Dec 29, 2006

The working man's college

Miriam points to this article by Nicole Gelinas on the Queens Public Library, highlighting its success at serving the borough's immigrant population by offering ESL and citizenship classes.
Because nearly half of the residents of Queens are foreign-born, one of the library’s most practical services is to help the borough’s African, Asian, Hispanic, and Middle Eastern immigrants assimilate into American society, just as it helped German, Italian, and Eastern European immigrants become citizens a century ago. The library is particularly effective at this task, because it recognizes a key truth lost on many contemporary immigrant-advocacy groups: newcomers can’t succeed in America unless they speak English. Hence the library’s wildly popular, and free, English-for-Speakers-of-a-Second-Language program—the largest such initiative in the nation, serving 3,000 students annually. Each semester, the program must turn people away, sometimes two prospective students for every one who gets a slot.

Take the Number 7 train to Main Street in Flushing, walk two blocks to the spacious four-story curved-glass library, and you’ll see how keen many Queens newcomers are to learn English. In the basement adult learning center, as many as 40 students will be listening to English-pronunciation CDs, doing grammar exercises on computers, watching language videos, reading vocabulary texts, and engaging in halting conversation with one another in a new tongue. One recent Thursday morning, a dozen adult students listened intently as a librarian took them on a tour of the center, explaining in slow, clear English the wealth of materials available. When she’d finished, the students eagerly examined the shelves, filled with books on everything from basic vocabulary to idioms, as if they’d stumbled upon a treasure trove.
Most anyone who's attended library school knows about the Queens library because of its huge circulation and its numerous successful programs. Librarians these days are obsessed with diversity--on my last job interview I was asked what I thought about diversity (umm ... nothing?)--as though it were the be all and end all of existence. At Queens they take a diverse population and help them assimilate, which, Gelinas shows, was what Andrew Carnegie had in mind when he helped fund the library.
The steel magnate endowed eight Queens branches not only with capital but also with a lasting philosophy, reflecting his own working-class experience and decades of thinking about how best to uplift the poor. In divesting his vast fortune at the end of the nineteenth century, Carnegie believed it wisest to help “those, who, being most anxious and able to help themselves, deserve and will be benefited by . . . the extension of their opportunities by the aid of the philanthropic rich,” rather than (as he saw it) wasting his money on the “irreclaimably destitute [and] shiftless.”

Miriam has seen firsthand what ESL can do, both as a librarian and personally.
On the wall of my study, I have a certificate given to my grandfather for his proficiency in English. Instruction was given in the Columbus Public Schools, in cooperation with the Department of Labor. In those days, immigrants were required to learn English as a path to citizenship, and publicly funded instruction was provided.

My uncle Max was a little boy when his parents came to the US, and my mother was a toddler. He became a doctor, she a lawyer. What kind of outlook would they have had if they never learned English? If they had lived in some sort of self-imposed ghetto, and been taught in Yiddish? A pretty poor outlook, I believe.

From my experience in the library, people desperately want to learn English. We had a program where we instructed tutors and matched them to students. We could never get enough tutors. Potential students? They came in droves.

For a fictional perspective on ESL classes, you can check out The Education of Hyman Kaplan by Leo Rosten. Originally written in the thirties, it's about the ESL classes of one Mr. Parkhill and his most memorable student, the aforementioned Hyman Kaplan. I read it as a kid so I can't with absolute certainty say that it holds up, but PG Wodehouse blurbed it as "sheer genius," so that's gotta count for something.

Here's one appreciation and here's another.
With Mr. Kaplan the English language was at a decided disadvantage.

Our two most famous "Prazidents" he listed as "Abram Lincohen" and "Judge Vashington." The principal parts of the verb "to fail" he gives as "fail, failed, bankropt"; those of "to die" as "die, dead, funeral." The opposite of "new" is "second hand," and the comparative degrees of "bad" are "bad," "worse," and "rotten." His wife, he says, suffers from "high blood pleasure." One of Kaplan’s sentences in a business letter to an uncle reads, "If your eye falls on a bargain please pick it up"; and when a classmate presumes to ridicule the sentence, Mr. Kaplan’s triumphant rejoinder is "Mine oncle has a gless eye." When in a burst of eloquence Kaplan uses a "beauriful" word (the word is "megnificent"), an admiring Mr. Bloom asks him after class, "How you fond soch a woid"? "By dip tinking," answers Mr. Kaplan, striding out like a hero.

No comments: