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Family Values and the First Amendment: A Rebuttal

By William J. Cameron — October 22, 1986 5 min read
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Stephen Arons’s logic in his Commentary on First Amendment rights of linguistic minorities is not easy to follow (“First Amendment Rights Are ‘Crucial’ in Educating Language-Minority Pupils,” Oct. 1, 1980). Nonetheless, I take as his main points that the United States and the individual states have an affirmative duty to foster the ''family values” of America’s linguistic minorities, and that one way this duty should be discharged is to offer the children of non-English- speaking parents native-language instruction in the public schools.

The only argumentation Mr. Arons provides for there being any such affirmative duty to conserve and foster ethnic beliefs and practices--which is what I assume he means when he talks about “family values"--is in declarations, such as his reference to “the diversity that is a pluralistic country’s most valuable natural resource.”

In the absence of real argument, but in the face of a contention that public schools have a constitutional obligation to foster ethnic diversity and linguistic pluralism, one must try to get to the heart of the matter and ask: Is Mr. Arons’s demand a reasonable one to make? That is, would its implementation be wise public policy?

Mr. Arons is correct in charging that nativism is recrudescent in this country under the aegis of the organization called U.S. English. Nevertheless, it is not necessary to be a radical assimilationist to doubt that the U.S. government or the individual states are duty-bound to nurture linguistic and ethnic differences among their residents, or to believe that a real distinction can be drawn between tolerance of diversity and espousal of policies that promote the eventual Balkanization of public life.

It is precisely because the United States, unlike many countries, exists first and foremost as a political entity sustained by successive generations’ subscription to a written compact, that it is essential to the wellbeing of our country that every citizen have the opportunity to participate fully in public discourse and decisionmaking.

Can that public discourse be polyglot? Unless every citizen is to be expected, as a price of his citizenship, to become fluent in the native tongue of every newcomer to this country, be that newcomer a speaker of German, Tamil, Bantu, Basque, or Khmer, and unless every newcomer is to be expected to become fluent in the preferred language of every group that is here already, the answer must be no.

But if public discourse cannot be polyglot, then newcomers have an affirmative duty to acquire the language that will enable them to play an authentic role in public discourse and decisionmaking, thereby broadening and fortifying self-government in the country where they have chosen to reside.

Mr. Arons’s case for bilingual/bicultural education is not strengthened by his invocation of the First Amendment as a bulwark against non-English-speaking children having to be taught English in school. In drawing an analogy between racial segregation and the problems of linguistic minorities and in quoting Chief Justice Earl Warren’s opinion in Brown v. Board of Education on the dire effects of such segregation on children, Mr. Arons misleads the reader into thinking that the First Amendment was used by the Court as the grounds for that decision. In fact, the Court invoked the 14th Amendment.

Mr. Arons relies no less heavily on an analogy with religion to make his point. He alludes to the establishment clause of the First Amendment, which prohibits the government from either setting up a state religion or interfering with sectarian belief and practice, to assert a heretofore unrecognized right to government neutrality toward spoken languages.

The analogy with religion fails on two grounds. First, individuals always have the choice of believing in God and practicing a religion, or of doing one or the other, or of doing neither. None of us has any choice, however, but to speak a specific language. School instruction must at any moment take place in some language or other, so neutrality of the sort that is enforced toward religion is linguistically impossible.

Second, the establishment clause rests on the dreadful experience of religious persecution and warfare during the 250 years preceding adoption of the Bill of Rights. Promotion of religious truth had proven to be a sanguinary cause. In that the state was and still is unequipped to determine the veracity of competing sects’ claims to divine preference, the First Congress and the states chose to impose religious neutrality on the government, thereby furthering civility among citizens and comity among groups.

If, however, precedence is given under the First Amendment’s cover to linguistic diversity over the furtherance of peaceful pursuit of our public ends by democratic means, then this newly asserted First Amendment right would most likely conflict directly with the ensurance of domestic tranquility that the Preamble recites as one of the paramount reasons for the Constitution’s existence.

Mr. Arons is therefore mistaken to label all objection to bilingual/bicultural education as a species of cultural imperialism.

The premise for his harsh conclusion about views other than his own must be that English ought to hold no public privilege whatsoever among the languages spoken in American homes, so that any preference that is shown to English must be the result of one speaking group’s assertion of power over all the others.

This premise can be faulted, however, on grounds of the political tradition we embody as Americans; the complex relationship we may infer among the English language, English common law, and the notable stability of the English-speaking peoples’ political institutions; the evidence proof internecine strife provided by many countries that are firmly polyglot; and the wild expectation that everyone be fluent in every language, which his premise requires if self-government on any scale is to be preserved.

One need not reject or belittle cultural and linguistic diversity to doubt the wisdom of what Mr. Arons proposes. One can even be an enthusiast of diversity and still believe that everyone in this country ought to be fluent in a lingua franca. English is, of course, the lingua franca at hand. That Mr. Arons finds this historical fact and its consequences for American civic life deplorable suggests that bilingual education needs a better defense than the one he provides in his essay.

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