Social Education 59(2), 1995, pp. 78-81
National Council for the Social Studies

Education and Its Consequences: Value Conflicts in an Immigrant Community

Christian Ghasarian
Because so much depends on the future of their children, most societies go to great lengths to educate them, instilling in them not just the knowledge necessary for society to advance, but the national character that they must carry forth for the society to flourish. But in this increasingly multicultural age, what happens to children as relatively liberal immigration laws and inexpensive and convenient transportation make it easier and easier for families to migrate from one society to another? Is there a toll on children with roots in one culture when they are educated in another?
The United States is a multicultural society whose schools have become settings for cultural encounters and, sometimes, misunderstandings. The proportion of foreign-born or second-generation immigrant students in its school system has been growing for years. This article explores the effects of American education on the children, particularly girls, of immigrants from India who have settled in the increasingly multicultural San Francisco Bay Area. The dilemmas and innermost conflicts of these children are unique in some contexts, but they serve as a striking example of the complex cultural issues with which both society and immigrants must cope.

While socialization first occurs in the home, children get their next round of socialization at school. This "secondary socialization" confirms and enhances the earlier primary socialization secured in the family. In a multicultural context, however, things are more complex-especially for those who have immigrated only recently. These immigrants, their children and even their children's children must often deal with serious and complicated cultural and psychological dilemmas as they advance through the educational system.

Daily at school, Indo-American children face culturally conflicting images that they inevitably bring back home-at least in their minds, if not their behavior. These images are especially discordant because of the different emphasis on the basic values of Indian and American culture, respectively: Hierarchy as compared with equality, dependence compared with autonomy, modesty compared with free expression, and self-sacrifice compared with fun.

On the basis of anthropological data collected in the San Francisco Bay Area, I explored how children born to Indian immigrants in the United States must contend with norms and values that the educational system generally takes for granted.

A Generation Gap Becomes a Cultural Gap
The 1990 National Census showed that the number of U.S.-born "Asian Indians" rose dramatically between 1980, when they constituted 30% of the Indo-American population, and 1990, when they constituted 45% of Indo-Americans. The worldview of this second generation has been shaped by different experiences from those that shaped the first generation. Its outlook and behavior are distinct, producing a cultural gap between Indo-American parents and their children. My purpose here is to show that the cultural gap between Indo-American parents and their children is principally the result of their schooling in the American educational system.

Doing the Right Thing
Though a growing number of immigrants from India have only what we would consider a middle class background, most are well educated and come from the upper strata of Indian society. Yet, despite some internal social and economic distinctions, these immigrants are similarly confronted by the centripetal forces of acculturation. Except for the most westernized, they have brought the fundamental values of their native culture with them. Like all deep cultural values, these values, which involve hierarchy, self-sacrifice, dependence, modesty (for women), and compartmentalized thinking, are taken for granted. Accordingly, they are most often considered the "right way to behave," especially in interactions with other Indians. At home, children absorb these values in the most natural manner, without any emphasis on their cultural specificity (at least before the second socialization-in school-begins).

Hierarchy, one of the most important values in the Indian world view, is characteristically expressed in the distinctions of age, gender and caste. Very early, Indian children learn to respect their parents' decisions and to defer to the authority of elders. They learn about the superior status of men over women. And, according to their parents' emphasis on caste, they may incorporate caste status into their early thinking and prejudices.

Linked to the sense of hierarchy and caste, the idea of separation favors the feeling of being either identified with or distinguished from other identifiable cultures or groups of the population. This habit, deeply ingrained in the mind, underlies the clear differentiation that those with Indian backgrounds make between "in" and "out" groups as they go about their everyday lives.

Most children of Indian descent, who are born or who have grown up in the United States, do not face linguistic problems in American schools because, very often, they already speak English at home. (English is an official language in India.) Moreover, early fluency in English is frequently the result of their parents' commitment to educational achievement, either because of their own achievement or because of their desire to secure a good future for their children.

As a result, Indo-American children generally do well in U.S. schools. Their frequent educational success may also result from the emphasis on self-sacrifice in their culture of origin. In the Indian worldview, pleasure and fun are somewhat suspect. Hinduism, exemplified by stories about numerous gods, stresses different forms of self-sacrifice and fasting as normative devotions that will bring divine protection and good luck. Indo-American pupils bring this emphasis on self-sacrifice and work, duty, and good luck into their American schooling. Clearly, this does them no harm.

Putting the Ego Aside
Like the Indian emphasis on self-sacrifice, the notion of hierarchy is linked to the ideas of duty and social order. A characteristic religious attitude joined with the highly stratified Hindu social system together create a strong need to conform. This is expressed through adherence to the norms of behavior associated with one's particular position-based on caste, gender and age-in every social situation.

This Hindu sense of conformity, of putting the ego aside in an effort to "blend in," helps the Indo-American child adapt to the American educational system. And, since education is highly valued in both the Indian and American cultures, the American-born children of Indian immigrants generally fulfill both their parents' and their teachers' wishes, thus expressing the values they learned at home during their primary socialization.

So far, so good. Indo-Americans do well in the American education system because Indian and American values about education and respect for authority are firmly in agreement. But there are other areas associated with education where Indian and American values do not coincide, and where Indo-Americans have trouble. These problems are more implicit than explicit, but the fact that they do not surface overtly in the educational process per se does not mean that they are unimportant. In fact, they are crucial. At work here is the cultural model that underlies the American manner of education; despite its emphasis on cultural tolerance, the prevalent educational model of American society is overwhelmingly Anglo-Saxon.

Anglo-Saxon norms and values are everywhere, and notably so in public and private educational institutions. In American schools, students learn not only a system of knowledge, but the whole Western perception and comprehension of the world that comes with it. They learn not only facts and figures, but also a particularly American-and Anglo-Saxon-way to integrate and to use them. They also learn how to socially interact with their teachers and with their peers as well. They discover the value associated with questioning in American education. They understand that knowledge is not necessarily given in a unilateral way, but ideally implies a dialectic and a deductive process.

Discovering Cultural Contradictions
In short, Indo-American children learn quickly that in American schools, self-worth is no longer derived from birth into a particular family or caste, but acquired through one's own accomplishments. American culture-and American schools-constantly stress achievement. For Indo-American children, with family roots in non-Western India, this type of learning is not necessarily as self-evident as it is for their American classmates. They quickly realize that what is taken for granted at home-inherited status-is not so obvious in American society outside the Indian milieu. Their experience in American schools and universities presents them with a worldview that their parents would have difficulty expressing, espousing, and sometimes even understanding.

This is where the real trouble begins. More often than not, Indo-American students have to grapple with striking contradictions between their primary socialization at home and their secondary socialization at school. And even though most second-generation Indo-American children are American citizens, this does not in itself resolve their acute conflict of values.

Dealing with Double Standards: The Plight of Indo-American Girls
The contradictions between the primary and secondary socialization frequently lead Indo-American children to develop a dual system of values.

Indo-American girls, whose ancestral heritage relegates them to inferior roles, face the strongest cultural contradictions-and have the most problems to deal with. Indian society stresses reserve and modesty, and the traditional education of Indian girls-at home-does not favor free expression, especially when interacting with men. Indian girls are expected to obey their parents. They may express feelings and emotions, but only, in the Indian scheme of things, in a "female" way-by crying, for example. Only after having given birth and become a mother may an Indian woman express anger-and even then, only occasionally, and on condition that the anger is patently justified. Indian society prescribes a well-defined role for women: To be married, to give birth (especially to male children), and to raise children the "right" way. The constraining influence of marriage upon Indian women has been well-studied. Even if a young woman now has a greater role in the choice of her husband, and may avoid an arranged marriage, she can hardly avoid marriage itself.

Indians who immigrate to the United States bring with them some fundamental Indian norms of behavior that they transmit to their children, especially to girls. Consequently, though growing up and living in the United States, a girl of Indian descent is taught at home to observe traditional norms of Indian behavior.

Yet, these girls mix and mingle with American girls, particularly at school, and learn about ideas and behavior that are at odds with what they have learned from their parents. Interacting with American peers, they discover other roles for women. They learn that their opinions are worth expressing. One of the most basic premises of the American educational system is that all students-not just boys-are expected to think for themselves. The American educational system also nurtures self-reliance, not dependence. Finally, the typical teacher-student relationship is characterized by encouragement and self-discovery, not submission to authority or learning by rote.

Family Conflict
In learning to express their own opinions freely, girls of Indian descent enrich their personalities with new "reference systems." But those new reference systems are, more than likely, not shared by their parents.

That inevitable assimilation into the American mainstream often leads Indo-American parents to worry about their children and to wonder whether they are being "spoiled" by their cultural surroundings. Very often, they view the desire of their daughters to open up to American experiences as potential sources of corruption and moral deviancy.

This particular need to integrate the very different norms of socialization at school with those taught at home leads girls of Indian descent to develop dual systems of judgment and behavior.

When girls come home after school, their parents, in many cases, expect them to behave in a much more traditional, and far less assertive, manner than what their teachers and classmates expect of them at school. Inevitably, with their parents, at least, these girls have to set aside some aspects of their burgeoning "American" personalities in order not to disappoint them. Very often, they develop a contextually shifting behavior: At home, with the family and in the sphere of the Indian community, these girls generally mind their "Indian" ways. But, away from home and in American society, the peer pressure from schoolmates and friends to adopt American behaviors and the desire to conform are both powerful and clear guides to assimilation into society.

This contextualization does not imply schizophrenia: It simply presupposes the capacity of these girls to adopt the norms and values of the current situations in which they are involved.

The propensity of Indians to contextualize their behavior in the United States can be found in other places where the Indian diaspora has spread. My previous research on a population of Tamil descent established at the end of the last century in the French Island of La Réunion, in the Indian Ocean, led me to the same conclusions. There also, people of Indian background have to manage two systems of reference: one that they use at home and in their own community sphere and another (acquired subsequently) that they use when acting in general society. This adaptive similarity shows that something in the Indian culture favors the expression of a contextually shifting behavior. Obviously, the development of a contextualized behavior comes from the strong Indian conceptual habit, referred to earlier, to compartmentalize things.

Trained very early to demarcate things to keep them in order, Indians in their diaspora generally do not have any difficulties in selectively adapting-at least externally, for a while-the system of values of their host society.

Internal Conflict
Psychological problems generally appear when the obvious contradictions implied in the contextual management of these two systems of reference surface and come into conflict with each other. This is often the case during adolescence, when personal choices (like dating) involving, in one way or another, the first significant others (the family members), have to be made.

Girls of Indian descent, born in the United States, experience a double bind between the values of home and school: While preserving a large part of their family's honor through their sexual reserve, in the first context, they are encouraged to compete and succeed academically to enhance their family's honor, in the second one. Thus, these girls face the dilemma of fulfilling their familial duties and expectations at the same time that, under American cultural influence, they inevitably develop a growing need to enhance their own personal development.

Since these girls have benefited from the same education at school as boys, they are aware of numerous educational, professional, and social opportunities that their parents are frequently not capable of conceiving. Again, the degree of Americanization of their parents will either allow them to pursue these possibilities or require them to hide them at home.

Self-Suppression or Self-Expression?
According to their personalities, these girls will either suppress the American part of themselves, or express it and run the risk of ruptures with their parents. The gap between the parents' and the girls' expectations often obliges girls to conceal activities from their parents in order to avoid the conflicts that would result if they told them everything they did outside the home.

The reputation that Indo-Americans have acquired as a model minority, in large part because of their economic success, often glosses over these problems of deeper cultural adjustments.

Thus, we can see from this example that the educational system can force some unexpected but inevitable cultural problems within the families of immigrants. The 1990 National Census shows that the growth rate of the Indo-Asian population is one of the highest among all ethnic groups in the United States, having jumped by 125% between 1980 and 1990. Indo-Americans constitute the fifth largest Asian group in the country; the census counted 786,694 Americans of Asian Indian descent altogether.

Demographic projections indicate that by the middle of the next century, the population categorized as Hispanic and non-white will outnumber the Caucasian population in the United States. (The proportion of the population that is Hispanic and non-white already exceeds 43% of the population in California.)

Despite these demographic changes, which are symptomatic of a society in transition, it is almost certain that the American educational system will remain culturally Western for a long time. In many states and cities, however, teachers face the ever-growing challenge of transmitting the nation's heritage to students whose ethnic and cultural backgrounds are more diverse than ever. It will become increasingly important for teachers to understand the effects of the educational system on students whose worldview is influenced by another culture.

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Christian Ghasarian is a social anthropologist specializing in the study of cross-cultural interactions in multicultural societies. He is currently a Research Associate at the University of California-Berkeley, where he is studying the cultural adjustments of immigrants from India in the San Francisco Bay Area.