Immigrants and Education

“Як школа?”is something asked repeatedly of me by my grandparents growing up. The question–“how’s school?”–wasn’t just about whether I was getting A’s. Although the grade was important, the question really was “are you learning?”

I found myself thinking about that question yesterday when speaking to our son. He’s studying abroad this semester, and talking about his experiences. The questions he gets asked are both funny and sad. “Do you have a gun?” and “has your country gone crazy?” are two frequent ones. Questions that aren’t asked of citizens of, say, Norway.

I think we’re in the grip of a streak of anti-intellectualism the likes of which we haven’t seen since maybe Andrew Jackson. The United States has always had a little anti-education bent since our founding. Going back to the days of Horatio Alger and “go west, young man,” as a nation we’ve preferred bootstraps to books. We tend to deride intellectuals as living in ivory towers and being unable to survive in the “real” world.

What I find interesting is that it appears immigrants value education more than any other group. My Ukrainian immigrant grandparents taught me respect for those that were educated. And they worked hard to make sure that their children and grandchildren received the education they never got.

Importantly, they never asked what I was leaning at college. Rather, they wanted to know was I learning. Big difference. The anti-intellectuals paint a bizarre picture of universities stuffing young people with useless information from a biased (i.e. not their) point of view. Of course, nothing is further from the truth.

College, done properly, is about learning how to teach yourself. The experiences in and out of the classroom are intended to teach the methodologies (and there is always more that one way to skin the proverbial cat) and allow practice of those methods. Is there a guarantee that you’ll not be a fool, even if you have a degree from a very fine, the best, school? No. But that’s not the fault of the academy.

Is college for everybody? Of course not. I know highly-educated people that do not have degrees and some educated fools with PhDs. One can become educated in many ways. The key is the attitude–hard work, the willingness to question, and the openness to new and frightening ideas.

Those sound like the skills possessed by immigrants who want a better shot here. If I had to guess, I’d think that certain anti-intellectual real estate grifters-turned reality TV stars-turned politicians are actually scared of those immigrants driving our cabs and cleaning our hotel rooms in the hope that their kids might become educated.

As for my neighbor? I’ll take an immigrant from a sh!thole country over a know-nothing living in a tacky, nouveau riche palace to greed any day.

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