The Czechoslovak Review/Volume 1/Teaching of Bohemian in High Schools and Colleges
Teaching of Bohemian in High Schools and Colleges.
By Jaroslav Victor Nigrin, Harrison Technical High School
In 1912 Mayor Carter H. Harrison adoped the wise step in introducing the teaching of several modern languages into the Chicago high schools, whenever a sufficient number of pupils applied for instruction in any one of them. By this step the study of Bohemian, Norwegian, Swedish and Italian was introduced into the curriculum of Chicago secondary schools. There were many at the time, teachers, principals and those interested in the management of schools, who criticised this step, and occasional opposition is met with even now. The main argument of those opposed to this innovation is this: that each of the above mentioned languages is studied almost exclusively by children of Bohemian, Norwegian. Swedish, etc., parents, and that study of the father’s language stands in the way of the thorough Americanization of the child. I wish to refute this assertion and point out benefits derived from such study by our new generation.
The strongest argument against the fear of backward Americanization is the experience of the past five years. Right now we live in the most crucial time testing the genuineness of the American spirit of our generation. Children of German parents have almost without exception been taking up the study of German in the secondary schools; yet how few are the cases in which these young people have provel disloyal to the American flag in these days that for them are so difficult. In practically every case of disloyalty or treason the guilty people were born and raised in Germany, not in America.
That proves beyond all doubt that our American school system performs very efficiently its function of making good citizens of the children of immigrants. People of other nationalities were not subjected to this severe test, but no one can doubt that their offspring would stand such a trial at least as well.
There are many who imagine that the process of Americanization, the process of the melting pot as it has been called, consists in discarding and throwing away all the traditions, customs and national traits of character which the immigrant people have brought over with them from all parts of the world, in order to become here something that it not yet defined or crystallized. Every one realizes that the American is not Englishman in spite of the fact that our national and political life is so greatly derived from the English national and political life. It is not Scotch, neither is it Irish, although these two peoples also use the English language. Language alone does not create national life. The Irish are using the English language now, yet it is needless to point out that they have by no means become English. When I say that the American national life is not yet fully crystallized, as is for instance the French and Spanish national life, I do not wish to depreciate the value of American traditions. National life and feeling is the result of a long process and it is impossible to develop it, where there has been so much influx and change as in America. Endless streams of new blood were flowing in, each of a different type, often mutually antagonistic, and it is really one of the modern miracles of the power of democracy that these different peoples have mingled here so well. The fact, however, remains that the greatestf actor working for the Americanization of the newcomers has not been the tradition of Bunker Hill, but liberty, opportunity and happiness which the immigrant has come here to seek and which generally he has found here. The people coming in our days to develop the endless tracts of prairie in the Middle West, to work in mines and factories, to build our cities and towns must be accorded the same rights as the settlers who came over on the Mayflower and tilled the narrow strip of land along the Atlantic. They have the same rights as citizens and workers, and one of these rights is the right to contribute whatever treasure they possess toward the upbuilding of the American ideals of the present and the future. If the American nation will be the result of the blending of different nationalities, each contributing its share to the formation of national character, the result will be a stronger race. We know that the English national traits derived their strength from the mixture of the Celt, the Anglo-Saxon and the Norman, the French from the Gaul, the Roman and the Frank; history is full of similar examples.
The timber from which is fashioned national character is furnished only by the second and later generations. The immigrant himself is only a guest, whereas his children are here at home. Now these succeeding generations will be unable to contribute anything of their own to the building of the nation, if they are not allowed to acquaint themselves with the rich heritage of their ancestors. That can be done only by thorough study of their mother tongue. Now this tongue is also a connecting link between the fathers and the children, a link in which there is mutual understand ing and which is the strongest family tie. The complaint is frequently uttered that children of immigrants furnish too many of our petty criminals, and the principal reason for this is the lack of understanding between parents and children. Many parents on account of their age or adverse circumstances cannot learn English, while their children do not pick up the language of their parents. In that way there can be no real family life, parents and children are strangers to each other, and the young people are crowded out from their homes to the street, the poolroom and perdition. On the other hand, where children learn the language of their parents and thus realize that their fathers come of a good stock and of a race that one may be proud of, family life develops healthily and normally and its influence leads the younger generation to a good and decent life. We cannot avoid the conclusion that the teaching of the minor European languages not only does not retard the Americanization of the younger element, but it helps to develop a new, individual and characteristic American type, and that it is a powerful moral factor in the bringing up of the second generation.
There are other benefits derived from the study of the so-called minor languages, benefits partly commercial and partly cultural. It was Germany that demonstrated the value of the knowledge of languages in commerce. Their unprecedented expansion of foreign commerce was due in a very large measure to their linguistic ability. With their Turkish customers they spoke or corresponded in Turkish, with the Chinese in Chinese. When we recently wanted to expand our South American trade, we discovered how few Americans knew Spanish and Portuguese and we tried to make it up in a hurry. The commerce of the world consists in trading with the entire world, and when the American trade develops, as we expect it to develop, we shall need people who will speak and write not only Spanish and Portuguese, but also Bohemian, Norwegian, Russian and so on. It is not easy to learn a foreign languge well. Why not help young Americans to perfect themselves in the language of their parents which they have picked up at home to some extent? Why not make use of them as a powerful commercial army which would develop business relations between the United States and the lands of their ancestors? Let us not forget, too, that commercial relations are not the only ones that enrich our lives, that knowledge of languages implies knowledge of arts, literature and scientific progress. Up to the present time some of the European nation alities could not develop their sciences and arts as fully as the more fortunate nations did, but we hope that after the present war, when nations hitherto oppressed will be liberated, a new impetus will be given to their spiritual life. Five hundred years ago the University of Prague was as famous as the University of Paris. What will happen when this university will again become the seat of learning of a free nation of ten millions? The scientists of today needed only to know what went on at the Academies of France, Germany, England, Italy and the United States; the scholars of tomorrow will have to keep track also of the proceedings at the learned institutions of Christiania, Belgrade, Warsaw and Prague. Let us remember that twenty-five years ago the Russian and Norwegian literatures were practically unknown to us. How much have we gained since then by acquainting ourselves with the works of such men as Ibsen and Tolstoy?
Here the Americans have an opportunity to equip themselves at less cost than other peoples with the knowledge of languages. If we follow the precedent established by Mayor Harrison in Chicago, we shall be destined to be the international exchange of ideas and of the brotherhood of mankind. We are the heirs of the culture of the entire world and we shall be the fathers of a noble future.
I wish to sum up briefly the points discussed in this article. I endeavored to show that the knowledge and the study of the languages of the various peoples of Europe who sent us their emigrants is in no way an obstacle to a thorough Americanization of the new elements. In bringing and preserving the various individual national characteristics it helps the formation of a new and stronger nation. Knowledge of the language of their fathers aids the harmony between parents and children, strengthens the family ties between them and so becomes a powerful moral and educational factor. I mentioned the direct benefits that will result to America, if it children know the languages of the world. These benefits will be commercial first of all, and they will also be cultural; they will enable us to follow the scientific, artistic and literary development of the whole world and benefit thereby.
Let us open the doors of our high schools and universities to new learning.