Melting pot

From Academic Kids

Alternate meaning: crucible (science)

The melting pot is a metaphor for the way in which heterogenous societies develop, in which the ingredients in the pot (people of different cultures and religions) are combined so as to lose their discrete identities and yield a final product of uniform consistency and flavor, which is quite different from the original inputs. This process is also known as assimilation.


Origins of the term

Popular use of the melting-pot metaphor is believed to have derived from Israel Zangwill's play The Melting Pot, which was first performed in Washington, D.C. in 1908.

The melting pot idea is most strongly associated with the United States, particularly in reference to "model" immigrant groups of the past. Past generations of immigrants in America, it is argued by some, became successful by working to shed their historic identities and adopt the ways of their new country. The process of shedding one's native culture and becoming absorbed into the ways of the "host" society is known as assimilation.

Melting pot vs. multiculturalism

The idea of multiculturalism is often put forward as an alternative to assimilation. This theory, which contrasts to the melting pot theory, is described as the salad bowl theory, or, as it is known in Canada, the cultural mosaic. In the multicultural approach, each "ingredient" retains its integrity and flavor, while contributing to a successful final product. In recent years, this approach is officially promoted in traditional melting-pot societies such as Canada and Britain, with the intent of becoming more tolerant of immigrant diversity. It is difficult to assess the degree to which a government can influence the manner of integration of immigrants and the extent to which it is up to the immigrants themselves. Immigrant communities in the United States, for example, display the influences of both multicultural and melting-pot approaches. On the one hand, an American city might offer voting instructions in multiple languages, to assist speakers of minority tongues. On the other, the children of these adult speakers, in school, might be given instruction in the English language alone.

The decision of whether to support a melting-pot or multicultural approach has developed into an issue of much debate. Many multiculturalists argue that the melting pot theory is simply an instrument of intolerance that forces third world peoples and other immigrants to abandon their cultures in order to be accepted into mainstream society. Assimilationists (as proponents of the melting pot theory are called), on the other hand, assert that multiculturalism will only destroy the fabric of society due to the ethnic divisions and economic burden that multiculturalist policies create. This debate includes a number of issues: idealism and realism, socialism and capitalism, and more.

Multiculturalist view of the melting-pot theory

Multiculturalists typically support loose immigration controls and programs such bilingual education and affirmative action (or positive discrimination), which offer certain privileges to minority and/or immigrant groups.

Multiculturalists claim that assimilation can have negative implications for minority cultures, in that after assimilation the distinctive features of the minority culture will be minimized and may disappear altogether. In support of this, multiculturalists point to situations where institutions of the dominant culture initiate programs to assimilate or integrate minority cultures.

Although some multiculturalists admit that assimilation may result in a relatively homogenous society, with a strong sense of nationalism, they warn however, that where minorities are strongly urged to assimilate, there may arise groups which fiercely oppose integration. With assimilation, immigrants lose their original cultural (and often linguistic) identity and so do their children. Immigrants who fled persecution or a country devastated by war were historically resilient to abandoning their heritage once they had settled in a new country.

Multiculturalists note that assimilation, in practice, has often been forced, and has caused immigrants to have severed ties with family abroad. In the United States, the use of languages other than English in a classroom setting has traditionally been discouraged. Decades of this policy may have contributed to the fact--lamented by multiculturalists--that more than 80 percent of Americans speak only English at home. While an estimated 60 million U.S. citizens are of German descent, forming the country's largest ethic group, barely one million of them reported speaking German in their homes in the 2000 Census.

Assimilationist view of the melting-pot theory

Whereas multiculturalists tend to view the melting-pot theory as oppressive, assimilationists view it as advantageous to both a government and its people. They tend to favor controlled levels of immigration—enough to benefit society economically, but not enough to profoundly alter it. Assimilationists tend to be opposed to programs that, in their view, give out special privileges to minorities at the expense of the majority.

Assimilationists tend to believe that their nation has reached its present state of development because it has been able to forge one national identity. They argue that separating citizens by ethnicity or race and providing immigrant groups "special privileges" can harm the very groups they are intended to help. By calling attention to differences between these groups and the majority, the government may foster resentment towards them by the majority and, in turn, cause the immigrant group to turn inward and shun mainstream culture. Assimilationists suggest that if a society makes a full effort to incorporate immigrants into the mainstream, immigrants will then naturally work to reciprocate the gesture and adopt new customs. Through this process, it is argued, national unity is retained.

Assimilationists also argue that the multiculturalist policy of freer immigration is unworkable in an era in which the supply of immigrants from third world countries seems limitless. With immigrants often coming from multiple points of origin, it may be excessively expensive to meet their needs. From an employment perspective, they note that job markets are often tight to begin with and that expecting large amounts of newcomers to find work each year is unrealistic. Allowing high levels of immigration, it is argued, will inevitably lead to widespread poverty and other forms of disadvantage among immigrants. The melting-pot theory works best, in their view, when the "ingredients" are added in modest increments, so that they can be properly absorbed into the whole.

A Compromise between Multiculturalists and Assimilationists?

There also exists a view that attempts to reconcile some of the differences between multiculturalists and nationalists. Proponents of this view propose that immigrants need not completely abandon their culture and traditions in order to reach the goal that the melting pot theory seeks. This reasoning relies on the assumption that immigrants can be persuaded to ultimately consider themselves a citizen of their new nation first and of their nation of birth second. In this way, they may still retain and practice all of their cultural traditions but "when push comes to shove" they will put their host nation's interests first. If this can be accomplished, immigrants will then avoid hindering the progress, unity and growth that assimilationsts argue are the positive results of the melting pot theory - while simultaneously appeasing some of the multiculturalists.

This compromised view also supports a strong stance on immigration, English as primary language in school with the option to study foreign languages. (A consensus on affirmative action does not currently exist.) Proponents of this compromise claim that the difference with this view and that of the assimilationists is that while their view of the melting pot essentially strips immigrants of their culture, the compromise allows immigrants to continue practicing and propagating their cultures from generation to generation and yet sustain and instill a love for their host country first and above all. Whether this kind of delicate balance between host and native countries among immigrants can be achieved remains to be seen.

The melting pot in pop culture

The melting pot remains a stock phrase in American political and cultural dialogue. The general perception of its process and effects can be summed up in "The Great American Melting Pot" song from Schoolhouse Rock!

My grandmother came from Russia
A satchel on her knee,
My grandfather had his father's cap
He brought from Italy.
They'd heard about a country
Where life might let them win,
They paid the fare to America
And there they melted in.
Lovely Lady Liberty
With her book of recipes
And the finest one she's got
Is the great American melting pot
America was founded by the English,
But also by the Germans, Dutch, and French.
The principle still sticks;
Our heritage is mixed.
So any kid could be the president.
You simply melt right in,
It doesn't matter what your skin,
It doesn't matter where you're from,
Or your religion, you jump right in
To the great American melting pot
The great American melting pot.
Ooh, what a stew, red, white, and blue.
America was the New World
And Europe was the Old.
America was the land of hope,
Or so the legend told.
On steamboats by the millions,
In search of honest pay,
Those nineteenth century immigrants sailed
To reach the U.S.A.
They brought the country's customs,
Their language and their ways.
They filled the factories, tilled the soil,
Helped build the U.S.A.
Go on and ask your grandma,
Hear what she has to tell
How great to be American
And something else as well.

Melting pot in Israel

In the early years of the state of Israel the term melting pot was not a description of a process, but an official governmental doctrine of assimilating the Jewish immigrants that originally came from varying cultures. This was performed on several levels, such as educating the younger generation (with the parents not having the final say) and (to mention an anecdotal one) encouraging and sometimes forcing the new citizens to adopt a Hebrew name.

Today the reaction to this doctrine is ambivalent, some say that it was a necessary measure in the founding years, while others claim that it amounted to cultural oppression. It is generally not practiced today, and pluralism has taken its place as a generally accepted principle.

See also

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