Most parents, especially those who have emigrated from another country, want their children to do better than themselves. To that end, they will make sacrifices to ensure that that their children get an education and are spared the difficulties that they themselves have gone through. A great example is that of the Jews who emigrated to America in large numbers at the beginning of the twentieth century. Malcolm Gladwell has written about them in one of his books; I think it was in Outliers. The first generation was desperately poor and eked out a precarious living, often as pushcart peddlers. Their children had it a little better and had their own little shops. The third generation ( the grandchildren) owned department stores and were beginning to make their mark in the white -collar professions. The fourth generation ( the great grandchildren) became doctors, lawyers, CPAs and CEOs. This upward trajectory, with each generation doing better than the last, was a result of a steely determination and a recognition of the importance of education. I thought that this was typical of the immigrant experience of all those who came to America but it wasn’t so.
Maria Laurino details how different was the Italian American experience was in her book ” The Italian Americans: A history”. The Italians who emigrated to the east coast of the U.S ( about the same time as the Jews did) were almost all from Sicily and the impoverished south of Italy. They had been contadini, landless agricultural laborers toiling for the owners of the large estates or latifundia. Lured to America by the promise of a better life, they were mercilessly exploited by employers and had to work at the hardest , most dangerous jobs for a pittance. Almost ninety percent of them were uneducated. They did not see the value of an education and resented the compulsory education laws in America. They wanted , they needed, their children to work as soon as possible because the little they themselves earned was barely enough to put food on the table. At the American Woolen Company factory in Lawrence, Mass. , workers were paid just 16 cents an hour and many families survived on bread and molasses. As Laurino writes “… ( they) were perplexed as to why parents had to do backbreaking work while the children were being” idle” in school. They had been raised with maxims like this one from Basilicata…. ” Stupid and contemptible is he who makes his children better than himself.” Harsh words but completely understandable when one puts them in context.
As a result of such attitudes, many Italian- Americans were deprived of the opportunities linked to education and took longer to rise to prominence.