There’s a thoroughly unsympathetic but deeply felt crisis that hits the grown children of upwardly mobile immigrants. These second-generation strivers—who are largely assimilated, educated in the U.S., and often ostensibly liberal—have children of their own, and, when faced with the more lax customs of their neighbors, start to wonder if their parents, who forced them into all sorts of academic labor, might have been right all along. I call this population the Amy Chua Silent Majority, after the infamous author of “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.” Despite the association with Asian American tropes, members of the A.C.S.M. are actually quite ethnically diverse. I’ve met Russians, West Africans, West Indians, Central Americans, and South Asians who belong to this group. They squirm every time they hear about “play-based learning.” They collectively roll their eyes at the idea of homework bans. They wonder if it’s really necessary to let kids just be kids.
Their—our—discomfort is nothing new. The anxieties of immigrant populations have shaped American education for more than a century. The establishment of Catholic schools in the U.S., for instance, came from successive waves of immigrants who felt anxious about the public-school system. In the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Catholics from Europe migrated into East Coast cities, and their children attended “common schools” founded on Protestant norms that didn’t look particularly fondly on the newcomers. Catholic schools were created, in large part, to allow the children of these immigrants to retain their culture and take classes taught in French, German, or Italian.
The influence of parochial schools grew until 1964, when a full twelve per cent of America’s K-12 students were enrolled in Catholic institutions. But, as Irish and Italian families began to move to the suburbs and into public schools in the latter half of the sixties, a new group of immigrants from Asia, South America, and the Caribbean came in to take their place. Toward the end of the twentieth century, the Catholic school increasingly became something of a middle ground between the public-school system and expensive private schools, and less of a cultural or religious institution. “For immigrant families that have arrived recently,” Vivian Louie and Jennifer Holdaway wrote in a 2009 paper, “religion seems to be more or less irrelevant to the decision to send their children to Catholic school. Instead, like many native Blacks and Latinos, these families chose Catholic schools to avoid what they see as a seriously deficient public school system.”