• Special Moment
  • Bilingual Education
  • Editors' Note

    Special Moment

    Bill McKibben ("A Special Moment in History," May Atlantic) is, I suppose, entitled to make a career of bemoaning the alleged end of nature. However, there ought to be limits on the extent to which he distorts the facts to fit his vision.

    To quote McKibben,

    For ten years, with heavy funding from governments around the world, scientists launched satellites, monitored weather balloons, studied clouds. Their work culminated in a long-awaited report from the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, released in the fall of 1995. The panel's 2,000 scientists, from every corner of the globe, summed up their findings in this dry but historic bit of understatement: "The balance of evidence suggests that there is a discernible human influence on global climate." That is to say, we are heating up the planet -- substantially.
    As one of the 2,000 scientists listed, I can assure your readers that the vast majority of us were never asked whether we agreed with anything in the report. Indeed, I had asked not to be listed, but the Intergovernmental Panel, in its eagerness to build numbers, ignored such requests. And note that it is McKibben, in his scientific wisdom, who declares the almost meaningless IPCC statement to be an "understatement," and claims that "we are heating up the planet -- substantially." On the contrary, Chapter 8 of the IPCC report takes great pains to point out that the statement has no implications for the magnitude of the effect, is dependent on the assumption that natural variability obtained from models is the same as that in nature, and, even with these caveats, is largely a subjective matter. Indeed, this report was weaker in its support of warming than earlier ones; McKibben quoted about the strongest statement that the IPCC coordinators felt they could get away with.

    McKibben also asserts that we have a stormier world today. The IPCC stated: "It is not possible to say whether the frequency, area of occurrence, time of occurrence, mean intensity or maximum intensity of tropical cyclones will change." Recognizing the degree to which even this statement was being abused, the authors recently published a revision: "There is no evidence to suggest any major changes in the area or global location of tropical cyclone genesis in greenhouse conditions." The situation with respect to less severe, extra-tropical storms is similar.

    In an extraordinary appeal to the ignorance of his readers, McKibben refers to our new atmosphere as filled with "nitrogen, methane, and carbon." Nitrogen, at about 78 percent, is the major component of the natural atmosphere. By "carbon" I suppose McKibben means carbon dioxide. Currently, at about 360 parts per million, this crucial component hardly fills our atmosphere. However, 360 ppm is greater than the 280 ppm that characterized the pre-industrial atmosphere. Even if we are unable to state whether this could produce significant climate change, we do know (and McKibben acknowledges) that this leads to increased plant growth. What McKibben fails to say is that a modest reduction beyond pre-industrial levels, to 200 ppm, would significantly interfere with life as we know it. This ought to be considered before we permit the EPA to declare carbon dioxide a pollutant.

    Richard S. Lindzen

    Bill McKibben says, "A gallon of gas weighs about eight pounds. When it's burned in a car, about five and a half pounds of carbon, in the form of carbon dioxide, come spewing out." (Unfortunately, it's worse than that.) "A pint's a pound the world around" refers to water, however, not gasoline, which has a much lower density. A gallon of gasoline weighs about 5.9 pounds and is about 84 percent carbon. When completely burned, it yields eighteen pounds of carbon dioxide (and 8.3 pounds of water vapor). That weight of carbon-dioxide gas will occupy a volume of 1,172 gallons.

    Dave Bulloch

    Bill McKibben makes a persuasive case for the discrediting of Malthus. His scenario for the peak of world population in the middle of the next century also seems reasonable. However, when he gets on to the subject of carbon-dioxide emissions, both his logic and his predictive time line come to a screeching halt. Yes, all carboniferous fuels, fossil and otherwise, yield carbon dioxide, and it is building up in the atmosphere. However, there is no way the world will reduce, or even freeze at present levels of, CO2 emissions. First, the reasonable ambitions of developing nations take them toward Western per capita energy consumption. Second, the capitas are at present still increasing worldwide, in spite of the prospect of leveling fifty years hence.

    But third, and most important, the world as a whole has achieved progress and a better life only through consuming more energy per capita. No democratic government is going to be able to stop this evolution. The only reasonable prognosis is more energy consumption, more CO2 emissions, and increasing population.

    What to do? Quit nagging people about using less energy, and -- unlike Malthus -- look toward the reasonable technological future.

    Let's attempt to move away from carboniferous fuels, without sacrificing growth in energy consumption. Wind and solar power are out -- there just is not enough to sustain increased energy usage, and energy is the source of a rise in living standards for people anywhere. What prospects remain? Nuclear power is discredited because of highly toxic waste products. Controlled fusion power has been experimented with for more than forty years, with no near likelihood of success. However, pulse fusion power has been available since 1952, but neglected for power generation.

    In a project called Project Ploughshare, in the late 1950s, Lawrence Radiation Laboratory developed a good understanding of what was required for safe, radiation-free, underground pulse fusion -- nuclear explosions for peaceful purposes. It even published a price list for such devices. A $1 million non-fission, pure fusion device of forty megatons, triggered underground by a proton beam and surrounded by borax, can safely produce enough heat to power a major city for one year.

    I agree with McKibben that unexpected technology ruined Malthus's predictions. I believe that unexpected technology will equally ruin McKibben's predictions.

    R. Perry Taylor

    Richard Lindzen and R. Perry Taylor make two responses to the issue of global warming that I've been hearing since I wrote in 1989.

    Mr. Lindzen contends that there's probably no problem -- an argument he's been making for a decade, even as we've witnessed seven of the warmest years on record. As he states, he's dramatically out of step with the scientific mainstream, which is represented by the IPCC statement. And if he hasn't seen the data on storminess, he should spend more time with the literature -- it's not tropical cyclones I was discussing but the recently reported research from U.S. government agencies on severe-storm frequency across this continent, which has increased by a staggering 20 percent.

    Mr. Taylor believes that there must be some easy technofix to the problem -- for example, nuclear explosions in borax chambers to power cities. In the real world this is of course an unlikely fantasy, useful mainly for illustrating the lengths to which people will go to avoid coming to terms with our use of energy.

    Many thanks to Dave Bulloch for the calculations. He is absolutely right about the weight of CO2 produced; I was just giving the figures for the weight of carbon in the CO2. In either case, it is one of the most relevant numbers for our future.

    Bilingual Education

    Rosalie Pedalino Porter ("The Case Against Bilingual Education," May Atlantic) presents a well-reasoned argument against first-language instruction for children whose home language is not English. An equally strong argument can be made, however, in favor of such instruction.

    Despite Porter's claim to the contrary, substantial basic research shows that providing young children with instruction in their first language allows them to develop literacy skills that transfer to English and to stay on top of school subjects while they develop their English-language skills. We know, for example, that older immigrant children, who arrive with strong first-language literacy skills, easily make the transition to English.

    Porter attributes the high dropout rate among Latino students to bilingual education. Both her assumptions and her analysis are flawed. In California most students in bilingual programs speak Spanish, but more Spanish-speaking students are not in bilingual programs. And although language may be a factor, socioeconomic status, family literacy, and family stability are more-consistent predictors of dropping out.

    Porter suggests that minority communities support the elimination of bilingual education. California's Proposition 227 was cleverly titled "English for the Children," and played on the indisputable idea that all children should learn English. Few people would have supported the initiative if they understood that it outlaws instruction for children in a language they understand.

    Judith Lessow-Hurley

    Bilingual education is no longer an "untried experimental idea." A substantial number of studies have consistently shown that children in properly organized bilingual programs acquire academic English more rapidly than children in all-English programs.

    Bilingual programs are not "more concerned with ... maintaining the ethnic culture of the family than with teaching children English." The many programs I have worked with are keenly aware that the primary goal is the rapid acquisition of English.

    Jim Cummins's hypotheses that learning to read in the first language facilitates learning to read in the second and that subject-matter learning in the first language helps to prepare students for learning in English do not "work against the goals of bilingual education." It is a common observation that children who become good readers in their first language have little trouble learning to read in English. These observations are supported by many studies showing clear correlations between reading ability in the first language and reading ability in the second language. Also, students who learn subject matter through their first language understand much more when they study these subjects in English.

    One cannot put the blame on bilingual education for the high Hispanic dropout rate. Fewer than half of Hispanic students in school today are limited-English-proficient, and few of those are in bilingual programs. In California only 15 percent of Hispanic students are in bilingual education. Also, numerous studies show that when background factors such as income, print in the home, and recency of immigration are controlled, differences between Hispanic and majority student-dropout rates are reduced a great deal and often disappear. Furthermore, a controlled study by Herman Curiel, James Rosenthal, and Herbert Richek, of the University of Oklahoma, reported that students in bilingual education dropped out less often than similar children in nonbilingual programs. Bilingual education appears to be the cure for dropping out, not the cause.

    Finally, Porter presents the problems of bilingual education as problems not of theory but of practice. Such criticisms are valuable and should be taken seriously. But no study has been done on how widespread poor practice is. All we have is a few very well publicized cases. Poor practice should be changed. But this is insufficient grounds for dropping bilingual education. If we found cases of poor algebra teaching, would we drop algebra from the curriculum?

    Stephen Krashen

    The arguments in these letters are, of course, familiar. The argument most frequently expressed is that limited-English students will do better academically if they first learn to read and write in their native language. I, too, believed this when I started my career as a Spanish/English bilingual teacher, in 1974. Five years of experience in a well-funded program staffed with competent teachers taught me otherwise.

    But I do not base my disillusionment with native-language teaching programs only on my experience as a teacher and my ten years as a program director. Although research on bilingual education is rightly criticized even by advocates as of generally poor quality, we do recognize a few reports as reliable. The prestigious National Research Council last year published a thirty-year review of bilingual education, conducted by reputable scholars known to favor bilingual programs. Two of its conclusions were: "It is clear that many children first learn to read in a second language without serious negative consequences," and "We do not yet know whether there will be long-term advantages or disadvantages to initial literacy instruction in the primary language versus English." The findings of the National Research Council contradict the popular notion of the superiority of bilingual education and confirm the earlier conclusions of the U.S. Department of Education's Baker-DeKanter study of 1981, which reported, "The case for the effectiveness of transitional bilingual education is so weak that exclusive reliance on this instructional method is clearly not justified."

    The unacceptably high dropout rate for students of Spanish-speaking background and the fact that it has not shown signs of improvement in two decades cannot be attributed to education programs alone. Immigrant, migrant, and refugee children from families in poverty, often with undereducated parents, facing problems of adjustment to a new land or the trauma of moving frequently from place to place, are more likely to have difficulty in making consistent academic progress and in being able to complete high school. Often these children are needed to help support the family by going to work as soon as possible. Yet I am convinced that we can help matters greatly by at least following the legal mandate of removing the language barrier to an equal education as early and as effectively as possible.

    Editors' Note

    The photograph that appeared on page 57 of the July issue was miscredited. The credit should have read: Larry Mayer/ Gamma Liaison.

    The Atlantic Monthly; August 1998; Letters; Volume 282, No. 2; pages 6 - 9.

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