The image of Asian-Americans as a homogeneous group of high achievers taking over the campuses of the nation’s most selective colleges came under assault in a report issued Monday.
The report, by New York University, the College Board and a commission of mostly Asian-American educators and community leaders, largely avoids the debates over both affirmative action and the heavy representation of Asian-Americans at the most selective colleges.
But it pokes holes in stereotypes about Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders, including the perception that they cluster in science, technology, engineering and math. And it points out that the term “Asian-American” is extraordinarily broad, embracing members of many ethnic groups.
“Certainly there’s a lot of Asians doing well, at the top of the curve, and that’s a point of pride, but there are just as many struggling at the bottom of the curve, and we wanted to draw attention to that,” said Robert T. Teranishi, the N.Y.U. education professor who wrote the report, “Facts, Not Fiction: Setting the Record Straight.”
“Our goal,” Professor Teranishi added, “is to have people understand that the population is very diverse.”
The report, based on federal education, immigration and census data, as well as statistics from the College Board, noted that the federally defined categories of Asian-American and Pacific Islander included dozens of groups, each with its own language and culture, as varied as the Hmong, Samoans, Bengalis and Sri Lankans.
Their educational backgrounds, the report said, vary widely: while most of the nation’s Hmong and Cambodian adults have never finished high school, most Pakistanis and Indians have at least a bachelor’s degree.
The SAT scores of Asian-Americans, it said, like those of other Americans, tend to correlate with the income and educational level of their parents.
“The notion of lumping all people into a single category and assuming they have no needs is wrong,” said Alma R. Clayton-Pederson, vice president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, who was a member of the commission the College Board financed to produce the report.
“Our backgrounds are very different,” added Dr. Clayton-Pederson, who is black, “but it’s almost like the reverse of what happened to African-Americans.”
The report found that contrary to stereotype, most of the bachelor’s degrees that Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders received in 2003 were in business, management, social sciences or humanities, not in the STEM fields: science, technology, engineering or math. And while Asians earned 32 percent of the nation’s STEM doctorates that year, within that 32 percent more than four of five degree recipients were international students from Asia, not Asian-Americans.
The report also said that more Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders were enrolled in community colleges than in either public or private four-year colleges. But the idea that Asian-American “model minority” students are edging out all others is so ubiquitous that quips like “U.C.L.A. really stands for United Caucasians Lost Among Asians” or “M.I.T. means Made in Taiwan” have become common, the report said.
Asian-Americans make up about 5 percent of the nation’s population but 10 percent or more — considerably more in California — of the undergraduates at many of the most selective colleges, according to data reported by colleges. But the new report suggested that some such statistics combined campus populations of Asian-Americans with those of international students from Asian countries.
The report quotes the opening to W. E. B. Du Bois’s 1903 classic “The Souls of Black Folk” — “How does it feel to be a problem?” — and says that for Asian-Americans, seen as the “good minority that seeks advancement through quiet diligence in study and work and by not making waves,” the question is, “How does it feel to be a solution?”
That question, too, is problematic, the report said, because it diverts attention from systemic failings of K-to-12 schools, shifting responsibility for educational success to individual students. In addition, it said, lumping together all Asian groups masks the poverty and academic difficulties of some subgroups.
The report said the model-minority perception pitted Asian-Americans against African-Americans. With the drop in black and Latino enrollment at selective public universities that are not allowed to consider race in admissions, Asian-Americans have been turned into buffers, the report said, “middlemen in the cost-benefit analysis of wins and losses.”
Some have suggested that Asian-Americans are held to higher admissions standards at the most selective colleges. In 2006, Jian Li, the New Jersey-born son of Chinese immigrants, filed a complaint with the Office for Civil Rights at the Education Department, saying he had been rejected by Princeton because he is Asian. Princeton’s admission policies are under review, the department says.
The report also notes the underrepresentation of Asian-Americans in administrative jobs at colleges. Only 33 of the nation’s college presidents, fewer than 1 percent, are Asian-Americans or Pacific Islanders.
Two new reports document the continued growth in the overall number of students coming to the United States from other countries. Those pursuing undergraduate degrees in so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields make up 45% of the undergraduate total, and their share of the graduate pool is even larger. But within that broad picture are some surprising trends involving China and India, the two countries that supply the largest number of students (see graphic, above).
One is that the flow of Chinese students into U.S. graduate programs is plateauing at the same time their pursuit of U.S. undergraduate degrees is soaring. Another is the recent spike in graduate students from India occurring despite a continuing small presence of Indian students at the undergraduate level.
In August, ScienceInsider wrote about a report from the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) on the most recent acceptance rates for foreign students at U.S. graduate programs. Last week the report was updated to reflect this fall’s actual first-time enrollment figures. And yesterday the Institute of International Education (IIE) issued its annual Open Doors report, which covers both undergraduate and graduate students from elsewhere enrolling in the United States as well as U.S. students studying abroad.
According to IIE, 42% of the 886,000 international students at U.S. universities in 2013 to 2014 hailed from China and India. China makes up nearly three-fourths of that subtotal. In fact, the number of Chinese students equals the total from the next 12 highest ranking countries after India.
This year’s IIE report also includes a look at 15-year trends. For example, foreign students compose only 8.1% of total U.S. enrollment, but their numbers have grown by 72% since 1999, making international students an increasingly important part of U.S. higher education.
Their presence has long been visible within graduate programs in science and engineering fields, of course. But the new Open Doors report documents a surge in undergraduate enrollment from China, to the point where it almost equals the number of graduate students in the country—110,550 versus 115,727. In 2000, the ratio was nearly 1-to-6.
Trying to understand such trends keeps university administrators up at night. And the more they know, the better they can be at anticipating the next trend. That’s why ScienceInsider turned to Peggy Blumenthal. She’s spent 30 years at IIE, most recently as senior counselor to its current president, Allan Goodman, and that longevity has given her a rich perspective on the ebb and flow of international students. Here is her perspective on what’s moving the needle for Chinese and Indian students.
An explosion of Chinese undergraduates
The numbers: Chinese undergraduate enrollment in the United States has grown from 8252 in 2000 to 110,550 last year. Almost all of that growth has occurred since 2007, and there has been a doubling since 2010.
The reasons: A high score on China’s national college entrance examination, called the gaokao, enables a Chinese student to attend a top university and can punch their ticket to a successful career. It requires years of high-stress preparation, however. A growing number of parents choose to remove their children from that pressure cooker, Blumenthal says, and look for alternatives abroad. The chance for a liberal arts education at a U.S. university is an attractive alternative to the rigid undergraduate training offered by most Chinese universities, she adds.
The U.S. system of higher education, Blumenthal says, offers Chinese families “a unique opportunity to shop” based on the price, quality, and reputation of the institution. The cost of out-of-state tuition at a top public U.S. university is a relative bargain for China’s growing middle class, she notes, and community colleges are dirt cheap.
Recent changes in immigration policies have made the United Kingdom and Australia less desirable destinations among English-speaking countries, according to Blumenthal. She also thinks that U.S. colleges have built a sturdy support system based on their decades of experience in hosting foreign students. “In Germany or France you’re pretty much on your own” in choosing classes, completing the work, and earning a degree, she says. “Nobody is there to help if you’re having trouble.”
Flat Chinese graduate enrollment
The numbers: The CGS report says that the number of first-time graduate students this fall from China fell by 1%, the first time in the decade that it has declined. Thanks to that dip, the growth in the overall number of Chinese graduate students on U.S. campuses slowed to just 3% this fall, compared with double-digit increases in recent years. U.S. academic scientists may not be aware of this emerging trend because of the sheer number of Chinese graduate students on U.S. campuses. IIE puts the number last year at 115,727, and the CGS report says they represent one-third of all foreign graduate students.
The reasons: Chinese graduate students have more options at home now. “China has pumped enormous resources into its graduate education capacity” across thousands of universities, Blumenthal says. An increasing proportion of the professors at those universities have been trained in the United States and Europe, she says, and upon their return they have implemented Western research practices. “They are beginning to teach more like we do, publish like we do, and operate their labs like we do.”
At the same time, she says, the added value of a U.S. graduate degree has shrunk in relation to a comparable Chinese degree. “That’s not true for MIT [the Massachusetts Institute of Technology] or [the University of California,] Berkeley, of course—those degrees still carry a premium in the job market,” she says. “But for the vast majority of Chinese students, it’s not clear that an investment in a U.S. degree is worth it, especially when the rapid growth of the Chinese economy has created such a great need for scientific and engineering talent.”
In the United States, a tight job market often translates into more students attending graduate school in the hope that it will give them an edge. But high unemployment rates among college graduates in China haven’t created a potentially larger pool of applicants to U.S. graduate programs, she says, because those students are not competitive with their U.S. peers.
“They are probably not English speakers and would have trouble passing the TOEFL [an assessment of English language skills],” she surmises. “So they might only get into a fourth-rate U.S. graduate program.” In contrast, she says, U.S. graduate programs have historically gotten “the cream of the crop” from China. And if a larger proportion of those students can build a career in China, fewer need apply to U.S. graduate programs.
Few Indian undergraduates
The numbers: India barely registers on a list of originating countries for U.S. undergraduates. Compared with China, home to 30% of all U.S. international undergrads, Indian students compose only 3% of the pool. And the overall total for 2013—12,677—actually reflects a drop of 0.5% from 2012.
The reasons: Top-performing Indian students are well-served at the undergraduate level by the country’s network of elite technology institutes, known as IITs. India has also never had a strong connection to the United States at the undergraduate level, according to Blumenthal. In addition, she says, “many Indian parents are reluctant to send their girls abroad, especially at the undergraduate level.” By contrast, she says, China’s one-child-per-family rule has meant that they have “one shot at success, male or female.”
Soaring graduate enrollment from India
The numbers: The incoming class of Indian students for U.S. graduate programs is 27% larger this year than in 2013, according to CGS’s annual survey. And that increase follows a 40% jump in 2013 over 2012. However, CGS officials note that the Indian numbers have historically been more volatile than those from China; the increases for 2011 and 2012 were 2% and 1%, respectively.
The reasons: U.S. graduate programs have benefited from several recent developments that, together, have opened the floodgates for Indian students. For starters, India’s investment in higher education hasn’t yet had much effect on graduate education, Blumenthal says. Unlike in China, she says, “in India there’s been very little effort to upgrade the quality of the faculty.”
At the same time, it’s becoming harder for graduates of India’s universities to follow the traditional path of doing their further training in Britain or Australia, as many of their professors had done in previous generations. For the United Kingdom, tuition increases, visa restrictions, and a tightening of rules for those seeking work permits after college have all created greater barriers to entry, Blumenthal says. “It sends a message from the U.K. government that [it’s] not really interested in international students,” she says. “They are now regarded as simply another category of immigrants” rather than a valuable future source of intellectual capital.
In Australia, Blumenthal notes, there’s a growing backlash against earlier government attempts to recruit more international students. “People think they let in too many,” she says. “They didn’t fit in, they didn’t speak English, and there was a perception that they were taking away jobs from Australians.”
A recent strengthening of the rupee against the U.S. dollar has made U.S. graduate education more affordable for the middle class, she adds. And sluggish economic growth in India has meant fewer jobs for recent college graduates.
Foreign Student Dependence
New report provides breakdown on international enrollments by discipline and institution, showing that there are graduate STEM programs in which more than 90 percent of students are from outside the U.S.
International students play a critical role in sustaining quality science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) graduate programs at U.S. universities, a new report from the National Foundation for American Policy (NFAP) argues.
It will come as no surprise to observers of graduate education that the report documents the fact that foreign students make up the majority of enrollments in U.S. graduate programs in many STEM fields, accounting for 70.3 percent of all full-time graduate students in electrical engineering, 63.2 percent in computer science, 60.4 percent in industrial engineering, and more than 50 percent in chemical, materials and mechanical engineering, as well as in economics (a non-STEM field). However, the report, which analyzes National Science Foundation enrollment data from 2010 by field and institution, also shows that these striking averages mask even higher proportions at many individual universities. For example, there are 36 graduate programs in electrical engineering where the proportion of international students exceeds 80 percent, including seven where it exceeds 90. (The analysis is limited to those programs with at least 30 full-time students.)
Graduate Electrical Engineering Programs With More Than 90 Percent International Enrollment
|University||Number of U.S. Citizens or Permanent Residents Enrolled Full-Time||Number of International Students Enrolled Full-Time||Percent International Enrollment|
|University of Texas at Arlington||16||229||93.5|
|Fairleigh Dickinson University||3||42||93.3|
|Illinois Institute of Technology||31||400||92.8|
|University of Houston||16||180||91.8|
|State University of New York at Buffalo||19||189||90.9|
|New Jersey Institute of Technology||21||201||90.5|
|Rochester Institute of Technology||11||105||90.5|
National Foundation for American Policy analysis of National Science Foundation data from 2010.
“International students help many universities have enough graduate students to support research programs that help attract top faculty and that also thereby help U.S. students by having a higher-quality program than they otherwise would have,” said Stuart Anderson, NFAP’s executive director and author of the report. Without them, he said, “you’d see a shrinking across the board where you’d have just certain schools that are able to support good programs. That would lead to a shrinking of U.S. leadership in education and technology if you have many fewer programs with high-quality research and top-level professors.”
“To some extent this reflects some of what’s going on in our society within the U.S. in terms of trying to push for more interest in STEM fields,” said Jonathan Bredow, professor and chair of the electrical engineering department at the University of Texas at Arlington, a program with more than 90 percent international enrollment. “Domestic students tend to be more interested in going out and getting a job right after a bachelor’s degree. Some see a value of getting a master’s degree but in terms of the Ph.D., I think it’s largely seen as unnecessary.”
“There’s a relatively small number of high-quality domestic students who can be accepted into our master’s and Ph.D. programs,” said Leonid Tsybeskov, professor and chair of the electrical and computer engineering department at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. He added that those domestic students who are strong candidates typically apply to higher-ranked programs than NJIT’s.
Indeed, said Anderson, “You talk to the professors, they say, ‘O.K., if we were MIT or Stanford we could get all the top U.S. students,’ but by definition there are only a few of those schools. Obviously everyone can’t be MIT or Stanford. » At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the proportion of international students in graduate electrical engineering programs is 52.5 percent and, in computer science, 35.3 percent. At Stanford, 56 percent of graduate electrical engineering students and 43.7 percent of graduate computer science students are international.
The report also emphasizes the value that international students can bring to the U.S. economy after graduation as researchers and entrepreneurs. Measures that would make it easier for STEM graduate students to obtain visas to work in the U.S. after graduation – measures that many in higher education see as crucial to the U.S. maintaining its edge in attracting international graduate students — are pending in Congress (and are included in the comprehensive immigration bill recently passed by the Senate).
« This report is very well-timed,” said Julia Kent, director of communications and advancement for the Council of Graduate Schools. “Obviously, for the policy reasons — the pending legislation about STEM visas — and second because there is data out there right now which suggests that we have some cause for concern in this country about the flow of international graduate students to the United States which we have always counted on. There is now more competition for international graduate students. Other countries are developing policies to promote the influx of foreign students to their shores, and there are also ways in which the current economy in the United States has reduced funding support for graduate students, which makes it more difficult to attract students to U.S. programs with attractive funding packages.”
CGS data on applications to U.S. graduate schools released in April show that total international applications grew by a meager 1 percent this year and that there were actually drops in applications from certain key sending countries, including China (-5 percent), South Korea (-13 percent) and Taiwan (-13 percent). On the plus side, applications from India increased 20 percent.
« It’s too soon to know how this data will actually affect enrollments, but the preliminary data show that there is some cause for concern,” Kent said.
Graduate Computer Science Programs With More than 90 Percent International Enrollment
|University||Number of U.S. Citizens or Permanent Residents Enrolled Full-Time||Number of International Students Enrolled Full-Time||Percent International Enrollment|
|San Diego State University||13||160||92.5|
|Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi||6||70||92.1|
|Illinois Institute of Technology||35||392||91.8|
|University of Missouri at Kansas City||8||81||91|
|University of New Haven||5||49||90.7|
|San Jose State University||35||323||90.2|
|Fairleigh Dickinson University||6||55||90.2|
National Foundation for American Policy analysis of National Science Foundation data from 2010.
Voir par ailleurs:
The Chosen The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale and Princeton By Jerome Karabel Illustrated. 711 pages. Houghton Mifflin. $28.
Nick Carraway and Sherman McCoy went to Yale. Amory Blaine and Doogie Howser went to Princeton. Oliver Barrett IV and Thurston Howell III went to Harvard. Charles Foster Kane was thrown out of all three. What these fictional characters all have in common, of course, is that they are all white, privileged males — completely representative figures, until the late 1960’s and early 70’s, of the student population at those three Ivy League schools.
In his informative but often vexing new book, Jerome Karabel, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, looks at the admissions process at the so-called Big Three and how the criteria governing that process have changed over the last century in response to changes in society at large. His book covers much of the same ground that Nicholas Lemann covered — a lot more incisively — in his 1999 book « The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy, » and it also raises some of the same questions that Jacques Steinberg, a reporter for The New York Times, did in his 2002 book, « The Gatekeepers: Inside the Admissions Process of a Premier College. »
Mr. Karabel writes that until the 1920’s, Harvard, Yale and Princeton, « like the most prestigious universities of other nations, » admitted students « almost entirely on the basis of academic criteria. » Applicants « were required to take an examination, and those who passed were admitted. » Though the exams exhibited a distinct class bias (Latin and Greek, after all, were not taught at most public schools), he says that « the system was meritocratic in an elemental way: if you met the academic requirements, you were admitted, regardless of social background. »
This all changed after World War I, he argues, as it became « clear that a system of selection focused solely on scholastic performance would lead to the admission of increasing numbers of Jewish students, most of them of eastern European background. » This development, he notes, occurred « in the midst of one of the most reactionary moments in American history, » when « the nationwide movement to restrict immigration was gaining momentum » and anti-Semitism was on the rise, and the Big Three administrators began to worry that « the presence of ‘too many’ Jews would in fact lead to the departure of Gentiles. » Their conclusion, in Mr. Karabel’s words: « given the dependence of the Big Three on the Protestant upper class for both material resources and social prestige, the ‘Jewish problem’ was genuine, and the defense of institutional interests required a solution that would prevent ‘WASP flight.’ «
The solution they devised was an admissions system that allowed the schools, as Mr. Karabel puts it, « to accept — and to reject — whomever they desired. » Instead of objective academic criteria, there would be a new emphasis on the intangibles of « character » — on qualities like « manliness, » « personality » and « leadership. » Many features of college admissions that students know today — including the widespread use of interviews and photos; the reliance on personal letters of recommendation; and the emphasis on extracurricular activities — have roots, Mr. Karabel says, in this period.
Despite the reformist talk of figures like the Harvard president James Bryant Conant, Mr. Karabel contends, the admissions policy of the Big Three remained beholden to « the wealthy and the powerful. » And despite changes wrought by the G.I. Bill and the growing influence of faculty members, the Big Three still looked in 1960 much as they had before World War II: « overwhelmingly white, exclusively male and largely Protestant. »
Mr. Karabel reports that on the eve of President John F. Kennedy’s election, the three schools were « still de facto segregated institutions — less than 1 percent black and, in the case of Princeton, enrolling just 1 African-American freshman in a class of 826. » And while anti-Semitism was officially taboo, he notes, « Harvard rejected three-quarters of the applicants from the Bronx High School of Science and Stuyvesant that year (compared to just 31 percent from Exeter and Andover) while Yale limited the Jewish presence in the freshman class to one student in eight. »
All that changed in the 1960’s and 70’s, with new admissions policies pioneered by reformers like the Yale president Kingman Brewster and his dean of admissions, R. Inslee Clark Jr., known as Inky. With federal research money and foundation grants pouring into the Big Three, the schools became less dependent on the largess of their alumni, and a radically altered social environment — galvanized by the civil rights and student protest movements — spurred the impetus for change.
« By the mid-1970’s, » Mr. Karabel writes, « the formula — that is, the new admissions criteria and practices — used by the Big Three had been fully institutionalized: need-blind admissions, no discrimination against women or Jews, and special consideration for historically underrepresented minorities as well as athletes and legacies. »
It is Mr. Karabel’s thesis that these sorts of changes were adopted by the Big Three out of a desire « to preserve and, when possible, to enhance their position in a highly stratified system of higher education. » The institutions were « often deeply conservative » and « intensely preoccupied with maintaining their close ties to the privileged, » he writes, arguing that when change did come it almost always derived from one of two sources: because « the continuation of existing policies was believed to pose a threat either to vital institutional interests » (i.e., Yale and Princeton decided to admit women when they realized that their all-male character was hobbling them in their efforts to compete with Harvard for the very best students) or « to the preservation of the larger social order of which they were an integral — and privileged — part » (i.e., the Big Three’s adoption of vigorous race-based affirmative action after the race riots of 1965-68).
Although Mr. Karabel’s narrative becomes mired, in its later pages, in a Marxist-flavored philosophical questioning of the very idea of meritocracy, his account of changing admissions policies at Yale, Harvard and Princeton serves a useful purpose. It puts each school’s actions in context with the others’ and situates those developments within a broader political and social context. While at the same time it shows, in minute detail, how the likes of Nick Carraway, Oliver Barrett IV and Amory Blaine went from being typical students at the Big Three to being members of just one segment of coed, multicultural and increasingly diverse student bodies — if, that is, they could even manage to be admitted today.
Why the SAT Isn’t a ‘Student Affluence Test’
A lot of the apparent income effect on standardized tests is owed to parental IQ—a fact that needs addressing.
March 24, 2015
… The results are always the same: The richer the parents, the higher the children’s SAT scores. This has led some to view the SAT as merely another weapon in the inequality wars, and to suggest that SAT should actually stand for “Student Affluence Test.”
It’s a bum rap. All high-quality academic tests look as if they’re affluence tests. It’s inevitable. Parental IQ is correlated with children’s IQ everywhere. In all advanced societies, income is correlated with IQ. Scores on academic achievement tests are always correlated with the test-takers’ IQ. Those three correlations guarantee that every standardized academic-achievement test shows higher average test scores as parental income increases.
But those correlations also mean that a lot of the apparent income effect is actually owed to parental IQ. The SAT doesn’t have IQ information on the parents. But the widely used National Longitudinal Survey of Youth contains thousands of cases with data on family income, the mother’s IQ, and her children’s performance on the math and reading tests of the Peabody Individual Achievement Test battery, which test the same skills as the math and reading tests of the SAT.
For the SAT, shifting to more than $200,000 of family income from less than $20,000 moved the average score on the combined math and reading tests to the 74th percentile from the 31st—a jump of 43 percentiles. The same income shift moved the average PIAT score to the 82nd percentile from the 30th—a jump of 52 percentiles.
Now let’s look at the income effect in the PIAT when the mother’s IQ is statistically held constant at the national average of 100. Going to a $200,000 family income from a $1,000 family income raises the score only to the 76th percentile from the 50th—an increase of 26 percentiles. More important, almost all of the effect occurs for people making less than $125,000. Going to $200,000 from $125,000 moves the PIAT score only to the 76th percentile from the 73rd—a trivial change. Beyond $200,000, PIAT scores go down as income increases.
In assessing the meaning of this, it is important to be realistic about the financial position of families making $125,000 who are also raising children. They were in the top quartile of income distribution in 2013, but they probably live in an unremarkable home in a middle-class neighborhood and send their children to public schools. And yet, given mothers with equal IQs, the child whose parents make $125,000 has only a trivial disadvantage, if any, when competing with children from families who are far more wealthy.
Why should almost all of the income effect be concentrated in the first hundred thousand dollars or so? The money itself may help, but another plausible explanation is that the parents making, say, $60,000 are likely to be regularly employed, with all the things that regular employment says about a family. The parents are likely to be conveying advantages other than IQ such as self-discipline, determination and resilience—“grit,” as this cluster of hard-to-measure qualities is starting to be called in the technical literature.
Families with an income of, say, $15,000 are much more likely to be irregularly employed or subsisting on welfare, with negative implications for that same bundle of attributes. Somewhere near $100,000 the marginal increments in grit associated with greater income taper off, and further increases in income make little difference.
Let’s throw parental education into the analysis so that we can examine the classic indictment of the SAT: the advantage a child of a well-educated and wealthy family (Sebastian, I will call him) has over the child of a modestly educated working-class family (Jane). Sebastian’s parents are part of the fabled 1%, with $400,000 in income, and his mother has a college degree. But her IQ is only average. Jane’s family has an income of just $40,000 and mom has only a high-school diploma. But mom’s IQ is 135, putting her in the top 1% of the IQ distribution.
Which child is likely to test higher? Sebastian is predicted to be at the 68th percentile on the PIAT. Jane is predicted to be at the 78th percentile. If you want high test scores, “choose” a smart but poor mother over a rich but dumb one—or over a rich and merely ungifted one.
One way of analyzing the effect of “privilege” — wealth and parental investment — on test scores and outcomes as adults would be to check how much an only child is advantaged relative to a child in a larger family.
For example, consider my wife v. myself. Harvard social scientist Robert D. Putnam’s new book Our Kids uses a super-simplified definition of class based solely on parents’ educational levels. By Putnam’s standards, my wife, whose mother and father both had masters degrees, would have grown up upper middle class. In contrast, my father had a junior college 2-year diploma and my mother had only a high school diploma, so I’d be lower middle class, I guess.
On the other hand, I was an only child, while my wife has three siblings. So, growing up, I never felt terribly strapped for money nor, especially, for parental time and energy, while my wife’s upbringing was more exigent.
Although you don’t hear about it much now that small families are the norm, back in my Baby Boom childhood, the privileged nature of being an only child — only children were widely said to be spoiled — was a frequent subject of conversation. This was especially true since I went to Catholic schools for 12 years, where very large families were common. For example, one friend, the class clown and best singer (his rendition of “MacNamara’s Band” in 4th grade remains a vivid memory), had eight siblings in his Irish family.
How privileged was I by being one of a family of three rather than one of a family of eleven?
My friend from the huge family has had a long, successful career as a TV sportscaster, along with some TV and movie credits as a comic actor. If you live in L.A., you’ve seen him on TV dozens of times over the last 30 years. So, growing up in a huge family didn’t ruin his life.On the other hand, if he’d been an only child with a real stage mother for a mom, I could imagine somebody with that much presence (his affect is reminiscent of that of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman or of a straight Nathan Lane) becoming a semi-famous character actor with maybe one or two Best Supporting Actor nominations.
Back during my more egalitarian childhood, people didn’t think that much about tutoring and Tiger Mothering, but, to some extent it works.
For example, I have had a pleasant life, but looking back I can see wasted opportunities. After my freshman year at Rice I came home and got a summer job at Burger King. After my sophomore year, I repaired dental equipment. Finally, after my junior year I worked as the assistant to the Chief Financial Officer of a big weedwacker manufacturing company. But what did the Burger King and repair jobs do for me other than teach me not to be a fry cook or repairman? These days I would have plotted to get internships in Silicon Valley or D.C. or Wall Street and had my parents pay my rent.
So, yes, I do think I was privileged to have the extra resources I was afforded by being an only child, even if I didn’t exploit my privileges as cunningly as I could have.
Quantifying how big a privilege that was seems challenging but doable. In fact, I’m sure somebody has done it already, and I invite commenters to link to studies.
It seems to me that measuring the effects of being an only child ought to be the first thing we do when we decide to theorize about Privilege.
By the way, however, there are other factors that may matter more in determining how Privileged you are. For example, my parents happened to turn out to be winners in the Great American Random Lottery of choosing a neighborhood to buy a home in during the 1950s — the demographics of their neighborhood have barely changed since the 1950s.
In contrast, my in-laws had the bad luck to draw what nightmarishly turned out to be one of the shortest straws in America: the Austin neighborhood on the West Side of Chicago. It was almost all white until Martin Luther King came to Chicago in 1966 to demand integration. Being good liberals, my in-laws joined a pro-integration group of neighbors who all swore to not engage in white flight. But after three years and three felonies against their small children, my in-laws were pretty much financially wiped out by trying to make integration work in Austin. And thus after they finally sold out at a massive loss, they wound up living in a farmhouse without running water for the next two years.
Bizarrely, while the once-pleasant street where my wife grew up in Austin looks nowadays like a post-apocalyptic wasteland, a couple of miles to the west is Superior Street in Oak Park, IL where my father grew up in the 1920s. It looks like an outdoor Frank Lloyd Wright museum today. The Wright district was saved by Oak Park’s secret, illegal, and quite effective “black-a-block” racial quota system imposed on realtors to keep Oak Park mostly white (and, these days, heavily gay).
So a not insignificant fraction of White Privilege in 2015 actually consists of whether or not the Eye of Sauron turned upon your parents’ neighborhood or not.
La spectaculaire réussite des enfants d’immigrés asiatiques se confirme au bac. Et pourtant, leurs parents s’impliquent peu dans leurs devoirs, mais ils veillent à leurs horaires, les placent souvent dans le privé et jouent à fond la carte du bilinguisme.
À force d’entendre «si j’avais eu ta chance…», ils sont d’autant plus motivés. Leurs parents sont venus de loin et ont choisi la France pour offrir à leur progéniture un meilleur avenir.
Les jeunes Asiatiques ont particulièrement bien compris la leçon et fusent comme des comètes au-dessus du lot. Lycée, bac, études supérieures, ils se montrent performants à chaque étape. «Petits déjà, ils redoublent peu à l’école», assure Yaël Brinbaum, co-auteure de l’étude Trajectoires et Origines conduite par l’Insee et l’Ined. Plus de 60% d’entre eux seront orientés dans des filières généralistes. Plus que la moyenne nationale (50%).
Parmi les enfants de non bacheliers, les jeunes d’origine asiatiques se distinguent tout particulièrement. Ils seront encore 60% à décrocher le bac ,contre 50% pour les autres. Un quart iront jusqu’à bac+3 voire plus lorsque seulement 16,5% des descendants d’immigrés y accèdent.
Moins de télé, plus de bibliothèques
Paradoxalement, les familles d’origine asiatique sont celles qui s’impliquent le moins dans les devoirs, réunions de parents d’élèves et rencontres avec les professeurs. «Les mères ne parlent pas très bien français, les pères ont des métiers très prenants. Par contre, ces familles croient fortement à l’école et investissent énormément sur la scolarité de leur enfant. Ils sont très exigeants», explique Jean-Paul Caille, ingénieur de recherche au ministère de l’Enseignement supérieur.
Les parents ne se mettent pas au bureau de leur enfant, mais s’assurent qu’il est sérieux dans son travail. «Ils contrôlent plus le temps devant la télévision, les horaires du coucher. Il faut aussi que les loisirs soient compatibles avec l’école, comme des cours d’apprentissage de leur langue maternelle». Ce bilinguisme est un trésor qu’ils soignent. Les mères d’Asie du Sud-Est sont celles qui parlent le plus leur langue maternelle à la maison (57%). D’après Jean-Paul Caille, les jeunes d’origine asiatique fréquentent plus que les autres les bibliothèques et sont deux fois plus que la normale à prendre des cours particuliers à l’entrée en sixième.
Travail rigoureux et autorité parentale stricte et aussi une meilleure naissance. Les parents d’origine asiatique investissent plus sur la scolarité car ils en ont les moyens. Là où environ 75% des jeunes d’origine turque ou portugaise ont des parents ouvriers, employés de service ou inactifs, ceux d’origine asiatique ne sont que 58% à exercer dans ces fonctions. «Souvent, leurs parents sont artisans, commerçants, tiennent des bars tabac et gagnent bien leur vie. Ils sont les enfants d’immigrés qui bénéficient des conditions socio-économique et origines sociales les plus favorables». Ce portefeuille plus fourni leur permet d’être 15% à fréquenter un collège privé, soit deux fois plus que les enfants d’origine marocaine ou turque.
Pourtant moins d’un tiers des jeunes d’origine turque a le bac
Les autres enfants d’immigrés tentent aussi de se distinguer. À classe sociale équivalente, ils feront mieux que le reste des Français. Mais les parcours sont inégaux selon le pays d’origine des parents, tout comme le traitement des élèves à l’école. 14% des enfants d’immigrés -trois fois plus que la moyenne- déclarent «avoir été moins bien traités» lors des décisions d’orientation. Une discrimination dont ne semblent pas souffrir les jeunes originaires d’Asie du Sud-Est, qui s’en déclarent à peine plus victimes que la moyenne.
Les 10 raisons du succès des Chinois en France
Dans cet article je vais expliquer les principales raisons qui font que la communauté chinoise en France réussit mieux que les autres communautés immigrées d’une manière générale.
Selon la seule étude disponible sur le sujet, publiée par l’Insee et l’Ined,
- 27% des descendants de parents asiatiques occupent aujourd’hui un poste de cadre,
- contre 14% en moyenne pour les Français toutes origines confondues,
- 9% pour les fils de Maghrébins
- 5% pour ceux d’Afrique subsaharienne.
48% des Français d’origine asiatique décrochent un diplôme du supérieur, contre 33% en moyenne en France. Enfin une autre statistique remarquable de l’étude : 27% des enfants d’immigrés chinois sont cadres, contre 14% en moyenne pour les Français
Comment expliquer une telle percée, alors que tant d’autres immigrés – et de Français de souche – peinent à gravir l’échelle sociale ?
- Le travail
- Une communauté soudée
- Un système de financement efficace
- Une hyperfocalisation sur la réussite scolaire des enfants
- L’enrichissement de la Chine
- La méconnaissance de la culture chinoise
- Une communauté peu politisée
- L’accent mis sur le pragmatisme dans la culture chinoise
- Une volonté de réussir (La « Face »)
- Le sens des affaires chinois
C’est un peu le grand cliché : le chinois est bosseur. Un cliché qui comme tous devrait être sérieusement relativisé notamment par des français qui aiment à s’adonner à une forme d’auto critique. Mais comme tout cliché il y a peut être une part de vérité.
Aujourd’hui on compte 600 000 Français d’origine chinoise. Certes plusieurs dizaines de milliers d’entre eux travaillent encore sans papiers comme petites mains dans la confection, la maroquinerie ou le bâtiment, pour des salaires de misère. On a tous en tête le passage de la vérité si je mens dans la fabrique chinoise clandestine.
Mais, après des années de labeur, beaucoup ont fini par s’en sortir en reprenant un commerce – restaurants, épiceries, fleuristes ou bars-tabacs. Ils en détiendraient désormais près de 35 000 ! Certains commencent même à créer des chaînes de magasins (la plus connue d’entre elles, l’enseigne Miss Coquine, compte près de 80 boutiques en France), ou encore à lancer leurs propres marques (Miss Lucy, par exemple).
Une communauté soudée
Contrairement à la majorité des étrangers présents en France – et en particulier aux Maghrébins, dont les différentes nationalités et ethnies ne s’apprécient guère – la plupart des chinois peuvent compter sur le soutien de leurs compatriotes.
Un système de financement très efficace
Les Chinois pratiquent un système de prêts proche de la « tontine » Africaine : les membres de la famille et les proches mettent une partie de leurs économies dans un pot commun, dans lequel les membres de la diaspora puisent pour monter leur affaire. Il n’y a pas d’intérêt ni même durée de remboursement fixe. La tontine repose sur la confiance, confortée par la réciprocité des dons : ceux qui reçoivent doivent eux-mêmes offrir de l’argent aux autres, notamment à l’occasion de leur mariage. Ces prêts informels, qui peuvent facilement atteindre plusieurs dizaines de milliers d’euros, sont une clé essentielle dans la réussite de la diaspora chinoise.
Après avoir économisé en moyenne 160 000 euros pendant une dizaine d’années, de nombreuses familles chinoises peuvent s’acheter un commerce sans passer par la case prêt bancaire ce qui ne manque pas d’alimenter le débat sur l’origine des fonds.
Une hyperfocalisation sur la réussite scolaire des enfants
Depuis plus de mille ans, les élites de Chine sont recrutées par un système d’examen national accessible à tous, qui permet aux plus pauvres de se hisser tout en haut de la pyramide. Résultat : même lorsqu’ils quittent leur patrie, les adultes s’échinent au turbin et ils poussent leur progéniture à en faire autant à l’école. La focalisation sur la réussite scolaire fait partie des valeurs familiales chinoises. Ceci est vrai pour l’ensemble des asiatiques en France :
L’enrichissement de la Chine
Si la Chine n’avait pas connu un boom économique depuis la fin des années 70, les migrants ne s’en sortiraient pas de façon aussi spectaculaire. La montée en puissance de l’empire du Milieu leur a en effet ouvert des opportunités immenses notamment dans l’import-export. En fait, les Chinois de France ont procédé exactement comme des multinationales : ils ont créé des comptoirs commerciaux pour vendre les produits fabriqués en Chine.
La méconnaissance de la culture chinoise
Pour beaucoup de français la culture chinoise reste un mystère. L’ignorance est souvent totale vis-à-vis d’un peuple qui suscite autant d’intérêt que de craintes. Et cette ignorance est un atout sur lequel les chinois peuvent jouer. Il connaissent les codes des chinois avec qui ils négocient. Certains réseaux commerciaux à la limite de la mafia profitent de cette opacité de la communauté chinoise.
Une communauté peu politisée
Il y a une communauté assez puissante de français d’origine chinoise en France mais qui est très discrète et qui réussit. Le communautarisme chinois a longtemps été un communautarisme de séparation. Les chinois pour parler de façon brutale n’ont jamais emmerdé les français, jamais fait dans le communautarisme victimaire. Ils ne reprochent pas la colonisation à la France, ils réussissent économiquement ce qui fait qu’il y a très peu de racisme anti chinois.
En fait souvent les chinois en France ne prétendent pas vraiment être assimilés mais ne posant pas de problèmes finalement on ne leur demande que l’intégration. C’est le contraire du communautarisme victimaire des autres minorités avec des institutions politiques telles que le CRAN (Conseil Représentatif des Association Noires) ou encore le CRIF (Conseil Représentatif des Institutions Juives de France).
Néanmoins aujourd’hui avec la création du CRAF (Conseil Représentatif des Associations Asiatiques de France) ont peut s’interroger pour savoir si une forme de communautarisme victimaire asiatique ne va pas être mis en place.
Certains estiment à tort selon moi que le succès économique des chinois en France tire profit de leur retard dans leur reconnaissance politique. Ce serait un succès en trompe l’œil. Voici un exemple de revendications antiracistes qu’on peut entendre ces temps-ci provenant de représentant souvent auto-proclamé de la communauté asiatique :
L’accent mis sur le pragmatisme dans la culture chinoise
Les chinois contrairement à l’image de sagesse teinté d’exotisme de beaucoup de français sont sans doute le peuple le plus pragmatique du monde. L’accent est toujours mis sur le consensus et l’efficacité (le maximum d’effets pour un minimum de coût) ce qui facilite leur intégration. Ce pragmatisme chinois est selon moi tout entier contenu dans la phrase célèbre de Deng Xiaoping au moment du virage réformiste des années 80 : « peu importe que le chat soit gris ou noir pourvu qu’il attrape les souris ».
Une volonté de réussir (La « Face »)
Les chinois ont une volonté de réussir qui est d’abord assez matérialiste. Réussir c’est d’abord devenir riche. Mais cela renvoie aussi à la notion de « face » en Asie. On peut le traduire par l’honneur, la volonté de ne pas déchoir. C’est particulièrement vrai pour les membres de la diaspora dont on attend qu’ils ramène le plus de devises étrangère possible. C’est l’oncle d’Amérique sauce chinoise…
Le sens des affaires chinois
Les chinois sont avant tout un peuple de commerçants. Leurs réseaux sont issus de la diaspora, forme de solidarité au fond assez proche de ce qu’a pu être la communauté juive dans la France d’avant guerre. Souvent les membres de la diaspora qui ont le mieux réussi sont approchées par de riches Chinois, désireux d’investir en France, notamment dans l’immobilier.
Alors les chinois : enfants modèles de l’intégration Républicaine à la française ? Le débat est ouvert
Last week, the New York Times revealed that Attorney General Jeff Sessions is investigating a civil rights complaint against Harvard University. The complaint, filed by a coalition of 64 Asian-American organizations in 2015, alleges a pattern of bias against Asian Americans.
“Over the last two decades, Asian-American applicants to Harvard University and other Ivy League colleges have increasingly experienced discrimination in the admissions process,” reads the complaint. “Many Asian-American students who have almost perfect SAT scores, top 1% GPAs, plus significant awards or leadership positions in various extracurricular activities have been rejected by Harvard University and other Ivy League Colleges while similarly situated applicants of other races have been admitted.”
The lawsuit alleges that Harvard and others are covertly using race as a factor in admissions in order to keep Asian Americans out. A separate Princeton study found that students who identify as Asian need to score 140 points higher on the SAT than whites to have the same chance of admission to private colleges.
In briefs to the Supreme Court, Harvard defended itself, claiming that its reliance on subjective admissions criteria is a model of assessment that does not rely on quotas.
But the subjective criteria are precisely how Harvard once enforced its quotas against another minority. Indeed, for Jews, this scenario is all too familiar.
As I reported in City Journal last year, Asian Americans are facing the exact same discrimination that was once used to keep Jews out of Harvard. In both cases, when an upstart, achievement-oriented minority group was too successful under objective admissions standards, the response was to instead emphasize highly subjective and “holistic” measures of “character” and “leadership” under which the group’s enrollment numbers plunged.
The anti-Semitic history is mind-boggling. Beginning in the 1890’s, Harvard began to make entry requirements more rigorous. This shift to a more academic emphasis coincided with the arrival in America of increasing numbers of Jewish immigrants, and Jews quickly began to make up a significant share of the student population. Harvard was already 7% Jewish by 1900, a number that grew to over 21% by 1922. If you think about the fact that in 1918, only 3.5% of Americans were Jews, you can see the disproportion.
This trend did not sit well with some Harvard alumni and staff. As one alumnus wrote after attending the Harvard-Yale game, “To find that one’s University had become so Hebrewized was a fearful shock. There were Jews to the right of me, Jews to the left of me.”
These concerns found a sympathetic ear in President A. Lawrence Lowell. In 1922, he proposed a 15% cap on Jewish enrollment, along with other policies to limit “Hebrew” admissions. The proposals included emphasizing subjective measures of “aptitude and character,” like recommendation letters and interviews, rather than objective measures of academic achievement, such as grades and exam scores. The faculty rejected the proposals then, but adopted the new holistic criteria, including a personal interview requirement to assess “character and fitness,” after the Jewish numbers continued to increase to 27.6% in 1925.
The impact was immediate and drastic. The percentage of Jews in Harvard’s freshman class plummeted from over 27% in 1925 to just 15% in 1926, and remained virtually unchanged at about that level until the 1940’s. During this time, Harvard reinforced the de facto quota by adding additional holistic admissions criteria, requiring personal essays and descriptions of extracurricular activities in an attempt to further glean “leadership” skills.
Jewish numbers at Harvard did not begin to rebound until after World War II. But while discrimination against Jews in the Ivies is no longer a problem, admissions records at Harvard and other elite colleges over the past quarter century reveal an uncannily similar treatment of Asian Americans.
In an exhaustive 2012 article, Ron Unz looked at acceptance rates at top schools since 1980 and found that the Asian numbers “exactly replicate the historical pattern … in which Jewish enrollment rose very rapidly, leading to imposition of an informal quota system.”
Asian enrollment at Harvard increased from about four percent to ten percent during the early and mid-1980’s. It then spiked after the federal Department of Education began an investigation in 1988 into an earlier discrimination complaint, peaking at 20.6% in 1993. However, beginning in 1994, several years after the investigation was closed, the numbers reversed and then stagnated, remaining at about 16% for almost two decades.
The parallel with the Jewish experience seventy years earlier is starkly illustrated in the chart below comparing Harvard’s Jewish enrollment for the period from 1908 to 1942 with its Asian enrollment for the corresponding period from 1976 to 2010:
Similar patterns in Asian enrollment can be seen at other Ivy League colleges, with figures declining sharply and then holding constant in the mid to upper teens – even though Asian Americans constitute a quarter of the applicants to these schools, and 45% of the applicants with the top SAT scores.
And these figures actually understate the decline in Asian representation in the Ivies, as they do not take into account that it has occurred while Asians have been the fastest-growing racial group in the United States.
By contrast, Asian Americans do account for their expected 40% of the student body at the California Institute of Technology, the only top school which rejects the use of racial preferences and selects students based largely on academic merit. This is also true at the most selective University of California campuses, where racial preferences were barred by the passage of Proposition 209 in 1996. (Asian enrollment at Harvard and the other Ivies has increased in recent years, though it is still far below that at the California schools.)
Anecdotal evidence of prejudiced attitudes about Asians among otherwise devoutly antiracist college officials backs up the statistical inference of discrimination. Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Golden chronicled some of these anecdotes in a 2006 book on college admissions. There he wrote of the MIT Admissions Dean who suggested that an applicant was “yet another textureless math grind … like a thousand other Korean kids,” and the Vanderbilt administrator who said that Asian Americans don’t provide a stimulating intellectual environment. A recent investigation of a discrimination complaint against Princeton found notations such as “defies the stereotypes, thinks and feels deeply” in Asian application files.
“Asians are typecast in college admissions offices as quasi-robots programmed to ace math and science tests,” Golden writes. Corroborating this, a Yale student commenting on the Princeton complaint suggested that top-tier schools “look not only for good grades but for an interesting student who will bring something of value to the community.” A Boston Globe columnist noted that the comment “sounds a lot like what admissions officers say, but there’s a whiff of something else, too.”
The something else smells a lot like the attitude towards Jews ninety years ago.
Dennis Saffran is a Queens, NY-based appellate attorney and writer. You can follow him on Twitter @dennisjsaffran. He has written about this topic for City Journal.
Remember the scene in Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint where the newly teen-aged Alex Portnoy goes to a frozen pond in his hometown of Newark to gaze upon gentile girls ice-skating?
So: dusk on the frozen lake of a city park, skating behind the puffy red earmuffs and the fluttering yellow ringlets of a strange shikse teaches me the meaning of the word longing. It is almost more than an angry thirteen-year-old little Jewish Momma’s Boy can bear. Forgive the luxuriating, but these are probably the most poignant hours of my life I’m talking about–I learn the meaning of the word longing, I learn the meaning of the word pang.
This scene often involuntarily flitted across my mind during the past winter, when I spent a lot of time watching people glide across expanses of ice on skates. The reason is that my 11-year-old son, also an Alex, was playing in a hockey league. Having grown up in the Deep South, I was entirely innocent of ice matters when I first got into this. At my inaugural hockey-parents’ meeting, I realized that I had wandered into a vast and all-encompassing subculture. Two, three, four times a week, we had to drive our children 30, 60, 80 miles to some unheated structure for a practice or a game. Often these were held at 6 o’clock in the morning. South Kent, Conn. West Point, N.Y. Morristown, N.J. We parents would stand at the edge of the rink in a daze drinking Dunkin Donuts coffee and griping that they weren’t hustling enough out there.
For Alex Portnoy, athleticism was something alien. It was part of a total package that included not only the golden shiksas but their brothers (« engaging, good-natured, confident, clean, swift, and powerful halfbacks »), their fathers (« men with white hair and deep voices »), their mothers who never whined or hectored, their curtained, fireplaced houses, their small noses, their lack of constant nagging worry–in short, the normalcy and confidence that go along with belonging, with being on the inside.
In the Portnoy household nobody played sports–bodies existed only to generate suffering–and there was only one thing that really went well. That, needless to say, was Alex’s performance in school. « Albert Einstein the Second, » his mother called him, and thought it may have been embarrassing, he didn’t really disagree. By the time Portnoy’s Complaint came out, in 1969, it was clear–and this was part of the joke of the ice-skating scene–that people like awkward Alex were going to wind up ahead of the gliding shiksas and their halfback brothers, because they were more book-smart. The goyim were wasting their time with all those sports. What the Jews had was the real ticket. Alex’s overwhelming insecurity wouldn’t have been so funny if it hadn’t been unjustified.
In my many hours standing next to hockey rinks last winter, I sometimes engaged in one of the Jews’ secret vices: Jew-counting. All over the ice were little Cohens, little Levys, their names sewed in block letters on the backs of their jerseys. It was amazing how many there were. Occasionally, an entire front line would be Jewish, or even the front line and the defensemen. (Green–is he one? Marks?) The chosen people were tough competitors, too.
In fact, a Portnoy of the present, a kid with his nose pressed up against the window (to borrow the self-description of another ghetto-bred Jewish writer, Theodore H. White) would surely regard these stick-wielding, puck-handling lads as representing full, totally secure membership in the comfortable classes of American society. Some Lysenkoist suburban biological deviation, or else intermarriage, has even given many of the hockey-playing Jewish boys blond hair and even blue eyes.
More to the point, these Jewish kids and their parents have decided to devote endless hours of childhood to an activity with no career payoff. Do you think they’re going to 6 a.m. practices for a shot at the National Hockey League? Of course not. They’re doing it–mastering hockey, and every conceivable other sport–to promote « growth, » « teamwork, » « physical fitness, » « well-roundedness, » « character, » and other qualities that may be desirable in a doctor but don’t, as a practical matter, help you get into medical school.
What all the hockey-playing Jewish kids in America are not doing, during their hundreds of hours hustling to, on, and from the ice rink, is studying. It’s not that they don’t study at all, because they do. It’s that they don’t study with the ferociousness and all-out commitment of people who realize (or who have parents who realize) that outstanding school performance is their one shot at big-time opportunity in America.
Meanwhile, there is another ethnic group in America whose children devote their free time not to hockey but to extra study. In this group, it’s common for moms to march into school at the beginning of the year and obtain several months’ worth of assignments in advance so their children can get a head start. These parents pressure school systems to be more rigorous and give more homework. This group is Asian-Americans.
At the front end of the American meritocratic machine, Asians are replacing Jews as the No. 1 group. They are winning the science prizes and scholarships. Jews, meanwhile, at our moment of maximum triumph at the back end of the meritocracy, the midlife, top-job end, are discovering sports and the virtues of being well-rounded. Which is cause and which is effect here is an open question. But as Asians become America’s new Jews, Jews are becoming … Episcopalians.
The one extracurricular venue where I run into a lot of Asian-Americans is a Very Serious music school in Scarsdale, the suburban town in the New York area that (because of its famous school system) has the most name-brand appeal for transferred Japanese executives. Music is a form of extracurricular activity that Mrs. Portnoys approve of, and the atmosphere at this school would be familiar to earlier generations of American Jews. In the lobby, children waiting for music lessons bend over their homework, mom perched at their shoulder. Musical exercises drift through the air, along with snatches of conversation about AP courses, recommendations, test prep, tracking, and nursery-school admissions.
The hockey ethos is to be elaborately casual and gruff about competitive achievement: Outstanding performance gets you a little slap on the helmet, a good-natured insult. At the music school they take the straightforward approach. At my younger son’s first piano lesson, his teacher, Mrs. Sun, explained the rules. « Every week, Theo, at the end of the lesson, I give you stamps, » she said. « If you’re a good boy, I give you one stamp. If you’re a very good boy, I give you two stamps. And if you’re a very, very good boy, I give you three stamps! Then, every time you get 25 stamps, I give you a statue of a great composer. » Watching 7-year-old Theo take this in, I could see that he was hooked. Ancient imperatives had kicked in. When he hit 25 stamps for the first time, Mrs. Sun gave him a plastic statuette of Mozart. « Do you know how old he was when he composed his first piece of music, Theo? » A look of rapt anticipation from Theo. « Four years old! Three years younger than you. » Theo, get to work.
My mother grew up in New Jersey, not too far from Philip Roth. I was raised on the story of her crushing disappointment over being only the salutatorian of her class at Perth Amboy High School, when she had been valedictorian of her junior high school class. Her father, a small-town pediatrician, had somehow gone to medical school without having gone to college, or possibly even (here we begin to slip into the realm of Marquez-like fable) finishing high school. Every relative in my grandparents’ generation seems to have graduated from high school at some improbable age like 14 or 12. Then, for the most part, at least as the story was received by the young me, life turned disappointing. Why? Because school is the only part of American society that’s fair. Afterward, a vast, subtle conspiracy arranges to hold you back in favor of those more advantaged by birth.
Even by my school days, the academic hunger had begun to wane. By now, it is barely producing a pulse, except among Jews who are within one generation of the immigration cycle. Jews have not become notable as academic underachievers. But something is gone: That old intense and generalized academic commitment, linked to sociological ambition, is no longer a defining cultural characteristic of the group.
What has replaced it is a cultural insider’s sort of academic preoccupation: a task-specific, in-the-know concern with successfully negotiating the key junctures–mainly, college admission. Jews are now successful people who want to move the levers of the system (levers whose location we’re quite familiar with) so as to ensure that our children will be as successful as we are. This is quite different from being yearning, not-successful-enough people who hope, rather than know for sure, that study will generate dramatic upward mobility for our children.
Jews’ new second-place status in the strivers’ hierarchy is most noticeable in places with good public school systems like Westchester County, N.Y., (where I live) and the San Gabriel Valley, outside of Los Angeles. The same is true of super-meritocratic public educational institutions like Lowell High School in San Francisco, the University of California at Berkeley, and Bronx High School of Science and Stuyvesant High School in New York, which are all now Asian-plurality.
By contrast, the Asian presence is noticeably less, and the Jewish presence noticeably more, in private schools. In these, no matter how great the meritocratic pretenses, the contest is always less completely open than it is in public institutions. Just at the moment when Harvard, Yale, and Princeton have presidents named Rudenstine, Levin, and Shapiro, those institutions are widely suspected of having informal ceilings on Asian admissions, of the kind that were imposed on Jews two generations ago.
Asian achievement is highest in areas like science and classical music, where there is no advantage from familiarity with the culture. This also once was true of Jews (why do you think my grandfather become a doctor?) but isn’t any more. Several years ago, Asian-American groups in California successfully lobbied to keep an essay section out of the Scholastic Aptitude Test. It’s impossible to imagine organized Jewry caring.
In his famous 1958 book, The Rise of the Meritocracy, British sociologist Michael Young proposed the following formula: IQ plus effort equals merit. Young, like many theorists of meritocracy, assumed that ethnicity would become a nonissue (should be nonissue) under such a system. Instead, it’s an overwhelming issue. Accounting for ethnicity, you might amend Young this way (to the extent that « merit » and academic performance are the same thing): an ethnic group’s long-term cultural orientation to education, plus its level of sociological ambition in American society at the moment, will equal its members’ merit. The cultural connection seems so obvious that it amazes me how often ethnic differences in the meritocracy are explained in terms of genes.
By these standards, Asian-Americans today have two advantages over Jews. They have a lower average income, and so are more motivated. And most back-home Asian cultures rival or surpass Jewish culture in their reverence for study. Therefore Jews are going to have to get used to being No. 2.
In the past, when this fate has befallen the reigning ethnic group in American society, the group’s standard response has been to redefine merit. It’s not academic performance (or whatever the prevailing measure of the moment was) after all! It’s something else, which we happen to possess in greater measure than the upstart group. Jews know all too well what the alternate form of merit that we didn’t have used to be: a certain ease, refinement, and grace. This may be what has led today’s generation of Jewish parents to athleticize our children. We want them to have what Alex Portnoy longed for: a deeper sort of American comfort and success than SAT scores and music lessons can provide.
But Jews are not alone in having this thought. Recently, I’ve been interviewing Asian-Americans for a book on meritocracy in America. A sentiment that emerges consistently is that meritocracy ends on graduation day, and that afterward, Asians start to fall behind because they don’t have quite the right cultural style for getting ahead: too passive, not hail-fellow-well-met enough. So, in many of the Asian-American families I met, a certain Saturday ritual has developed. After breakfast, mom takes the children off to the juku for the day, and dad goes to his golf lesson.
The final irony is that golf and tennis are perceived by the Asian-Americans not as aspects of an ethos adapted from the British landowning classes (which is the way Jews used to perceive them), but as stuff that Jews know how to do. The sense of power and ease and comfort that the playing field symbolizes is now, to non-Jews, a Jewish trait. The wheel of assimilation turns inexorably: Scratching out an existence is phase one, maniacal studying is phase two, sports is phase three. Watch out for Asian-American hockey players in about 20 years.