The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Education of Immigrants

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EDUCATION OF IMMIGRANTS. During the 14 years preceding the outbreak of the European War 11,726,606 immigrants over 14 years of age were admitted to the United States. Of this number 3,116,182 or about 25 per cent were illiterate. During a year of ordinary immigration preceding the war more than 1,000.000 immigrants came to this country. In the year 1914 the number was 1,218,480. Illiteracy has been on the increase in 18 States in the Union. These States are the leading industrial and mining States, and include New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Illinois and California, These are the States in which the great majority of immigrants settle. Under the first selective draft law 1,245,801 alien males registered who are between the ages of 21 and 30. Under the military ages fixed in the amended draft law, 18 to 45, there are 3,000,000 unnaturalized alien males in this country. About 20 per cent of these cannot speak English. When they enter the United States army they will be unable to understand the commands of their officers until they are taught to understand English. There are 5,500,000 people in the United States who are unable to speak English.

In the last decade there has been a large decrease in the number of illiterates under 14 years of age. Under compulsory attendance laws illiterates under this age have practically disappeared. The number of negro illiterates is rapidly decreasing. The number of native-born white illiterates is also rapidly decreasing. The only class of illiterate which has been increasing during recent years is the foreign-born. This large number of citizens unable to speak the language of the United States exceeds the number of soldiers which the government expects to send to Europe to fight in this war. The number equals about one-twentieth of the population of the country. These immigrants' come to the United States for the purpose of obtaining larger opportunities for themselves and their children. They naturally drift to the sections of the cities which are inhabited by former residents of their native lands. Thus there are to be found in all the large American cities a particular section inhabited by Italians and known as the Italian section, another inhabited by Poles and known as the Polish section, etc. These immigrants do not get the spirit of the life of American or democratic institutions. They retain to a very large extent the customs and habits of the country from which they emigrated. It is difficult for them to learn to speak English and they are not able to communicate readily with Americans. This fact is to their disadvantage in obtaining employment. Then, too, they do not acquire so readily a knowledge of the laws of the United States, of their rights in and their obligations to the country. About one-third of the prisoners in penal institutions in the United States are aliens. The number during the decade preceding the war had constantly increased. They have in many instances been here but a short period of time and have committed minor offenses. They are in many cases the leaders in riots and in other movements of disorder and lawlessness.

President Wilson in addressing several thousand aliens made the following statement: “You cannot become thorough Americans if you think of yourselves in groups. America does not consist of groups. A man who thinks of himself as belonging to a particular national group in America has not yet become an American. . . . America was created to unite mankind by those passions which lift.”

Immigration is a national affair and has always been regulated by the Congress. The action of the Congress in passing a measure over the veto of the President in 1917 prohibiting immigrants from coming to this country who are illiterate has simplified in a measure the question of adult illiteracy. While no additional illiterates will be admitted to this country there will still be large numbers of immigrants admitted who are not able to read or write English. In the problem therefore of immigrant education there are two types of alien who must have consideration. First, the illiterate alien, and second the literate alien who is unable to speak English. It is as important to educate the non-English-speaking literate alien as it is to educate the illiterate alien for preparation for citizenship, by informing him upon the fundamental features of the social, industrial and civic questions upon which the progress and prosperity of a democracy depends.

This subject has never been approached as one of the great national problems which the country must solve. For many years various charitable, philanthropic, religious and civic organizations, in various parts of the country, have done very much toward the education of the illiterate alien. The North American Civic League for Immigrants, The Baron De Hirsch Fund, The Educational Alliance, The Young Men's Christian Association and many civic, religious and charitable societies have done much pioneer work of great value in this field of education. The great railroad corporations and many of the industrial and manufacturing corporations of the country have maintained schools at their own expense for the education of their alien employees. In many cases large corporations have found it to be a matter of economy to maintain such schools and therefore reduce the number of accidents, thus saving in industrial insurance and increasing the efficiency of the employees. The developments of this field of education are similar to the developments in all the new fields of education, which are ultimately assumed by the State. Charitable and religious societies usually take the initiative in such fields. Over half a century ago some of the American States, which had begun to realize the importance of this problem, because of the number of immigrants coming into such State, authorized the establishment of adult schools and of evening schools. The establishment of such schools was not mandatory but was wholly in the discretion of the community or its educational officers. This type of legislation has increased until most of the States having large numbers of aliens have authorized such schools. In most States attendance upon these schools is free. In some States small appropriations are made by the State but very generally the burden of the maintenance of such schools is placed upon the city or district.

The problem is not a local problem and local authorities should not be compelled to meet the expense of maintaining such schools. The problem is a National problem and a State problem. The National government should make appropriations which, supplemented by appropriations by the States, would be adequate to provide schools where all aliens might receive the degree and type of education which is essential for newcomers from other countries who intend to make America their adopted home. An effort has also been made to reach the alien through the organization of camp schools. In cases where cities and municipalities have been engaged in large constructive problems, notably in New York, is connection with the construction of the Barge Canal, the building of State roads and of the Ashokan Dam, where large numbers of aliens have been employed for long periods of time, temporary or camp schools have been established for the education of such aliens. The aliens employed in these labor camps do not remain in one place a sufficient period of time for the establishment of permanent schools. Experience in maintaining camp schools shows that if such schools are to be made effective there should be portable school buildings with equipment which may be moved from one place to another. The expense of maintaining these camp schools should be borne by the municipalities or the corporations or jointly by the agencies employing such aliens.

Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York have done pioneer work in alien education. Massachusetts enacted a law on the subject in 1887 requiring all illiterates between the ages of 14 and 21 to attend some school if they were continuous residents in the city or town where an evening school was held. An examination was prescribed to be given after the close of the instruction as a literacy test. In 1906 this test was that which was required in reading, writing and spelling for admission to the second grade in the public school. In 1907 for admission to the third grade and in 1909 to the fourth grade. The requirement now is admission to the fifth grade. The law prohibited the employment of a minor unable to pass this test unless he attended an evening school. The New Jersey law of 1907 provides that the board of education “may establish and maintain a public evening school or evening schools for the instruction of foreign-born residents of said district over 14 years of age in the English language in the form of government and the laws of this State and of the United States.”

The most recent and comprehensive legislation on this subject is that of the State of New York. Three laws were enacted in 1918 by that State. One provides for the training of special teachers to instruct illiterate adults, under the supervision and direction of the State Education Department and an appropriation was made by the State for the purpose of holding summer institutes in which teachers so adapted to this work might receive instruction on the most natural and modern ways of approaching the foreigner and teaching him not only the English language but his relations and obligations to the government. Another of these laws makes it mandatory upon the cities and school districts to maintain night schools on three nights per week for two hours each night. In cities of the first class these schools must be maintained during the duration of the period that day schools are maintained. In cities of the second class such classes must be maintained for 100 nights. In cities of the third class they must be maintained for 80 nights. In school districts outside of cities and which have 20 or more persons above the age of 16 years who desire instruction, such school must be maintained for 75 nights. Attendance upon these night schools must be free. The purpose therefore of these two acts is to provide the necessary facilities for the maintenance of schools where illiterates may receive instruction and also to provide trained teachers who may give such instruction. The third law makes it obligatory upon certain minor illiterates to attend these schools. An illiterate minor who cannot speak, read and write the English language sufficient for admission to the sixth grade of the public school if he is in proper physical and mental condition must attend the evening school or a day school until such minor it able so to use the English language. Unless a minor satisfies these requirements of the law he may not be employed in industry. Provisions, with suitable penalties for the failure thereof, run against such minor, his parents or guardian and an employer.

In the State of California a plan has been adopted intended to reach the immigrant women and through them the home. This plan involved the establishment of a Home Education Department under the direction of the State authorities. Through this plan visiting teachers go to the homes of all the immigrant women who are illiterate and who need instruction in modern home making and in the customs and practices of this country. If laws similar to the statutes in New York and California could be enacted in every State and the National government and each State would make appropriations upon an equitable basis illiteracy in America could be practically eliminated within the next decade.

Thomas E. Finegan,
Deputy Commissioner of Education and Assistant Commissioner in Charge of Elementary Education, State of New York.