A few years ago, I was honored to chair the annual conference of the University Professional and Continuing Education Association. The meeting was to be held in Vancouver, British Columbia. As a result, the planning committee included colleagues from both Canada and the U.S. As we talked about the focus of the conference, an interesting distinction arose between how Canadian and U.S. continuing education professionals perceived the population they served. Americans on the committee used the term “melting pot” to describe how the U.S. understands our immigration-based society. The Canadians, on the other hand, talked about their equally diverse culture as a “cultural mosaic.” The different perspectives led to some interesting conversations about the role of continuing higher education in our communities.
That distinction has come again into sharp focus in light of the recent killings—by police and against police—in the United States. After the Dallas, Texas, killing of five police officers former Illinois Congressman—now a radio talk host—Joe Walsh tweeted a warning to President Obama, declaring that “This is now war” and that “Real America is coming after you.” His tweet was a reminder that much of the cultural turmoil that we are seeing in our politics today can be traced back to the election of our first mixed-race President. What started with the Tea Party’s pledge to “take back America” and the “birther” campaign against President Obama has contributed to what has emerged as a broad racial and cultural divide, despite the fact that the President is popular among the majority of Americans.
The problem with the “melting pot” image is that we don’t all melt in at the same rate. In the end, it turns out, those who melted in more quickly see themselves as “real Americans” while others remain, in the eyes of these self-appointed “real” Americans, outsiders.
The Canadians have it right. It is better to see our immigration-based society as a mosaic, with each new group bringing unique strengths and cultural characteristics to a community the identity of which lies in the texture, color, and shape of each individual piece, without which the “real” America would be incomplete.