Assimilation is a voluntary or involuntary process by which individuals or groups completely take on the traits of another culture, leaving their original cultural and linguistic identities behind. The absorption of European immigrants into U.S. society and their adoption of American cultural patterns and social structures has generally been described as a process of assimilation. For many years, school programs in the United States strove to assimilate minority children.
The process has also been called Americanization. The education of American Indian youth, for example, focused on enabling them to blend into the majority culture, while discouraging the retention of their tribal customs, beliefs, and languages. As late as the 20th century, many Native American children were physically removed from their families and transplanted to distant towns and villages, where they lived with White families in order to speed up this process.
The concept of assimilation continues to polarize teachers, school administrators, academics, researchers, politicians, and others with an interest in the place of schools in public life. On one side, there are those who feel strongly that in a democratic, pluralistic, and egalitarian society embedded in an interdependent world, the primary mission of public schools is to promote the intellectual, social, linguistic, and personal development of all students, whatever their background.
According to this camp, public schooling should promote social justice; caring and advocacy for students, their parents, and their communities; curriculum reform; prejudice reduction; linguistic fairness; and respect for the cultures of those who differ from ourselves. The assimilation research literature suggests that culturally, linguistically, and socially responsive schooling produces students who feel less alienated and who tend to do well academically, socially, and emotionally.
According to this view, students who take pride in their backgrounds and are able to maintain their original languages and cultures have a greater chance of doing well in school and society, while maintaining important intergenerational communication patterns in their homes and communities. This set of beliefs is common among bilingual educators.