In yesterday's St. Cloud Daily Times, a candidate for school board announced his position that Somali children should go outside to a tin hut to say their daily ritual prayers. He also argued that we should get rid of language immersion programs. Time for a bit of courageous dialog.
It would be easy to dismiss these ideas as uneducated or, worse, prejudiced and then move on. But I think its a mistake to respond that way. We have too much name calling these days. People connected to public education should try to use education, not epithet, to resolve important public issues.
Let's talk a bit about the language immersion programs and why the board of education has supported the recommendation of our school leadership that we implement an immersion program. Some people wrongly believe that language immersion programs are an added expense. But that's not true at all. They require a single teacher, and so after some startup costs, they are just as cost effective as other classes. Because the programs are popular, they attract new students to the district, and the students they attract are generally low-cost students, so from a business perspective, they reduce our average cost. From a strictly business standpoint, immersion programs have proven their value. Cutting these programs would put the school district in a worse financial position, not a better one.
This is a common mistake in approaching education finance--to think that if you cut something it improves your financial position. If you cut our popular immersion programs, you don't cut costs, because those students still need a teacher. Its not good business to cut a program that parents want.
Some people wrongly believe that because immersion students are learning a second language, it must interfere with the students ability to learn English, math and other subjects. We shouldn't attack these concerns as uneducated, but rather address them directly with hard information. The fact is that in our district, the testing results from these classes so far seem to show that the students are progressing in other subjects as well or better than their peers.
This idea that learning a new language interferes with the rest of your learning is a uniquely American idea, and uniquely wrong. People in Europe and Asia think nothing of learning multiple languages and becoming fluent in two or more languages. For some few people, but not all, lurking underneath the attack on foreign languages is perhaps this idea that well, it is somehow unpatriotic to learn a second language. For these few, "I'm a good American, I speak and learn only English," seems to be the underlying theme.
But from a cold hard simple minded patriotic point of view, a country that knows only its own language is far more vulnerable to attack than a country whose citizens fluently speak many languages. Arguing that children should learn only English is, however well intended, a way of crippling the national defense.
From a business point of view as well, unless more of our young people learn more languages fluently, we place ourselves at a tremendous competitive disadvantage. The students in our school district who complete our Chinese and Spanish immersion programs are going to be in high demand in business, in technology, in government service, and in education. They will command better salaries and do better in life. Language immersions are popular with parents because they rightly see these programs as providing them with a competitive edge. The graduates of immersion programs have a better understanding of grammar, speak more fluently with better accents, and perform equally or better on graduation in a wide range of subjects as compared to their single-language educated peers.
Now let's talk for a minute about approaching a courageous dialog on the prayer issue. Space does not allow me to discuss this issue in all of its aspects. We need to start, I think, with the underlying recognition that this issue would benefit from more respectful discussion and dialog in this community. What I call courageous dialog. For me, courageous dialog begins with a recognition that we need to bring issues out to the forefront, where we can engage in a respectful thoughtful exchange of ideas and information, without fear of recrimination. In our community, too often, sensitive issues like this are discussed primarily by folks who are on the fringe on one side or the other. Those of us who find ourselves closer to the middle, are sometimes embarrassed by the fringe, and so we are afraid to discuss sensitive topics for fear of being the subject of a fringe attack. We don't want to be identified as intolerant, nor do we want to be attacked by people who are themselves intolerant, and our Minnesota nice keeps us from finding out what is going on and why. And pretty soon, the entire dialog is left to people who embarrass us by being flagrantly on the fringe. People who seriously suggest that children should be humiliated in America by sending them out to pray in tin huts. Or, people who want to say that this is "white cloud", because here and there, somebody makes statement that makes us cringe.
When I was in elementary school, at least once a week, students were released to go to religious education. The schools made that accommodation, because in America, we believe that part of our freedom is to accommodate religion.....religious freedom is one of the things that our ancestors fought and died for. I know as well that it was quite common here in St. Cloud for many students to leave school early once a week for religious education. That practice didn't stop because public schools stopped it. Nor could we accommodate prayer for one denomination or faith and refuse it to another. That would be plainly unconstitutional. Now and again, I hear that public schools these days provide preferential treatment to Islam, and I can only say, doing that is plainly unlawful. We cannot prefer one faith over another.
By the same token, the question of where to draw the line--when to allow accommodation and when not to do so--is not an easy subject to unravel. People who raise this issue are not necessarily intolerant. Here is a link to a discussion of the issue at the First Amendment Center. Fair minded, non-prejudiced people, can take quite different views on what is appropriate and what is not appropriate. There are people who genuinely believe that we should drive religion out of public schools completely, because they see all religion in the public schools as an unconstitutional form of establishment of religion. There are others who genuinely believe that schools should be far more welcoming to prayer and religion, because they feel strongly that the government should not discriminate against religion. These two competing but equally fundamental concepts, both found in the constitution, anti-establishment and anti-discrimination, require deep thought and consideration to get the balance right.
For me, the concept of "courageous dialog" involves open, thoughtful, respectful discussion of these issues. I believe that when we fail to discuss these issues openly, we leave the public forum open only to fringe elements who seek to make them engines of hate, prejudice or misunderstanding. Its ok to ask whether we are drawing the line in the right place. Its probably time to have courageous and respectful discussion about these issues, because we are beginning to see signs that if we don't, the issues are going to be framed by the intolerant. In our community we are blessed with many who passionately believe in their faith, who believe that their faith calls upon them to make sacrifices to be observant. Catholics, Baptists of several denominations, Jews, Methodists and Lutherans also of many denominations, and now adherents of Islam. Few other communities have so many for whom so many different diverse religions are so important. If our young people learn nothing else, as they are growing up, they must learn to respect those for whom faith demands unwavering commitment. Living side by side, we would be well to learn to practice respectful dialog, to listen, to at times disagree, and well, to pray for guidance that we may address each other in the spirit of love that each of our great faiths demands.