While growing up, one of the things I loved most about being a native New Yorker was that so many of my neighbors, schoolmates, and co-workers had traveled from different countries to become part of what they believed was the greatest country in the world. These days, immigrants' gratitude and zeal to assimilate has largely disappeared, thanks in large part to spineless educators bowing to the cult of multiculturalism and leading our nation on the path to balkanization.
I've become somewhat jaded about the outrageous news that emanates from Morningside Heights via Columbia University, but I read in disbelief that President Lee Bollinger had caved in to the demands of five student hunger strikers protesting the ongoing "offenses" against multiculturalism. He coughed up $50 million to expand Columbia's ethnic-studies endeavors, and if that isn't something to infuriate its alumni, they're just as misguided as Mr. Bollinger.
New York has always been an international city. The Rheingold beer commercials of the 1960s noted how there were more Greeks in New York than in Athens, more Jews than in Tel Aviv, more Puerto Ricans than in San Juan, etc. Yet we New Yorkers were all Americans, and we were proudly taught American history in the schools. My elementary school in Spanish Harlem was 90% Hispanic, yet we all spoke perfect English. The Sisters of Mercy who operated our school paid homage to our Hispanic heritage in school plays and pageants, but left the cultural apron strings to our parents. While we were reared to be Americans first, today's academics view this form of education as indoctrination, and our culture as inferior to others. Those with this dangerous and foolish ideology need to take a good, hard look at the ethnic crises in Europe.
In 1965, during my first trip to London, my sister and I went to a Chinese restaurant in Soho. We were amused to hear our Oriental waiter speak to us in a Cockney accent, but he was just as much a Brit as those homburg-wearing gentlemen strolling with walking sticks in Trafalgar Square. Shopkeepers from various nations still spoke in a variety of English accents. However, during my last trip, in 1993, I discovered London was no longer British. I'm not speaking about race, but about the lack of assimilation, as immigrant shopkeepers I noted barely speak the language. It was no surprise to learn that three of the four subway bombers in London were British nationals. Immigrants are also not assimilating in France, Denmark, and the Netherlands, and yet are demanding the same services as the native born.
When I protested the Arab language school, Khalil Gibran International Academy, I received vile hate mail — anonymous, of course — calling me a bigot, an Islamaphobe, and racist. Most of these came from people who had never read my entire column, but just the tidbits quoted in Reuters and the New York Times. I was, in fact, all for teaching Arabic in the public schools. There is a real need for it, and I have always advocated language arts for Americans. Although my parents spoke Spanish, I opted to learn French in high school and German in college. I learned enough Italian from watching foreign films to navigate through Venice and Rome. As a college student, I babysat an elderly Hungarian suffering from mild dementia. I tried to familiarize myself with simple Hungarian phrases because I find linguistics fascinating.
What I do object to is using our public school system to segregate immigrants into separate buildings instead of adhering to what the late Albert Shankar, a former president of the American Federation of Teachers, said is the proper rationale for our public school system: to teach students what it means to be an American. He was a strong opponent of ethnocentric schools, which he worried might distort curriculum to feed a student's self-esteem.
Those Columbia hunger strikers have no concept of what this country is all about, so I recommend that they read the essays of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali refugee and former member of the Dutch parliament, who wisely says all cultures are not equal. Her adopted nation is suffering a crucial identity crisis thanks to its naïve obeisance to multiculturalism. Can it happen here? Only if we forget our history and remember that this country is unlike any other. Our republic is based on a superb Constitution, not tribalism or class structure. Americans are held back from success only by their individual ambitions, not their origins.
Those enamored of other cultures that they deem superior to our own should ask themselves why on earth the natives of those "wonderful" cultures risk their lives to leave and come here.