’t! I can think of only one clearly successful multi-lingual polity – Switzerland – and it’s an exceptional society in almost every way. Bi-lingualism is an inescapable historical fact in Canada and Belgium, and as such it is appropriately a political fact as well, but any argument that it has been beneficial would be very strained. And there are plenty of countries with distinct linguistic minorities – Spain, Israel, China – and others with no real linguistic majority – India, South Africa – but in neither case would anyone say that these are optimal situations. The optimal situation from almost every perspective is to have a national language that everyone acknowledges and speaks. And this is what huge majorities of Americans – including most recent immigrants – think as well!

- English-speaking peoples don’t learn a second language. It’s a weird but true fact. I know virtually no Anglo Canadians who are truly fluent in French, and they live in a formally bi-lingual society. Every French Canadian I know can communicate in English. I know literally no native Britishers of British stock who are fluent in any other language but English. And Americans and Australians born of native parents are alike notoriously ignorant of foreign tongues. By contrast, my grandfather, who never went to high school, spoke and read passable (though certainly not literary) Polish, Yiddish, German and Russian along with English. That’s not only five languages, it’s three alphabets! And it’s not like he had a gift for languages – he spoke all five of these languages poorly. But he needed to speak them to survive at different points in his life, and so he did. And English-speaking peoples just don’t need to learn other languages to survive. And so they don’t. We could spend a huge amount of money trying to make America’s students multi-lingual, and we would get relatively little return.

- Spanish is good for basically two things. First, communicating with immigrant neighbors, employees or clients. Unless we are aiming to create a permanently bi-lingual America – and we shouldn’t be – there is no reason for our strapped primary schools to be paying for this; you can get a perfectly good working knowledge of everyday Spanish without studying it in school. Moreover, unless you actually use a language actively, you lose it. I studied Hebrew in grade school, French in high school, and Spanish in college. I can still barely comprehend Spanish spoken slowly; my French is nonexistent; and my Hebrew is kept up basically by use in synagogue, while my conversational Hebrew has deteriorated badly. And while many jobs in Europe really will require multi-lingual proficiency, that’s just not true in America, nor will it ever be. Second, learning any second language is good for expanding one’s cultural and intellectual horizons, gaining perspective on how one’s own primary language shapes one’s thoughts, and so forth. But this is, relatively speaking, a luxury good. For your average student, it’s much more important that they understand the concept of compound interest than that they learn Spanish. And for your elite student, why is Spanish to be preferred over French, Arabic or Chinese? Our cognitive elite needs to understand a whole lot more about the world than they do, and learning foreign languages will help. But that’s got basically nothing to do with the effort to “preserve” our supposed “resource” of native Spanish-speakers.

- Whatever one might think of it in theory, in practice, bi-lingual education is a massive boondoggle that hurts immigrant children. It hasn’t been eliminated because lots of interest-groups have an interest in maintaining it (e.g., the teachers’ unions, who get jobs for teachers who would not otherwise be qualified; local Hispanic politicians and pressure groups, who can posture in defense of their culture; and Spanish-language television, who can be assured of a continued captive audience), while those who are opposed are, mainly, poor parents, both native and immigrant, who frequently don’t (or can’t) vote. Anyone who is serious about improving American education should be opposed to bi-lingual education; we can debate different strategies for immersion, where we should place our funding priorities relative to other programs, as well as how big a Federal role there should be in this question in the first place, but bi-lingual ed as such should be dead. Now, one of the main domestic-policy hopes of the Obamacon is that Obama could be Nixon to the NEA’s China. (Or, perhaps better, that Obama could be Corey Booker on a national scale.) Why? Because he isn’t in hock to the teachers’ unions from the primary, because he’s made the right reformist noises here and there (supporting charter schools, for example), and because he’s an African-American Democrat (and so would have exceptional credibility in approaching the issue). The fact that, rather than take the opportunity to signal that he intends to do something about this boondoggle, he instead parrots the most disingenuous pro-bilingualist line (the Colorado anti-bi-lingual-ed referendum was killed in part by ads claiming that it would end dual-immersion programs that were really only relevant to elite students) is extremely depressing.

- Finally, who is Obama talking to here? Far be it from me to try to teach the greatest political phenomenon of the season how to suck eggs, but who is the audience for this message that “you” need to make sure your children learn Spanish? Who is he lecturing here? I agree with him to this extent: when I go to Brussels on business, and everyone I meet with is at least tri-lingual (Flemish, French and English), and frequently quadra-lingual (add German to the mix), and sometimes penta-lingual, I’m embarrassed. I’d like to be able to use my high school French to follow some of the water-cooler or cocktail-party conversation that swirls around me (though I still wouldn’t be able to spy; if they really don’t want me to understand, they could always switch to Flemish). But what does this have to do with being President of the United States? Why is this wish even remotely on the list? If I thought this was some indication that Obama thought tougher education of the American elite needed to be a higher Federal priority, that would be an interesting development. But it isn’t. It’s just intellectual luftmenschtichkeit.

No, this is probably not the most important thing for me to glom onto. And yes, Obama could probably have made the same point in a way that didn’t rub me the wrong way. But he didn’t, and it did, and here we are. I was bound to glom onto something sooner or later, and this turned out to be it.