“Where there is learning, there is change.”

With election season making immigration and immigrants a hot-button issue, the question of their education has not come up, in a substantive way. On the contrary, there is much noise and talking points about the supposed ‘burden’ that immigrants pose to the American economy. In this insightful interview, we talk with an expert on this topic, about the issue of adult education, with a focus on education of recent immigrants and the untapped potential that can be harnessed.

Dr. Gustavo Lara-Gonzalez is an Ed.D with a focus on adult education. In this short interview, he outlines his motivation for studying this population group and what drives him. As he points out, adult education is one of the most neglected areas of education and needs more attention and funding, to help adults realize their full potential. As he says in his doctoral dissertation “There is an inextricable link between the robustness of the American economy and competitiveness and the strength of the educational institutions and their educational leaders in preparing the new workforce with the skills they need to compete, to follow a clear pathway into the middle class, and continue to prosper.”

Dr. Gustavo Lara-Gonzalez
Dr. Gustavo Lara-Gonzalez

 

  1. What motivated you to go into adult education? Why this population group?

Gustavo Lara: I selected this population for two reasons: (1) a brief “conversation” with the school principal at the beginning of my career, and (2) during my first class as an instructor for adult learners, I observed every one of my students, evaluated their needs and concluded that adult education should be first class education.

In my first day as a K-12 adult educator, my school principal called me just a few minutes before the beginning of my class and said: “Mr. Lara, everything you need is in the classroom; therefore, I do not want you to ask for anything else.” She continued her monolog, “This is adult education and adult education is second class. Your adult students are not our priority. Our energy and resources are dedicated to our K-12 students.”  After this monolog I went directly to my classroom. When I got into my classroom, I scanned it just to make a mental inventory. I began with all the technology. I noticed three items.  I saw an old T.V. set hanging on the wall. A very, very, very slow computer. It took me half an hour from the moment I turned the computer on to call the last person in my roster. Lastly, an old printer connected to another device out of my classroom.

According to my first school principal, adult education is second class education but the needs of adult learners are numerous that requires a first class education. We, as instructors, are not only helping them to accomplish their modest academic aspirations, but also we are helping them to become self-sufficient individuals with the ability participate and contribute to their society where they live in.

  1. What challenges did you face as an adult learner? 

GL: One of the main challenges that I encountered in the beginning of this long journey was time. We came to this country with absolutely nothing, but with a big sack of hope and dreams. In my case, which is similar to those who traveled from the South to the North, the first thing we have to do find a job. Once I found a job, I had to decide between work extra time and consequently earn additional money to feed my family or attend the local school and learn English. Most of the time I chose the former. As immigrants, we know that learning the language is vital to succeed in this country but family always comes first. Now as an instructor, my students are facing the same dilemma, feeding their families or earning their GED diploma, learning English, or attending institutions offering technical careers. In the same way I did it in those days, they usually choose the former.

 

  1. What do you think can be the role of adult education in empowering immigrants in the U.S.?

GL : I believe integration should be the main role of adult education. The result of this integration is participation. The population we are serving come with a wide range of abilities and educational and cultural background. Some come from traditional educational paths, having performed poorly in high school and are anxious to return and pick all the pieces up and continue their educational journey. Others have discontinued their education for diverse reasons, intending to return, but work family, financial need, or lack of academic success of lack of information prevented them to return.  Finally, some others take advantage of adult education programs to acquire new skills to stay competitive in the workplace and improve their employability, or to prepare them for a career change, and consequently increase their earning power.

The dynamic of today’s marketplace is creating a perpetual evolving economy; therefore, the role of adult education should be on providing adult learners with the necessary tools, not only intellectual, such as critical thinking and problem solving skills, but technical skills to successfully transition from the classroom to the workplace or to any institution of higher learning and compete and succeed in this new economy and live a productive and satisfying life.

 

  1. Tell us a bit about your family, the values that guide how you have educated your daughters

GL: I was raised by three exceptional individuals, two women and one man. They were my mothers and he was my Father. Although they did not possess a formal academic education, they knew the value of education. They instilled in everyone of us the love for learning, passion for sharing and serving others, and the importance of education as an instrument to reach our dreams and aspirations. We, my brothers and sisters, constantly listened to the same song over and over: education is the key that open the door of opportunities. Like my parents, and with the same level of intensity and determination, I sang the same song to my daughters.  

 

  1. What is key to helping recent immigrants reach their potential? 

GL: I believe that education is the vehicle to help newcomers reach their potential. Coming from the South to the North, the color of immigrants has never changed nor their dreams and aspiration. However, the new immigrants are arriving with new tools to reach their dreams. One of those tools is education. The new immigrants are more educated; therefore, we have the social and professional responsibility to integrate their knowledge and professional experiences in the curriculum of adult education and in our instructional practices to transitioning them into the workplace or institution of postsecondary education.

In my dissertation, I mention that despite a projection made by Carnevale, Jayasundera, and Hanson (2010), forecasting the creation of 47 million new jobs by 2018, and that 30 million will require postsecondary education, a report presented by the US Department of Education (2012) indicated that college completion rate is falling today, particularly among young Americans. This trend threatens to undermine the nation’s global competitiveness and further exacerbate inequality in the nation’s income distribution.

  1. What are your thoughts on the recent controversy about Mexican immigrants, in regards to Donald Trump’s remarks? 

GL: If someone asks me to summarize these remarks in one word, I would say IGNORANCE. Ignorant can lead only another ignorant. This individual does not know that we have been in this land before his ancestors. He does not know that a large number of Mexican immigrants and their descendants either volunteered or were drafted into the armed services during World War II. It is estimated that about 500,000 Mexican Americans joined the armed services during the war. Despite the continued discrimination and racism at home, hundred of thousands of Mexican immigrants and their descendants joined the armed services to defend the democratic principles of his great nation.  He does not know that Mexican immigrants and their descendants make up 12 percent of the immigrants that own a small business. Around 570,000 businesses in the United States, more than 1 in 25, are owned by a Mexican immigrant, and together they generate over 17 billion dollars in revenues per year. He does not know Mexican immigrants have contributed between 3.7 to 4.1 percent to the U.S GDP in the 2003 – 2011 period, according to a new report by BBVA Research. He does not know that Mexican immigrants and their descendants occupy a more significant place in the American cultural life than ever before. He can find Mexican immigrants and their descendants serving as high government officials in the three branches of government, as well as governors, local mayors, sheriffs, school leaders, and school boards members.  He does not know that the nation’s clothing, music, sport, art, literature, academia, science, and food have all been influenced by Mexican immigrants and their descendants. I wonder if this person knows the history of this nation. Based in his remarks, it seems that he does not know we are an important pillar sustaining the greatness of this nation. We are not leaving; we are in its blood.

 

  1. What should adult instructors do to empower their students, in spite of the negative stereotyping of Mexicans and other immigrants? 

GL:  Where there is learning; there is change. Where there is change; there is learning. Classroom is an important platform to change and transform individuals. We, as instructors, have the moral and professional responsibility to incorporate these social issues, negative or positive, into the curriculum and into our instructional practices. Yes, we are responsible to prepare them academically and equip them with the tools to succeed in the workplace or continue successfully their educational journey, but also, we are responsible to create agents of social change.

 

What a 19th century French Aristocrat can teach us about America

 

This is perhaps the most cited book in the world. I have seen it cited even when there is no need to do so, because the aura of quoting Tocqueville, the 19th century French aristocrat is irresistible. With his magnum opus Democracy in America, written after his visit to America in the 1830s’, Tocqueville entered the hall of immortals and this book is widely considered both by liberals and conservatives as an authoritative book on American history. While there is deep questioning in America regarding democracy and its efficacy and study after study showing that components that build democracy are in decline, this book is a peek into the past that offers us rich insights and lessons.democracy

“Amongst the novel objects that attracted my attention during my stay in the United States, nothing struck me more forcibly than the general equality of conditions.” These are the words with which Tocqueville begins his book. Here, he is talking about the equality that he saw among ‘free White men’, of his era, given that slavery was still very much part of the American social makeup. One can forgive him for this and look at the where he is coming from – the nobility of France, a deeply hierarchical society. This is one of the most significant takeaways from this book. This insight into the equality of Americans is also one of the most insightful observations that he makes. While inequality in America did exist in his time and it seems to have only increased in our times, the absence of  aristocracy and a perception of equality among all people is  part of the psychological makeup that is hard to find in any other part of the world.

He goes on to say “The more I advanced in the study of American society, the more I perceived that the equality of conditions is the fundamental fact from which all others seem to be derived, and the central point at which all my observations constantly terminated.” This goes to elaborate his earlier statement about the equality of conditions in America. He did note that the paradoxes in America were quite obvious. Racism while proclaiming equality. A great sense of individualism and the presence of conformist ideas alongside, a deeply religious society that was also extremely materialistic. The sense of local governance and direct democracy that Tocqueville witnessed in his travels across the states was something he marveled at, while there was a Constitution that was over 50 years old at that time. He made a careful note of all these paradoxes and  analyzes them.

The key problem that he wanted to solve, by writing this book is how democracy could survive and thrive, without falling to the changing mores of a majoritarian agenda. He felt this could be the antidote for France, with its hierarchical society. Having emerged from the French revolution only a generation ago, France then was in clear danger of falling back to autocratic leanings.  Not only France, but the whole world could learn from America’s experience, he wrote. He also undertakes a careful review of the judicial system of America, as it forms the backbone of the democratic system. “The courts correct the aberrations of democracy,” Tocqueville points out. He gives a detailed breakdown of how the local courts are aligned with the courts higher up and those are in turn responsible for the national jurisdiction. The system of checks on the Executive branch of government through the judiciary is made amply clear through his analysis.

Probing into why Americans thought of each other as equals, he writes “It may safely be advanced, that on leaving the mother country the emigrants had in general no notion of superiority over one another. The happy and the powerful do not go into exile, and there are no surer guarantees of equality among men than poverty and misfortune. It happened, however, on several occasions, that persons of rank were driven to America by political and religious quarrels.” The immigrants who made America their home were in exile, often fleeing religious persecution. This, combined with the English language and customs made them tolerate each other. The Founders, in particular Thomas Jefferson personified this notion of equality in all forms – including enshrining it in the constitution as the First Amendment, that sought to restrict the establishment of any one religion and also barring the state from prohibiting the practice of any particular religion. The wisdom of this basic clause cannot be overstated. When many countries around the world are grappling with issues of secularism, separation of religion and state and the role of the ‘state religion’, such problems are present to a much lesser degree in the U.S. than anywhere else. While it is hard to distill all the key points that Tocqueville made in a short essay, suffice it to say that this book deserves to be read, as it provides us a glimpse into the soul of America of the 19th century.

What lessons, if any does Tocqueville’s analysis have for us? I would argue that by relooking at the character of America in its formative years, we get a glimpse of the struggles that the nation and its people went through. Tocqueville’s Democracy in America is a mirror – in that it offers us an opportunity to look at our country yet again, with fresh eyes. Despite the historical element, many aspects of his analysis still hold true. While essentializing the ‘American character’ is not my purpose and I presume that Tocqueville also did not set out to find this, one can read into his work this quest for how the average American made sense of his life, his country and his or her own surroundings. To this extent, this is a powerful sociological document that offers us rich insights into how ordinary people, priests, criminals, tradesmen and

He does critique the institution by saying “Slavery, as we shall afterwards show, dishonors labor; it introduces idleness into society, and with idleness, ignorance and pride, luxury and distress. It enervates the powers of the mind, and benumbs the activity of man. The influence of slavery, united to the English character, explains the manners and the social condition of the Southern States.” (p.47)

A comparison with that era and our times can offer us benchmark of sorts. As a student of philanthropy, I was intrigued to learn of the history of civil society organizations. Americans are constantly forming self-help groups or some sorts of associations, Tocqueville pointed out. This trend seems to have continued, as we see the nonprofit and civil society sector to be one of the most vibrant in America. Americans given about $300 billion, as individuals to charity every year. Of this, about $100 billion goes to religious institutions, further demonstrating the importance of religion in the American public imagination. This is shifting slowly, but despite the demographic shifts, decreasing influence of Church on individual and societal morality, there is still a general understanding that religious institutions are key to American social life.

As America is changing and its fundamental values are being questioned by various discourses related to immigration, wealth inequality, gender relations etc. this book offers us some insights into how America has dealt with these issues in the past and what wisdom this holds for the future. Despite its formidable size, at over 800 pages, this is a book worth your time and attention.

De-constructing Muslim charity

How do Muslims give ? This may be a simple question to ask, but a rather complicated one to de-construct. While Charity and giving are one of the five pillars of Islam, the notions of giving among Muslims ( in the USA) are rather complicated, as I am discovering.

First off, the notion of who is Imagea Muslim is rather complicated, since the USA is literally the United Nations of Islam – with Muslims from across the world present here. There are White Muslims, Black Muslims, Brown Muslims and Muslims of every nationality you can imagine. This being the case, it is very hard to talk about “Muslim charitable” giving.

But over the past few months, I have noticed a few trends that may be indicative of how Muslims in the USA give :

 

1. Disaster relief is a big magnet : Muslims both individually and collectively give to disaster relief. Unanimously, this seems to be the biggest attraction 

2. Healthcare and assisting the poor : This seems to come in somewhere close. 

3. Religious institutions : This may actually be among the top three items. Clearly, mosques, other religious institutions and organizations attract a good amount of money, as these organizations fulfill a spiritual need. 

4. Diaspora groups or family back home : For many immigrants, sending money back home is a way of staying in touch and also showing the family back home that they care. While this is true of some Asian and African individuals that I know of, I am not sure how this reflects with other immigrant groups. 

What Muslims don’t seem to be doing as well as other minority groups is giving to institutions. Institution building, giving to secular groups or entities needs to grow; though there is a growing awareness in the community for the need to do this.

Perhaps, as one local leader remarked, this is a generational issue – with the younger Muslims discovering the need for this kind of giving, and going beyond their own immediate circles; to expand their networks and sense of “community”. This is crucial for the complete integration of the community in the USA, it seems.