Ilana-Davita recently had a discussion on her blog of the recent controversy in France (sparked by Switzerland’s ban on minarets) over what constitutes national identity. This got me thinking about the dozens of discussions I’ve had on this subject, and inspired this post. (Thanks, Ilana-Davita!)
I know the US has struggled with this for decades, trying to reconcile whether it sees itself as a melting pot (which takes a few generations post-immigration to effect) or as a smörgåsbord, where everyone lives side by side but maintains their own distinct cultural affiliation.
I think one can see both. Catholics marry Protestants, Jews marry Koreans, and everyone eats pasta. On the other hand, regional accents and culture often outlast that culture’s hegemony in a given part of the country, giving California a distinctly Hispanic and Italian flavor, the Northeast a cuisine and city names that mirror those of Great Britain, and the Midwest an obvious Germanic influence which has led to the custom of having cookie tables at weddings—besides the meal and the wedding cake—and not only for people with Germanic-sounding last names.
I know the fears that underlie some people’s asking what has happened to America’s national identity. Some are afraid that the influx of immigrants from countries that do not share the American values of freedom, civil rights, and sense of fair play will erode the nation’s safety, unity, and standing in the world. Certainly the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, were a slap in the face of freedom, since the attackers availed themselves of many of the freedoms that America offers that their home countries do not, and used those freedoms to slaughter innocent Americans (as well as foreign nationals). There is also a sense that attempts at cultural inclusiveness, particularly in public schools, are compromising the quality of education by sidelining Western history and literature, and including subjects and texts which may lack the educational value of the older curriculum.
I don’t really like this argument, and I don’t find I agree with either side wholeheartedly. I agree that texts by Charles Dickens are much richer sources of English vocabulary than nearly anything else out there, but I also found Chinua Achebe’s simply but beautifully written Things Fall Apart to be as valuable in addressing human themes as anything Camus may have written. If education is about acquiring cultural knowledge, then the bulk of the texts used in schools should reflect that attitude and introduce all children, no matter their background, to the sources of the values Westerners hold dear. If, on the other hand, education is about acquiring skills first, and cultural knowledge second, then teachers should feel free to use non-Western texts that foster the teaching of those skills. It’s a difficult choice to make for educators and curriculum directors, and one that I think has not been addressed successfully at a national level.
I am familiar with some of the arguments in favor of “multi-cultural” education. The argument that children cannot relate to stories, pictures, and math problems that don’t reflect who they are is one of the main ones. I’m afraid I’m less sympathetic to these arguments than most, and some of that stems from being Jewish. Jewish kids don’t go to public school expecting to read Roth, Bellow, and Doctorow. They don’t expect to encounter word problems in math about doing comparative shopping for tefillin or a set of the Babylonian Talmud. They go to read Jefferson, Scott Fitzgerald, and learn about the Civil War. They learn how to be Jewish at home, at synagogue, and—if their families have the desire and the means—at day school. I think the same should go for kids of other ethnic and religious backgrounds. (And I definitely think people who want to teach their children Creationism—or, more politically correctly, “intelligent design”—should do so at home and at church.) Their native languages can be learned at home or privately, their religions from their families, and their own culture’s literature at home or at the library. No public school is going to be able to take on the mammoth task of teaching every child every other child’s culture, nor should it have to. Where a non-Western text reflects universal human themes, or a novel or story addresses the question, “What is an American?” it is clearly relevant to the curriculum.
It is true that children growing up in America, Britain, France, China, and the Congo are all going to be citizens of the world. But it is also true that without a firm foundation in what it means to be a citizen of a country, or of a community, I am not convinced that being a citizen of the world naturally follows. This too comes from being Jewish. We had friends in the US who insisted, while living in our largely Jewish Boston suburb, on shlepping their kids to a more culturally diverse neighborhood to go to nursery school. Their rationale was that while they may be Jewish, they wanted their children to grow up knowing kids from other, non-Jewish backgrounds. While I understand their desire for their children to know people from other cultural affiliations, I wasn’t sure that that was an essential goal for pre-school-aged children, or justified the gas or time in the car to achieve it. My attitude is that young children should first be taught who they are, and afterward (from 5th grade or so on) be taught about other people.
At the Crunch family dinner table, we discuss the children’s days, the holidays, the weekly parashah, Jewish history, and Torah values in general. We also discuss the children’s secular and non-Jewish family, and how they are spending their holiday season. We talk about Arabs, and their complex society and different religion. We talk about what it was like to live in a predominantly Christian country as minority Jews. We are confident that while our children will grow up with a firm identity as Jews, and while they may not see Christians or secular Jews or Japanese on a regular basis, they will not faint dead away when they do see them.
Besides being an issue of national identity, I believe it’s an issue of social cohesion. America has a culture all its own (just ask the British), and immigrants who make their way there—as well as native-borns—should see that culture reflected in the country’s educational system. As Daniel Gordis writes in Does the World Need the Jews?, the shared cultural values that Americans have are the glue that holds them together as a nation. Not only does it establish an understanding of what America is about to its children, it creates a sense of unity and—potentially—peace among the adults who participate in it. This does not mean that everyone must share the same political ideas, religious beliefs, or Thanksgiving menu. It should mean, however, that everyone is agreed on what the country’s foundations should be. In other words (to paraphrase a fascinating discussion in Gordis’s most recent book, Saving Israel), Americans need to decide whether America is diverse, or whether America is about diversity. The former merely describes America’s cultural make-up; the latter indicates a mission to pursue diversity and make that part of the national agenda.
This is a complicated debate, and I have only given my two cents’ worth here. What are your thoughts, readers?