Canary in the Coal Mine of America’s Future 

Occasionally, a chance remark can be fraught with significance. Such a remark, heard three decades ago, struck me as portentous at the time, and has stayed with me ever since. I have come to regard it as the canary in the coal mine of America’s future. Recent trends have rendered it ever more prophetic.

On a flight to the U.K. in the early 1990s, I struck up a conversation with the young woman seated next to me. As I soon learned, she was a student at Ohio State University, and was preparing to be a bilingual teacher.

As it happened, I had had amicable interactions with bilingual teachers at my son’s New York City public school in the 1970s—in connection with a schoolwide nutrition education project I had spearheaded there. But I had since come to question the value of bilingual education. 

As tactfully as I could, I therefore asked the young woman if such programs might have the unintended consequence of retarding immigrants’ assimilation into American society and culture. The gist of her response was that many immigrants are coming to America mainly for economic reasons and have no interest in assimilation. She wanted to make it easier for them to maintain their own culture.

Such was the attitude evidently nurtured at one of the country’s leading schools of education. No more melting pot.

Fast Forward to the Present

I am reminded of that conversation every time I phone a public agency or major corporation and am prompted to “press one for English,” or see signs in Spanish at my local polling site, or receive health insurance statements with a page appended listing some two dozen languages in which one might request assistance.

Recently, I discovered the following message on the Dublin, Ohio, school district website: “If you have difficulty understanding English, you may, free of charge, request language assistance services for Dublin City Schools information by contacting the Office of Academics and Student Learning.” The accompanying graphic listed Spanish, Arabic, Hindi, Kurdish, Russian, Japanese, Chinese, Tamil, Korean, and Punjabi, in addition to some in non-alphabetic tongues I could not decipher.

A host of pressing questions come to mind. On the most basic level, how much manpower is spent providing these translation services and at what cost? And by how much does this reduce resources from the primary task at hand—actually educating students? On a more complex and crucial level, how can a cohesive society be nurtured and maintained amidst such linguistic and cultural barriers?

A telling expression of the now prevailing attitude toward immigration was offered by a student at Occidental College in California a few years ago. She argued that the melting pot is a myth because it assumes that “immigrants will coalesce, losing their ‘bad’ characteristics to create a new, ‘good’ American culture. . . . an American super-culture.”  In her view, “Why not resist the Americanization that society tries to sell as irresistible? Why sacrifice cultural heritage? . . . [W]hy not strive to transform American society, rather than being transformed by it?”

To which I would respond, Why choose to come here if you don’t value American society and want to become a part of it? The economic benefits do not exist in a vacuum. They depend on an underlying system of values and laws designed to promote and sustain them. 

What Was the Original “Melting Pot” Idea? 

History shows that the Occidental student’s view of “the melting pot” egregiously distorts the concept. To properly understand the term requires returning to the context in which it was first coined—the play with that title by the British Jewish writer Israel Zangwill (1864–1926). 

First performed in New York City in 1908, Zangwill’s drama achieved extraordinary popularity through countless productions, numerous print editions, and ubiquitous citations and commentary. And it soon came to be seen as the quintessential expression of the American ideal. In the words of the pioneering social worker Jane Addams (quoted by Zangwill in his afterword to a 1914 edition of the play), “The Melting Pot,” “perform[ed] a great service to America by reminding us of the high hopes of the founders of the Republic.”

As Zangwill stated in his afterword, his play was “designed to bring home to America . . . its true significance and potentiality for history and civilisation.” In his view, moreover, the process of “American amalgamation” was not merely “assimilation or simple surrender to the dominant type, as is popularly supposed”—and as today’s critics wrongly claim. It was instead “an all-round give-and-take” in which the product might be either “enriched or impoverished.”

“The Melting Pot” was inspired by the Jewish exodus from Russia following the horrific anti-Semitic pogrom in the city of Kishinev in 1903. Its chief protagonist is David Quixano, a young Jewish survivor of that attack, who had witnessed the slaughter of his “father, mother, [and] sisters, down to the youngest babe, whose skull was battered in by a hooligan’s heel.”

A brilliantly promising composer, David has fled to New York City to join his uncle Mendel, who teaches music there. Early in the play, David recalls: 

You must remember that all my life I had heard of America—everybody in our town had friends there or was going there or got money orders from there. . . . All my life America was waiting, beckoning, shining—the place where God would wipe away tears from off all faces.

 “America is God’s Crucible,” David further declares, “the great Melting-Pot where all the races of Europe are melting and re-forming!”

Notwithstanding Zangwill’s allusion to both enrichment and impoverishment, it was clear that he envisioned the amalgamation process as more constructive than destructive. A telling expression of that was the relationship between two of the play’s minor characters: Kathleen O’Reilly—the young Irish-immigrant housemaid employed by the Quixano family in New York—and David’s elderly Yiddish-speaking grandmother. At the outset, they are at loggerheads. 

Totally frustrated by the incomprehensibility of the demands made on her regarding observation of the Sabbath, Kathleen is on the verge of quitting. But by the play’s final act, set on the evening of July 4th, the two have achieved mutual understanding and sympathy, with Kathleen even chattering affectionately to the old woman in a mix of Irish and Yiddish idioms. “In honour of Independence Day”—Zangwill’s stage directions pointedly note—both women are “clad in their best, and wearing tiny American flags.”

Thus, the melting pot idea never required abandoning one’s ethnic roots. It meant embracing a second, transcendent “American” identity—one centered on the core values enunciated in our founding documents.

My Family’s Melting-Pot Experience

The essential truth of Zangwill’s message is attested by my own family history. My maternal grandfather was among the thousands of Russian Jews who fled to America seeking peace and safety following the Kishinev pogrom. Although he probably spoke no English when he came here in 1904, by 1910 the U.S. Census listed his language as English. It further indicated that he could both read and write it. And by the 1920 census, he had become a naturalized citizen.

My grandmother joined him here in 1906 with their three children who had been born in Russia. Initially, the children were educated at yeshivas, where they received secular as well as religious instruction. But by 1923, when my mother (one of four siblings born here) graduated from eighth grade, it was from a city public school. Moreover, she was certified as eligible to pursue “any high school course,” which included academic as well as vocational studies.

Most important, notwithstanding their lifelong devotion to Zionism, the family became patriotic Americans—as indicated by a letter written in July 1914 by my grandmother from Russia, where she had gone for the summer to visit her mother. Writing in Yiddish to my grandfather of the hardships in Russia amid the rumors of pending war, she also took a dim view of news from home that an American acquaintance was planning to go to Africa. “I’ll say what you say, long live America,” she added.

Since translation services and economic assistance were not provided by the government then, how did immigrants like my forebears manage in the beginning? With help from neighbors or relatives who had been here longer or from communal mutual aid groups.

My stepfather Jack, for example, came here from Russia as a 19-year-old in 1920, with no money and speaking only Yiddish. As he recounts in an Ellis Island oral-history interview, those who came then either had to be met by someone who would be responsible for them or show that they had $25 in hand.

Two of Jack’s older sisters had been living in the Boston area for some years, but he hadn’t been able to let them know he was coming. How did he get the crucial $25 to be admitted? During the long voyage, he had helped a fellow passenger who was traveling here with her little girl to join her husband. When she learned of Jack’s plight, she got the needed cash from her husband and gratefully gave it to Jack. It was sufficient for him to make his way to Boston and, with the help of other strangers along the way, be united with his sisters.

Much like David Quixano, Jack had dreamed of America as a “golden land” before he came—not for its economic benefits but for its freedom. So, too, film-director Frank Capra’s father had declared, on seeing the Statue of Liberty’s beacon when he brought his family from Italy in 1903: “It’s the light of freedom.”

The vision of freedom came alive for Jack on his second day here, when his sister took him to the public library. There he found a shelf full of books in Yiddish that would never have been available to him in his Russian town. Yet when he began to learn English and would sometimes lapse back into Yiddish, his Yiddish-speaking compatriots would urge: “Don’t talk Yiddish. Talk English.” And speak English he did, though he maintained a lifelong interest in Yiddish language and culture. Bilingualism was a personal choice, not a publicly promoted practice.

Significantly, Jack was also greatly struck by the fact that here one could seek help from a policeman, rather than “shivering” in terror at the mere sight of one. Derek Chauvin notwithstanding, that remains an essential truth today.

Jack’s experience, of course, was very different from that of many American blacks at the time, especially in the South, most of whom had been here far longer than he. Nonetheless, nearly 10,000 blacks had chosen to immigrate here from Africa in the fiscal year ending June 30, 1913, for example—as reported in a list of total aliens admitted to the U.S. that was appended to the 1914 edition of “The Melting Pot.” Would they have come if they did not expect a better life than was possible for them in Africa?

The Miseducation of American Students 

The principles lauded by Zangwill have been under relentless assault from our education establishment since the latter half of the 20th century. From universities and colleges to K–12 classrooms, the virtues and values that made America a beacon of hope to the world are being undermined.

Even the idea of America as “the land of opportunity,” for example, has been censured as a “microaggression” by the University of California system (ranked among the nation’s top schools by U.S. News & World Report). Also to be jettisoned by California’s professors is the assumption that “Everyone can succeed in this society, if they work hard enough” or the suggestion that “There is only one race, the human race.”

Similarly, faculty at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point was advised by their administration to regard the statement “America is a melting pot” as a microaggression to be avoided because it assumes that immigrant minorities have to “assimilate/acculturate to the dominant culture.” 

Such views reflect the reigning orthodoxy in intellectual circles, which regards America as fundamentally flawed. By focusing on, distorting, and even fabricating cases in which America has failed to live up to its principles, this orthodoxy seeks to discredit the entire American system. In so doing, they not only belie the true promise of “the melting pot,” they also stand in stark contrast to the great black abolitionist Frederick Douglass’s proper reverence for our Constitution as “a glorious liberty document.”

Whereas Douglass rightly aimed to more fully realize the principles embedded in our founding documents, today’s leftist critics seek to replace them with an entirely different set of principles, aimed at ensuring “equity”—that is, equality of outcome by groups. As summarized by researcher Christopher Rufo, this “would mean the end not only of private property, but also of individual rights, equality under the law, . . . and freedom of speech. These would be replaced by race-based redistribution of wealth, group-based rights, active discrimination, and omnipotent bureaucratic authority”—in other words, by a totalitarian state.

As many observers have noted, the verbal shift from the former principle of “equality” masks the profound difference between these two ideas, despite the deliberately similar-sounding terms. The quintessentially American principle of equality referred to equal treatment under the law, intended to safeguard each individual’s freedom in the pursuit of happiness. That, after all, was what the Declaration of Independence had promised—the freedom of every person to pursue happiness, not a guarantee of its attainment.

As for those systems purporting to guarantee equal outcomes for all, we have only to consider the millions who perished in Stalin’s Soviet Union or the countless others now suffering in Communist China, North Korea, Cuba, and Venezuela. To keep that from happening here, every caring American should be crying foul, loud and clear, to the miseducators and others who promote the Marxist-inspired identity politics and critical race theory that now has America in a stranglehold. A good way to begin is to proclaim anew the essential beneficence of our “melting pot” ideal.

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About Michelle Marder Kamhi

Michelle Marder Kamhi is a New York–based writer who has long dealt with diverse aspects of American education. See her website at www.mmkamhi.com.

Photo: Lindsey Nicholson/UCG via Getty Images