When bilingual means doublespeak
The San Francisco Chronicle
June 10, 2005
 Friday,  Debra J. Saunders  

ACADEMIC freedom -- and quality -- suffered a blow this week when writer Richard Rodriguez announced that he will not speak at a California State University East Bay commencement Saturday. He doesn't want to endure a ceremony boycotted by some students. So reasonable minds won't get to hear what Rodriguez has to say because unreasonable mouths won the day.

"He believes in assimilation and rejection of one's own cultural identity, " student and bilingual teacher Leah Perez complained to The Chronicle. That's a ridiculous assertion. Rodriguez does not reject his identity. The more accurate charge would be that he is not a fanatic.

Sarah Gonzales, a professor -- all bow -- who supports the move to intimidate Rodriguez, used doublespeak when she told The Chronicle, "We need to teach our students to be able to listen to diverse opinions, but they also need to be able to respond. As a commencement speaker, he gets free air time." Guess what. He also gets free speech.

Except at CSU East Bay.

And so the censorious students and authoritarian faculty decided to have their own little graduation ceremony, even with Rodriguez bowing out. That way, they won't have to expose their minds to any view that might offend them. When they throw their graduation caps into the air, they can pat themselves on the back for guaranteeing a ceremony that won't make them think.

I take what happened to Rodriguez personally, because while he is getting flak from the left, I experience the same nasty censoriousness from the far right. If you stray from a certain set of opinions, the posse of extremism goes a-hunting. You see, no pundit is allowed to think that, just maybe sometimes, folks from another political persuasion have a point.

In the Internet age, partisans can log on to opinions tailor-made to conform to their own beliefs or sites that report only news they like. So they've come to see conservative-only news as something of a right: The right not to hear contrary opinions and discomforting information.

They also believe the Internet and talk radio will -- and should -- spare them from information they don't like. The far left and the far right share this dangerous conviction that they shouldn't even be exposed to what other Americans think. In this case, the students' rage was based on their views of Rodriguez's 1982 book, "Hunger of Memory." "The sad part is people doing this based on a book they haven't read," campus spokesman Kim Huggett told The Chronicle.

No lie. Then again, you can see why bilingual-education advocates wouldn't want to hear or read Rodriguez. Their cause relies on the ability of zealots to ignore unwanted data -- and more important, student success.

When English-immersion activist Ron Unz put Proposition 227 on the ballot in 1998, most Democrats opposed the measure, and many educators did, too. They had their reasons. They feared non-English speakers would not learn subject matter. They believed English immersion would be especially harmful to older students.

But a funny thing happened. Proposition 227 worked. Within five years, the number of limited-English students who could speak English proficiently tripled. Educators who cared about immigrant children succeeding reassessed their beliefs. They didn't have to turn their backs on bilingual education entirely, let me add. To their credit, they simply came to realize that English immersion often works better with young children.

Bilingual advocates have been faced with two ways to address the success of Prop. 227. They could admit that bilingual education only works best for some people, and concentrate on that niche. Or they could ignore the successes of English immersion because they want Latinos to speak Spanish first and foremost. Imagine, then, how bilingual zealots would be especially threatened by a Latino, who, from personal experience, knows in his heart that English fluency is attainable and essential for immigrant children to succeed in America. His crime is that he makes it more difficult for the bilingual lobby to dismiss English immersion supporters as racists.

Such a man must be vilified. He must be marginalized. He must be silenced.

E-mail Debra J. Saunders at dsaunders@sfchronicle.com.