Education

Bradley Foundation Report: America Has an Identity Crisis

By Mary Ann Zehr — June 04, 2008 2 min read

I can’t say I’ve noticed that the United States is facing an identity crisis, but some people over at the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation think this is so. They put out a report this week, “E Pluribus Unum,” (“From Many, One”) that makes the argument that immigrants in the past assimilated into American society more than is the case now. The first statement in the report is: “America is facing an identity crisis.”

The Milwaukee, Wis.-based Bradley Foundation, by the way, “is devoted to strengthening democratic capitalism and the institutions, principles, and values that sustain and nurture it,” according to the report.

The report is based on a poll of Americans conducted by HarrisInteractive, but it doesn’t contain details about the poll such as the size of the sample and number of respondents. More important, I wish it had included the actual questions used in the Harris survey. What, for instance, was the question behind the following finding?

80 percent* of Americans believe our schools should focus on American citizenship, not ethnic identity. Majorities of Latinos (70%) and African Americans (54%) agree.

I wonder what the pollsters think is focusing on ethnic identity? Would it refer, for instance, to a teacher who is giving a reading lesson with a bilingual book such as the one about a Hmong boy, Grandfather’s Story Cloth, that I featured a couple of blog entries ago?

The report does give some insight into what the authors mean by focusing on American citizenship. “Civic education should be based on the distinctive features of citizenship in American democracy, not on the misleading idea that one can be a ‘citizen’ of the world,” the report says.

Here’s another excerpt that indicates what direction the authors would like to see the nation take:

The kind of unity Americans celebrate does not demand uniformity. America is enriched by diversity. It is preserved by unity. Yet while appreciating the benefits of diversity, Americans should affirm their commitment to national unity, a shared culture, a common language, and defining ideals.

Warning: I’m going to become a bit wry here. If the report is promoting a common language, why does it have a title in Latin and not English? Also, when I think of a shared American culture, what first comes to mind for me are Hollywood films and a tendency of Americans to buy too much stuff. I’m intent on NOT assimilating into that, and I’m not even an immigrant. And one more thing: I consider myself a citizen of the world as much as a citizen of this country and I don’t see any harm in that.

The Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, recently put out a report that seemed to have some opposite findings to that of the Bradley Foundation’s. Here’s an excerpt from “Measuring Immigrant Assimilation in the United States”:

Immigrants of the past quarter-century have assimilated more rapidly than their counterparts of a century ago, even though they are more distinct from the native population upon arrival. The increase in the rate of assimilation among recently arrived immigrants explains why the overall index has remained stable, even though the immigrant population has grown rapidly.

The Bradley Foundation press release says the foundation wants to start a national conversation about this topic of national identity. Consider this blog entry to be a contribution to that conversation.

Are any of you out there losing sleep because you think immigrants aren’t assimilating fast enough to American society? Do any of you get the sense that your ELL students are NOT assimilating?

*statistic updated from earlier version.

June 5 Update: John Segota over at TESOL found much more information about the HarrisInteractive survey, including the phrasing of the question I was interested in, on the Web site of the Bradley Project on American’s National Identity. See his comment.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.