I had the great pleasure this past weekend of taking a group of Ashland University students--all members of our chapter of Phi Alpha Theta--to my hometown of Pittsburgh for a tour of some of the city’s historic sites. Not only did we have a first-class walking tour of the downtown area, and a not-quite-gourmet-but-still-tasty meal at the original Primanti Bros. restaurant, but we spent Saturday afternoon at the Senator John Heinz History Center, a tremendous museum dedicatd to Pittsburgh’s past. The Heinz Center is quite simply the best history museum that I’ve ever visited--although that might be nothing more than my hometown pride talking. The exhibit on sports history, complete with film of such legendary episodes as Bill Mazeroski’s amazing home run in the seventh game of the 1960 World Series, and Franco Harris’s "Immaculate Reception" in the 1972 division championship against Oakland, chokes me up every time I see it (and I’m not even that huge of a sports fan).
But one can’t visit the Heinz Center without being reminded of the critical importance of immigration to the city’s development. Whether it be Russian Jews, Poles, Germans, Irish, Slovakians, Africans, or what have you, each group has left its indelible mark on Pittsburgh. What struck me most, however, was reading about the efforts made by Settlement Houses--most notably the Irene S. Kaufman House in the Hill District--to help immigrants to assimilate. Sure, these were run by liberals (progressives, to be more precise), who often advocated wrongheaded social policies, but the progressives of the early 20th century still believed in the basic goodness of America. They believed that in teaching recent immigrants English, and love for the flag and other American institutions, they were doing more than helping them to fit into a new society--they knew that they were making them into better people.
Why, then, aren’t there similar efforts being made today? Where are the Settlement Houses of 2007? We can all come up with reasons why, I suppose. Today’s liberals are far less convinced of America’s basic goodness, and therefore seem uncomfortable suggesting that it might be the duty of new immigrants to learn English and to respect American ideals. On the other hand, too many of those who oppose immigration do so on the demonstrably false grounds that people from Latin America and East Asia are incapable of being assimilated; why, then, launch a project that is doomed to failure? Of course, there is also the fact that so many Latin American immigrants are here illegally, and would therefore be hesitant to participate in a program that might reveal their status. Nevertheless I find it a sad state of affairs, and hope that any legislative effort to deal with the country’s immigration problems will take into consideration the vital task of assimilation.