The Politics of Bilingual Education
Language, Culture and Citizenship in American Schools
By Jordan Schreiber, PhD (Oxford University)
The Politics of Bilingual Education: Language, Culture, and Citizenship in American Schools
Jordan Schreiber, Magdalen College, University of Oxford
Submitted Trinity Term 1999 for a D.Phil. in Politics
This thesis has two goals: (1) to understand why bilingual education in America arouses such rancorous political conflict, and (2) to assess both the relevance of that conflict to the actual practice of bilingual education and the impact of the conflict on the design and implementation of a particular bilingual education program.
The thesis presents two principal arguments. First, bilingual education is politically contentious because it raises questions about the sources of national unity in America, but these questions are disguised in political discourse by arguments about whether bilingual education is an effective pedagogy. The attempt to define an American identity—with its assumed tension between assimilation and multiculturalism—propels the national controversy about using bilingual instruction in culturally-diverse classrooms. Bilingual education arouses political conflict not because of doubts about its effectiveness but because of doubts about its goals.
Second, the thesis argues that these doubts may be exaggerated and that their impact on policy design and implementation can be detrimental. The case-study of Taos, New Mexico, examines a population where bilingualism is historically-accepted and explicitly encouraged by State law. Interview subjects sense little conflict between Hispanic cultural preservation and assimilation into mainstream America. Nor is it evident in Taos that competing models of American identity (nativism, melting pot liberalism, cultural pluralism, democratic universalism) are mutually exclusive, as the national debate generally assumes them to be. The mismatch between the theory driving the bilingual education debate and the practical experience observed in Taos produces an educational policy that misunderstands the needs of many students and fails adequately to serve them.
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