a man sits in front of a computer terminal in an internet cafe

From the Archive

Wired World: On Education, the Internet, and the New Immigrants

From the August 2000 issue of the College Board Review, legendary newspaperman and author Pete Hamill considers two huge social and cultural shifts that will change the way we live: the arrival of millions of immigrants, and the advent of the internet

One of the joys of rummaging through the yellowing archive of the College Board Review is the people you bump into. A Diane Ravitch column leads to an interview with baseball commissioner Bart Giamatti leads to a profile of writing guru William Zinsser leads to a chat with former New York governor Mario Cuomo leads to an essay from hall-of-fame halfback Gale Sayers. That's just for starters and doesn't account for the heavyweights of the education world that appeared in the magazine, as contributors or story subjects.

But seeing Pete Hamill's byline in the August 2000 issue is one of those drop-everything-and-reconsider-this-magazine kind of experiences. A high school dropout who found his calling in the energy and possibility of the newsroom, Hamill documented the people (often those overlooked) and thrum (often changing, never silent) of New York City for more than 50 years as a newspaperman, columnist, editor, and author. "If the pavement of this city could speak, it would sound like Pete Hamill," Dan Barry once wrote. Only Jimmy Breslin could compete with Hamill—and did they compete!—for the title of New York's conscious. Both were incisive and empathetic, but where Breslin was often brash and brassy Hamill could deploy everything from disbelieving disgust to guarded optimism with devastating quiet and precision. That's what came from growing up the son of Irish Catholic immigrants, and what led a columnist like Mike Lupica to dub Hamill the "poet laureate" of the city.

So what's this guy doing in an often-wonky higher-ed magazine? Turning his incisive gaze onto twin forces barreling down on the nation at the dawn of the 21st century—the arrival of millions of new immigrants, and the arrival of the internet—and how they will alter the landscape of American education. In many ways it's classic Hamill. On immigration, he measures the hope of the future by taking stock of the past, fully aware of the opportunities and hazards the country's record portends as waves of arrivals come from Asia, the Indian subcontinent, Central America, and Mexico. "But we who are the children and grandchildren of the old immigrants, or the descendants of slaves, are amnesiacs if we don't recognize ourselves in all of them," Hamill writes. "The goals remain the same: better lives and freedom." And on the internet, writing before social media and the consumer web swallowed the world, he's optimistic about its potential to bind users together, a position shared by many in those pre-dot-com-crash days. "It can break down the stupid barriers that exist between people. It can make us more aware of the complexity and pluralism of our country. It will make the world available, without the interference of the people who choose the content of television news or newspapers and live by the creed of Give The People What They Want." If only things had gone that way.

The piece is overflowing with insight, ideas, and compassion—including the prescient observation, "The internet is no substitute for a teacher in a classroom, speaking with students and encouraging give-and-take"—but we should expect nothing else. Pete Hamill died on August 5 at 85, and while the outpouring of tributes and remembrances tend to focus on his New York-centric work this piece is a vibrant reminder of what made him so singular. Hamill made his name on the streets of Brooklyn and Manhattan, but he saw the city for what it is—a microcosm of the melting pot—and was able to direct its lessons and warnings and promise outward to reckon with the country and, often, the world. That made for good writing; the intimacy of it, a conversation happening across a table or in a packed subway car, made him a legend.

three people, from left, a woman and two men, raise their hands as they take the oath of citizenship

David Mcnew/Getty Images

Immigrants from countries such as Mexico, El Salvador, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Iran are sworn in as United States citizens March 29, 2000, In Los Angeles.

This past May, I was asked to give a commencement speech at Columbia University in New York and arrived early to wander for a while around the campus. A morning drizzle had vanished and the afternoon was blessed with bright sunshine and a cool breeze. Graduating students milled around in familiar ways, wearing caps and gowns, hugging friends, shedding a few tears, posing for relieved parents armed with Instamatics. It was a marvelous way to spend an hour. But as I moved among those young people I wondered if they realized just how fortunate they were.

They are young in a good time, one that comes rarely to any generation in any country. There is no terrible foreign war, so they do not face the prospect of dying in some napalm-blasted field, far from home. The American economy is booming, so they do not face the fears and disheartening compromises that accompany a time of depression. They live in a country where crime rates have plummeted and the sense of menace has vanished from most American cities, thus allowing the young to savor not only their youth but the humanizing benefits of what we call civilization.

Far more important for the young—and for all of us who live in the United States—are two huge social and cultural shifts that will determine the way we live in the years directly ahead of us and for a long time to come. One is a variation on a very familiar American story: the arrival among us of millions of immigrants. The other is the abrupt appearance of the internet among us. Both are already changing our society and our culture in ways that we have not yet had time to fully define. Both are central to the ancient human endeavor called education.

cover of august 2000 issue of the college board review

The Older Immigrants

On the surface, the new immigrants do not resemble those who came to America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The older immigrants were Irish, Italian, and Jewish, Germans and Poles and Greeks; they carried with them the strengths and weaknesses of Europe. They were, on the whole, amazing people. Many came with little money and only a few symbolic souvenirs of the European past: a stone from Donegal, a battered samovar from Minsk, a handful of earth from Calabria. Many—including a large percentage of the famine Irish—did not know English. Many were illiterate in their own languages. But they had endured their long journeys to America for two basic reasons. One was to make marginally better lives for themselves and infinitely better lives for their children. The other was to be free. To be free of the hard fists of the state. To be free to choose their political leaders. To be free of the tyranny of the land. To be free of kings and Cossacks.

Both ambitions could only be realized through education. The immigrants themselves crowded into night schools. Their children went to the free public schools of a free country. The school systems groaned with their burdens, politicians protested, racists and haters spewed filth, but the schools and their heroic teachers learned how to cope with the great tide of hungry minds. The children became Americans. And their parents changed America itself. They altered its food and its art and its language. The children of peddlers became doctors and lawyers, teachers and intellectuals. Yes: there were problems. Yes: there were bigotries to endure and occasional violence to resist. Yes: there were failures and unacceptable losses. Yes: some of the children of each group became criminals. But in the end, an extraordinary mixture took place, an alloy forged, with the diverse cultures of the immigrants grafting themselves to the existing cultures of Protestant America and African America. This was all part of an educational process. The long struggle (which often began on Ellis Island) was completed after World War II by one of the most important pieces of social legislation of the twentieth century: the G.I. Bill of Rights. Finally, the children of factory workers could attend universities with the children of WASP patricians. Finally, every American could be a citizen of the republic of talent. The old ethnic grievances of Europe, the bitterness that was the legacy of so much horror and history, were overcome by very American processes. The children of immigrants became Americans in ballparks and foxholes, in movie houses and above all, in schools. When they held those holy diplomas in their hands after finishing at universities, many of their parents wept. The diplomas were proof that they were all Americans at last.

a crowd of immigrants in a large room

Robert King/Newsmakers

More than 6,000 immigrants from 71 countries attend a naturalization service to become U.S. citizens on December 19, 2000, at the Miami Beach Convention Center in Miami, Florida.

The New Immigrants

The new immigrants are from other places. From Korea and China, Vietnam and Cambodia; from Russia and the Dominican Republic; from Mexico and Central America and the Indian subcontinent. We even have substantial numbers of Africans among us, the first such immigrants in our history who did not arrive here in shackles. The new immigrants don't speak the languages of the old immigrants. They don't carry within them the same religious or social templates. They don't come trundling down the steps of Ellis Island to the boats that will take them to Manhattan.

But we who are the children and grandchildren of the old immigrants, or the descendants of slaves, are amnesiacs if we don't recognize ourselves in all of them. The goals remain the same: better lives and freedom. Most come from countries where they have experienced the cement face of the state, or have endured grinding poverty for generations, or have been caught up in wars fought by megalomaniacal fools over abstractions. They come from many places that do not have schools or where higher education is reserved for the children of the elite. It is no easy thing to pack up and leave the land where your ancestors are buried, the nation where everyone speaks your language, the country where you grew up with common myths. And yet they come. Every day. To America.

Their journeys are different too. The airplane, the bus, the truck, the car—all have replaced steerage. None will be forced to endure the horrors of the middle passage. None will be subjected to the intimidation and humiliation of Ellis Island. Yes: Many are here without papers, after crossing borders at midnight through drainage ditches and sewer pipes or jammed together in the holds of freighters. And yet they come. And they bring with them what this country has always been given by its immigrants: a willingness to work hard at dreadful jobs, a belief in the fundamental importance of the family, adventurous hearts, a faith in the future, and pride. There is no pride on Earth that equals the pride of a man or woman who has risen from nothing. Who would dare try to question it? There is no pride that equals what swells in the hearts of such brave and humble people on the day when the first young person in all the centuries of their families has raised a university diploma above his or her capped and exultant head.

students sti at a table in front of laptop computers

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Students work during class August 31, 2001, at the Discovery Charter School in Tracy, California, the first school in the nation to operate a "paperless" system with all students issued a laptop that connects wirelessly to a server with the daily lessons.

A Plural Vision of Education

And so they are here among us, the new immigrants, and they are already changing us. They are changing our music, our art, our literature. They are altering our fashions. They are forcing us to think hard about what we mean when we use the words American culture. It is a waste of our time to continue the arid and often mean­spirited debate about "multiculturalism." All culture is multicultural. What must be struggled against is any movement that tries to define a country such as ours as monocultural. That struggle for a plural vision and a mixed definition is obviously one of the great tasks of formal education. It should be done with joy and a sense of celebration, not with nasty academic qualities and the casting of anathemas. We who have been brought up in the traditions of the West have much to offer those who come from other parts of the world and they have much to offer us. That's a simple proposition. It can be uttered without apology and without anger.

I feel no need to apologize, for example, for loving what I still call the classics. I had never heard of anything called "the canon" when I read The Thousand and One Nights or Don Quixote, Dante's Inferno or The Count of Monte Cristo. They were there on the shelves of the Brooklyn Public Library and were woven into my life by sheer serendipity, taking their places in my imagination with Bomba, the Jungle Boy and Captain Marvel. I certainly didn't need to see the movie Gladiator to discover the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. I cherish modern Latin American literature; I've read the classics of Japanese literature and the writers of modern Africa. But the first great books I read all came to me from foreign places too. They certainly were not created in my parish in Brooklyn. They were written by a Spaniard, a Florentine, a Roman, a Frenchman, or invented by the fertile imaginations of the Arab world. They are among the few hundred books that every human being should read, absorb, and reread over the course of a lifetime. They belong to all of us.

But to believe that one can create a perfectly cultured human being in a few short years merely by expanding a reading list is an absurdity. Four years as an undergraduate is simply not enough time to become a truly educated human being. More than ever, those of us who have lived full lives must share the task of creating a passionate curiosity in the young. A curiosity about the great wide world, and its peoples, and its literatures, its arts, its music, and its myths. The world is smaller than ever before; human beings are living longer than ever before. There is time now, and opportunity, for all educated people to be dazzled by the endless variety of the world to leave behind the parochialism and fear of the strange that have been the fuel of so many horrors. Formal schooling is absolutely important in all of this. It provides tools to the young, which they can use until they die. It can grant shortcuts to knowledge, telling the young where the good stuff is. It can liberate the imaginations of those who are groping for some meaningful way to live their lives.

Perhaps most imporant, formal education can help create or refine each person's critical intelligence, while defining those standards that will keep intelligence humane. But the clichés of commencement speeches are absolutely true: education is something that does not end with graduation from a university. Education is an ongoing process, an accumulation of knowledge, a measuring of reality against abstractions, a persistent sorting and weighing of facts to get at the truth.

pete hamill holds a microphone as he speaks at a movie premiere

Rob Loud/Getty Images

Pete Hamill in 2009

The Internet as Educational Tool

The internet has become part of that process and it will not go away. Its development is the most important thing to happen to our culture—high culture and so-called popular culture—since the development of high­speed printing presses in the 1830s. Those presses made the modern newspaper possible. They made inexpensive books available to millions. They began the process of making reading part of popular culture and not the property of a tiny elite. We learned in the nineteenth century that the people who could read would rule those who could not. And if those presses gave us much junk in the years that followed—dime novels, newspapers filled with lies, crackpot political ideas, some wretched pornography, much racist rubbish­—they also gave us Dickens and Balzac, Henry James and Walt Whitman, Melville and Hawthorne, and even Marcus Aurelius. They made the United States a better country.

But we are not yet sure what the internet will do to the country. I'm one of the optimists. I believe that as it develops, and as more and more poor Americans get daily access to it, the internet will make us better too. For 10 years, the internet has been run by "techies," by men and women shaped by technology. They were not as concerned about what to put on the internet as they were with solving technical problems. Many of those problems have now been solved, but the actual content of the internet remains a blur. No critic has yet appeared to help sort out the value of what is available. With some major exceptions—Slate, Salon, and some other lively sites—much of the content is banal. It tells us what we already know. The reason, I suspect, lies in the narrow focus of the gifted young people who have created it. For 10 years they have been building pianos. They make wonderful pianos. Now they have to get Art Tatum to sit down and play.

But that will happen. Some would say that it is already happening but we don't really know about it because most of the journalistic coverage of the internet has been about the business side of its development: the great success stories, the millions made by this or that dot-commie. Five years ago, every waiter in a New York restaurant was working on a screenplay; today every waiter is working on a start-up. But the future of this new medium might be less predictable than that of just another get-rich-quick scheme. If the great start-ups are merely hipper versions of the celebrity-ridden plague that is eating away at magazines and newspapers, then either they are doomed or we are. But if the internet becomes a vital part of the culture, if it promotes literature and history and the arts, if it helps us to understand the world instead of merely clerking the world's follies, it can make an enormous impact on the way we live.

More important, if it becomes the instrument that explains the new immigrants to us and explains us to them it will serve a great social function. It can break down the stupid barriers that exist between people. It can make us more aware of the complexity and pluralism of our country. It will make the world available, without the interference of the people who choose the content of television news or newspapers and live by the creed of Giving The People What They Want. The availability of choices is already encouraging. I can begin my day now by reading The Irish Times from Dublin or Reforma from Mexico City; when I'm out of the United States I can check in with The New York Times or The Washington Post. Experts all over the world are now available to me. When I'm doing research, I can find my way to a variety of obscure documents. Thanks to amazon.com and bn.com, I can order books that aren't carried in my local bookstore. It's even better for many other Americans. Because of the internet, no town or village in the United States is now without a bookstore.

In short, I'm one of those who believes that the internet could become one of the greatest educational tools in the planet's history. All professional educators, from first grade teachers to heads of university departments, must deal with it. Heads of universities, whose days are too often taken up with fundraising and negotiating with politicians, must find time to think about the internet and its consequences for American society. Men and women who do think about the philosophy of education—and its subsequent translation into practical educational policy—must give the internet their highest priority. Faculty members should play a major role in understanding the uses of the internet, serving as an early warning system about possible abuse or misuse of the new medium (plagiarism might be the most obvious clanger). All should be working together toward a common goal: to secure a vivid, muscular presence on those internet screens for their ideas and their discoveries. That is, to make certain that the collective American mind is as available to millions as the predictable fluff and silliness. The same medium that allows a person to order pizza and a Bruce Willis movie must have room for Saul Bellow and John Rawls, E. L. Doctorow and Katharine Anne Porter, and for new ways to think about everything we mean when we use the word culture. The great educational thinkers must deal with it, and use it, and assist others to use it. And they should be working to secure a vivid, muscular presence on those screens for themselves and their universities.

The internet is no substitute for a teacher in a classroom, speaking with students and encouraging give-and-take while insisting on standards of excellence, but it is already making much of the world available to teachers, students, and the rest of us in ways that were inconceivable even a decade ago.

seen from the outside, a woman sitting in the back of a yellow taxicab looks at her device

Chris Hondros/Newsmakers

A woman uses an Internet-enabled PalmPilot in the back of a taxi on October 2, 2000, in New York City. Yahoo! and Medallion Financial, a New York finance company, teamed up to put wireless Internet access on PalmPilots in the back of New York City cabs.

There are, of course, some severe problems at this stage of the new medium's development. For the moment, the primary language of the internet is English, but as translation programs are perfected that problem will subside (although we can be certain that in the meantime various nationalist protests will be raised against the tyranny of English). The high costs of hardware and software are combining with lack of telephone lines to keep vast sections of the globe out of the growing system. That too will be subject to much fevered debate and the solutions will not be easy, or quick.

But in the face of these problems, only fools would become Luddites and try to smash the new machine. Slogans are not a form of thinking; they are cartoon versions of thought. The addled debate over "globalization" is riddled with slogans, and in some unstated way the protestors seem to be driven by a guilty unease over the arrival of the internet and its gathering power. But the internet is here, and it is quickly becoming the most essential instrument in the shrinking of the planet (much of the organizing of antiglobalization protests is in fact done on the internet). The more utopian net-heads predict that frontiers and border guards and passports might eventually vanish; ethnic violence could become more and more absurd; dictatorships will surely lose one enormous source of power, the control of information, and go the way of monarchies. Maybe. Perhaps.
In fact, we simply don't know what will happen. The high-speed printing press gave us many glories, but it also produced the Communist Manifesto, Mein Kampf, and Mao's little red book, and the visions they contained led to mountains of corpses. This new technology is so new that we don't yet know what it will bring us. Almost certainly it will give us more to ponder than stock tips and basketball scores.

In the United States, the children of the new immigrants are growing up with this tool, which they surely could not have done if their parents had stayed home. It will help get them into universities; it will give them work; it will assist them in honoring their parents by the way they live their own lives. Some of them will use the tool to help those left behind in the old country. Some will never look back; they were born here. But with any luck, the children of the new immigrants will be part of a country that grows less rigid, less self-righteous, that is equipped with skepticism but not cynicism. They will live in a country that is generous and tolerant and plural. They will live in a country that honors human intelligence and respects human weakness. That is, they will be educated citizens of a truly educated country. That task will absorb the rest of their lives, and ours.