Rocks Falling Upward at Harvard University by Ron Unz
National Review Online, Friday, October 26, 2001
While most Americans have been transfixed by the terrifying prospect of massive deaths from anthrax or suicide bombers, a few in our society fear an even greater horror: the fanatic defenders of Spanish-almost-always instruction see their doom in an “English” initiative heading toward the November 2002 Massachusetts ballot.
Although the vote on “English” is over a year away and our signature drive not even yet completed, well over 400 such fervent Boston area bilingual partisans jammed themselves into Harvard University’s Askwith auditorium last week for a debate on the measure. The standing-room-only crowd came to cheer their champion, Shattuck Professor of Education Catherine Snow, one of America’s foremost bilingual theorists, and curse their personal bin Laden, yours truly.
For me, the debate brought back many fond memories from our 1998 California campaign for Proposition 227: the universally hostile intensity of the large crowd, the assorted protest signs, the “No on Unz” armbands, and the almost identical arguments made by Prof. Snow against our Massachusetts initiative. This last point seemed rather odd, since while consistency in public position might ordinarily be considered praiseworthy, factual reality has changed enormously over the past three years.
In particular, the test scores of over one million immigrant students in California have risen by more than 50% since 1998, with those school districts most rigorously embracing Prop. 227 having actually doubled their academic performance. And since these remarkable results had been highlighted by a front-page lead story in the New York Times and similar stories in the Boston Globe and almost every other major media outlet in America, I had expected such facts to have reached even the cloistered denizens of the Harvard Faculty Club.
When I queried my opponent on the matter of these test scores, she responded that, while a 50% rise in test scores of over one million students after less than two years was “interesting,” she was uncertain whether such results were statistically significant, and suggested that a scientifically controlled fifteen-year longitudinal study be undertaken to answer this question. The professor then pointed to the five books on bilingual education that she had brought along to the debate, claimed that they proved the success of the program, and suggested that such books should carry far more weight than anything that had recently happened to the test scores of a million students in California.
Even more determinative was her response to my accusation that bilingual education was largely based on the bizarre theory that the older you are, the easier it is to learn another language, with adults being best at new language acquisition and small children having the most difficult time. Since Professor Snow was in fact the originator of this unusual theory, she courageously defended it, again citing her books as proof. At these statements, a small hush of unhappy disbelief settled over many of the most vigorous bilingual proponents in the audience.
Once upon a time, a Harvard professor of Theoretical Reality developed an exciting new theory that rocks fall upward. Although numerous illiterate bricklayers and drunken carpenters disagreed with this conclusion, their opinions counted for nothing in the academic world, where PhD’s and endowed chairs are the keepers of truth. And as the years went on, that Harvard professor’s students and disciples and colleagues propagated her views on the upward falling of rocks far and wide in their books, articles, and lectures.
Eventually, congressional hearings were held and new federal safety ordinances drafted. It was required that all houses be securely anchored in solid bedrock to prevent them from flying into the sky, and that all students in school learn their lessons while standing on their heads lest they injure themselves while falling into the ceiling.
Over the past 30 years, many millions of young immigrant students in America have been required to learn their lessons while standing on their heads, and many of them have had their educations and their lives destroyed as a consequence. History will not be kind to the individuals who brought this policy about, nor to those whose cowardly and silent acquiescence allowed it to continue.
A few weeks ago, Americans witnessed the enormous devastation that a small handful of fanatically committed individuals can wreak upon society. Perhaps it is now time for ordinary Americans to be willing to take a stand against those similarly tiny groups of educational terrorists in our midst, whose disastrous policies are enforced upon us not by bombs or even by knives, but simply by their high-pitched voices. Americans must remain silent no longer.
Ron Unz, a theoretical physicist by training, is the chairman of English for the Children, currently leading initiative campaigns to dismantle bilingual-education programs in Massachusetts and Colorado.