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16th March

First Published in The New York Sun, March 16, 2007

By Andrew Wolf

When the founding fathers chose the Latin phrase E Pluribus Unum — out of many, one — as the national motto, an event that took place concurrent with the 13 colonies declaring their independence, the intent was to dramatize the reality that these 13 separate entities had indeed come together as one.

Over time, the motto, which cannot be found in any classical Latin text, has been used to describe the America that evolved from the immigrant experience.

If there is one idea responsible for the success of America, and particularly the success of New York as a great world city, it has been the concept of bringing together all who come here and instilling a system of shared values and purpose. To my mind, no institution is more responsible for this success than our system of public schools.

New York’s school system was born out of a conflict sparked by an earlier wave of immigration. The first free schools were run by well-meaning philanthropists and reflected the values of the Protestant majority.

As Irish Catholics began arriving, they sought public funds for their own school system. Out of the political conflict came a compromise, a public school system that would no longer be controlled by the private group, but would not fund sectarian schools either.

These events have been painstakingly detailed by Diane Ravitch in “The Great School Wars.” The latest battle in these ongoing conflicts is now being fought in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Were Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein to dust off their copies of Ms. Ravitch’s book, they would find guidance from the past in extricating themselves from a new problem entirely of their own creation.

Parents at P.S. 282 have just learned that a portion of their building is about to be given over to the Khalil Gibran International Academy, a new school that the New York Times reported will be New York’s “first public school dedicated to teaching the Arabic language and culture.”

The parents have fears. The new school will include high-school grades. P.S. 282 is an elementary school, and parents are concerned about the safety of their small children. The forced imposition of any outside school into an existing community school building also raises concerns over the allocation of space.

The parents, seeking to be oh-so-politically correct, make a point to assert: “we want the record to show that our objections are in no way based in ethnic or religious intolerance.” One parent even went so far as to tell my colleague, Sarah Garland, that “she feared that the school’s focus on Arabic culture and language may draw a backlash from right-wing groups that could threaten the building’s students.”

While I am sympathetic to the parents’ concerns for safety and space, they miss the point. The city’s Department of Education is wrong in establishing any school that focuses exclusively on one culture.

I would go so far as to suggest that the idea of a school that focuses on one ethic group is un-American. What students coming here from other countries need is education that integrates them into our American common culture, not schooling that points them back to from where they came.

Although the school will technically be open to all, the reality is that when the dust clears, few parents other than those of Arab background will opt to send their children there.

If we accept the parochial nature of this school, then we would have to ask where are the schools designed to cater to New York’s many other ethnic groups. Is there a Chaim Weizmann School of Israeli Language and Culture? Or perhaps an Enrico Fermi School of Italian Studies? What of the Aristotle Grecian Studies Academy?

Perhaps we can nudge former New York City teacher Frank McCourt out of retirement to head a school focusing on the great literary contributions of the Irish? Is the future of American education a Balkanization of the city into ethnocentric schools that cater to every culture but our own?

Nearly a decade ago I opposed another such project, the proposed Antonia Pantoja Hispanic Leadership Academy sponsored by ASPIRA, a Latino youth advocacy group, and New Visions for Public Schools, a school that was slated to be situated on the site of the old Alexander’s department store on Fordham Road.

New Visions is also the sponsoring organization of the planned Arabic culture school, proving that bad ideas never die, as long as there is a buck to be made. Local opposition thwarted that plan, but in the brave new world of mayoral control, the counterbalancing power of democracy is missing. There may be no one who can save the mayor and chancellor from their folly.

So I urge them to heed the thoughts of Ms. Ravitch, who spoke of this problem some years back, drawing distinction between “particularlists” and “pluralists.” The particularists reject the idea of a common culture drawn from the many traditions that together make up the American experience. Particularists draw lines between groups, an anti-American concept, which this new school only reinforces.

Pluralists celebrate our American culture as ever-changing, evolving from the many groups that choose to come here. E Pluribus Unum. Out of many, one.

© 2007 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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