Monday, June 19, 2006

Not Reporting: Learning Everything But English

A otherwise exceptional report about Mexican immigrants taking advanced classes in philosophy is undermined by the reporter's snide commentaries and his backhanded attempts to shame people who oppose illegal immigration and who want to see the English language supported.

For several months, a small core of Mexican immigrants, many still clad in work clothes stained with dirt and paint, have convened at the Gads Hill Center, 1919 W. Cullerton St., for a grueling curriculum of college-level humanities classes, including history, literature and writing.

This is an excellent example of individuals taking advantage of an opportunity. Education like this always rewards people eventually, even if it seems to have no practical benefit at first.
Odyssey initially targeted African-American students and English-speaking Latinos, but this graduating class is the first eligible for college credit after taking courses entirely in Spanish. As Chicago sees an increased population of Mexican immigrants with low education levels, the Odyssey Project reflects a growing feeling by educators that they must expand learning opportunities, even in Spanish.

This is where the article starts to grow annoying: it is admirable that the humanities are being taught so effectively, but it is not a foregone conclusion that more Mexicans means less English. People who can manage Sartre and Plato can manage a few extra English classes. Whether they are in fact taking those classes the reporter does not say, nor does he seem to care.

This is a sore spot in my household: my wife's 85-year-old grandmother managed to learn English when she came over 8 years ago, legally, from Russia. If she managed that feat, it seems unfathomable that others cannot manage it as well.
In a recent class, the students literally sat on the edges of their seats as philosophy instructor Carlos Briones walked them through existentialism. They furiously scribbled notes and peppered him with questions.

To them, these are not esoteric topics. When Briones considers the idea of free will, the questions turn to their participation in immigrant-rights marches in March and May that brought massive crowds into Chicago's streets.

Ah, yes. Immigrant-rights marches. Did the class cover how language can be used to defeat free will by so compromising the discourse of politics that there are no words for opposition? The march can at least as easily be described as a march for special rights for illegal immigrants. That the reporter does not so indicate suggests an agenda behind his reporting of this otherwise admirable accomplishment.

It is also disturbing that the students' first reported use of their philosophical insights revolves around mass politics. Philosophy offers much more besides a justification for political activism.
By choosing to take college-level courses, the students are flying in the face of depressing data about the education levels of Mexican immigrants in the Chicago area.

Flying students? Perhaps the writer needs a refresher course on how to construct logical comparisons.

Despite the reporter's interjections, there is much that is admirable in the article, like this story:
Marcelo Diaz, an electrician, dropped out of college in Mexico City to come to Chicago in the 1980s. He expected to work for a year to earn enough money to buy a car. He never went back.

One of the class' most inquisitive students, Diaz prefaces each question with a pleading "Maestro?" or "Teacher?" He said he cried after receiving his certificate Sunday, marveling at the energy in the room from all of those who value education.

"I know better things are going to happen for me," he said. "I feel like I can do anything." More important, Diaz said the courses have given him a new identity and voice.

Mr. Diaz's efforts are laudable, but I would like to be reassured that Mr. Diaz is here legally, as the profile of a person who plans to come for a short time but stays for many years suggests that perhaps he is not here legally.

But the next few paragraphs are nonsensical; it is a wonder they were included:
He said a contractor once mockingly asked him how many millions.

"He and I have the same brain," Diaz said, still fuming. "The only difference is that his uncle had millions of dollars and he was able to build an empire.

The story doesn't say what exactly "how many millions" referred to. Was it how many millions Diaz wanted to make in America? The reporter doesn't say. And I question the sophistication of the comment: I've never met a contractor who had what I would call "an empire." Rich perhaps, but America has lots of rich people, and Mexicans who learn English and legalize their immigration status are counted among them. And why was this anecdote even in here? To remind Americans of how crappy they can act? Thanks for the reminder, but I think "crappy" is spread around the world pretty equally.

The most depressing part of the story comes near the end. It is wonderful that these immigrants are pursuing higher education, but I find it very frustrating that so many educators feel that education must come at the expense of the English language:
Since opening a satellite campus in Chicago in 2001, for example, the Autonomous National University of Mexico has awarded bachelor's degrees and high-school diplomas to Mexican immigrants taking classes in Spanish. The university also is a partner in the Spanish-language Odyssey Project.

Odyssey initially had poor results in trying to reach Hispanic students by offering classes in English in North Lawndale. Then coordinators tried again--this time in Spanish. Students are not required to have finished high school, but they must have sufficient language skills to read a newspaper in Spanish.

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