Ph.D. Octopus

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Archive for the ‘Asians’ Category

New Book on Race on the Canadian Campus

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by David (shameless self-promotion)

 In line with our series of three posts on affirmative action, I thought I would mention this cool new book that just came out called “Too Asian?” Racism, Privilege and Post-Secondary Education. The title is a response to Canada’s Maclean’s magazine article “Too Asian?” from 2010. It just so happens that I contributed the second chapter, “Asians and Affirmative Action on Campus: An Historical Canada–US Comparison.” That chapter came out of this blog post. Here’s the blurb on the book:

The now notorious Maclean’s article “’Too Asian?’” from the magazine’s 2010 campus issue has sparked a national furor about race in Canadian higher education. Since the founding of the federal policy of multiculturalism, Canadians have prided themselves on their ability to integrate diversity into a broader multicultural environment, but the often heated discussions about race point to fissures in this national project. This collection uses the controversy about the Maclean’s article as a flashpoint to interrogate issues about race and representation on Canadian campuses and what it means for students and learning across the country.

Anyhow, if you’re interested in buying the book, you can do so at this link.


Written by David Weinfeld

May 29, 2012 at 16:52

Jeremy Lin: of course it’s About Race, and it’s Not All Smiles

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by David

On February, 13, 2012, Floyd Mayweather Jr., the racist, woman-beating arrogant jail-bound criminal, who also happens to be the best pound-for-pound boxer in the world and current welterweight champion, made a stupid, racist tweet. Here’s what Mayweather tweeted:

Jeremy Lin is a good player but all the hype is because he’s Asian. Black players do what he does every night and don’t get the same praise.

Mayweather is an asshole. He’s not backing down. And as Washington Post sportswriter Jason Reid notes, Mayweather is mostly wrong. Jeremy Lin’s story is unique: he went to Harvard, he’s an evangelical Christian, he was undrafted, he was sleeping on his brother’s couch, then coming off the bench for the New York Knicks, and now he’s an NBA star.

But there’s at least a kernel of truth to Mayweather’s obnoxiousness. The Jeremy Lin story is big because of everything else. It’s huge because he’s the first Chinese-American in the NBA. And that’s OK.

I’ve finally caught on to the Linsanity. Normally I don’t watch any more than the last two minute of regular season professional basketball games, but I’m making an exception here. We don’t get cable, but I’ll even shlep out to the Columbia med student housing common room to watch the Linsanity.

And it is exciting. Heck even Tiger Mom Amy Chua tweeted that her and her family are “huge” Jeremy Lin fans, and linked to this article, which attributes Lin’s success to tough Asian parenting. But I cry (or call) foul. This piece, by Gish Jen, is more accurate, highlighting the rebellion, the anti-stereotype that Jeremy Lin represents. Because Lord knows that if Amy Chua had a ten-foot-tall son she’d still be shoving a violin in his hands before allowing him to shoot hoops.

I’m exaggerating, of course. But only a little. Because I know this story. It’s why I celebrate Kevin Youkilis and Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax, and why the movie Airplane can make a joke referring to “light” reading, a leaflet of “Famous Jewish Sports Legends.” These Jews, like Jeremy Lin, are exceptions. Sure, there will be more. But most Jews, and most Asian Americans, will go on to more conventional, but still successful paths. Because that’s what their parents want for them, and that is what is expected of them.

And so the real tragedy behind the Jeremy Lin story is here, hidden in a New York Times story about Stuyvesant High School, maybe the toughest and most competitive high school in the country, where thousands of students take a difficult exam, and only the highest scoring are admitted. It’s worth noting this on the last day of Black History month of 2012. Stuyvesant High School has 3295 students. A whopping 72.5% of them are Asian. Forty are Black. Forty. Not Forty percent. Forty students, total, equal to 1.2 percent of the student population. Another 2.4% are Hispanic. These are the Jeremy Lins of the American high school system: Black and Latino students who succeed against the odds, disproving the stereotypes, fighting structural inequality that dates back generations, even centuries. Read the article. It’s harrowing.

So let’s applaud Lin’s success in the NBA. It’s awesome, and need not be denigrated in any way. He’s a pioneer for Asian-Americans in sports. But this story is about race, and when we take a step back, it’s not a happy story. So let’s get our priorities straight.

Written by David Weinfeld

February 29, 2012 at 20:46

The Tiger Mom and Ethnic Identity: The Jewish Angle

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by Weiner

I recently attended an interesting panel on Jewish secularism put on by the Posen Foundation. The speakers were historian David Biale and philosopher and novelist Rebecca Goldstein. In her talk, Goldstein insisted that Jewish secularism was alive and well, judging by all the book competitions she had been asked to judge, requiring her to examine numerous volumes which served as examples of the subject. In the Q and A, however, I asked about what this all means to the Jewish demographic future, noting: “Secular Jews are good at producing books, but not so good at producing children.”

This leads me to a belated follow-up to my previous post on America’s most infamous mother, Amy Chua (pictured left), and the discussion in her book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother about the constructed nature of ethnic identity, as well as what Chua’s family tells us about intermarriage and Jewish demography.

Lots of Jews have responded to Chua, chiming in with references to the stereotypical Jewish mother, as featured in novels such as Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint (my favourite book of all time). There’s this little bit in The New Yorker. Ayelet Waldman, who famously claimed that she loves her husband, novelist Michael Chabon, more than her children, thus rendering her the exact opposite of the crude stereotype (the caricature of the Jewish mother dotes on her children and castrates her husband), nonetheless defended Jewish mothering in The Wall Street Journal, the same publication that printed the excerpt from Chua’s book that caused all the controversy. Wendy Sachs takes a more benign view of the Jewish mother than Roth does in her comparison. The best of these pieces, believe it or not, is by neoconservative royalty John Podhoretz in The New York Post, who closes his commentary with this perceptive analysis:

My guess is that [Chua’s] book gives us a portrait of Chinese tradition that is ultimately about as deep as the “ancient Chinese secret” that was revealed, in that classic 1970s commercial, to be Calgon detergent.

J-Pod isn’t completely right here: I think Chinese and Asian parents more broadly have in general a good parenting method that produces hard-working and successful children. But he is right to point to the constructed, artificial nature of Chua’s Chinese identity, and indeed, of ethnic identity in general.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by David Weinfeld

March 14, 2011 at 16:35

Thoughts on Amy Chua

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by Weiner

Everybody and their mother has been commenting on Amy Chua and her recent Wall Street Journal article “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior.” David Brooks tried his hand at it, but came off sounding silly. Columnists and bloggers have been putting in their two cents. Chua has tried to clarify the point of her article, which is excerpted from her book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.

I just finished the book, and have a few quick thoughts about this:

1) The book is different than the article in the sense that you do see a narrative, and something resembling character development in Chua and especially her younger daughter Lulu. Still, Chua comes off as pretty nutty, but at least moderately self-aware.

2) As Matt Yglesias notes, “many less extreme parents subscribe to some version of this ‘video games bad, classical music good’ view of the world.” Chua takes this to an absurd and possibly cruel extreme, but her basic values are not abnormal among the well educated middle class in the United States.

3) I think that Tenured Radical is right that the real question we should pose here is whether this academically-oriented classical-music emphasizing middle-class parenting is a good thing, or should be applied universally to all children. She laments the fate of “kids who are academically unremarkable but are pushed to excel in conventional ways when they might be happier devoting themselves to sports, art, dance, cooking or hedge fund management.” She goes on to note:

the part that really fascinates me is that Chua’s desire for rote forms of perfection are being derided in a society that is, in fact, devoted to increasingly unimaginative ideas about what counts as intellectual life.  My generation and the several that have followed have mostly gutted anything that counts for progressive education.  As if that was not enough, we have even taken what used to be fairly standard and unremarkable forms of critical pedagogy and gutted those in favor of a national standardized testing agenda.  Languages, classics, art and music have been stripped from secondary curricula.  Students no longer read for fun; they read to satisfy the AP requirement.  We talk, talk, talk about excellence — but we can’t say what it means, beyond winning admission to a “selective” school.  Although Chua isn’t a person I would choose to be my mother (is there a world where you get to choose your mother?) what she describes actually reflects our current winner-take-all philosophy of what education should look like at its best.

Chua has a particularly narrow vision of success, insisting that her daughters can only play the violin or piano, cannot be in the school play, and should not really care about their social life. Obviously, other instruments are worthwhile; so are activities like drama, art, sports, and creative writing. Making friends is valuable too. So is having fun.

4) Insofar as that academically-oriented form of parenting is accepted, there is no question that Asians, broadly speaking, have mastered it. As Chua appropriately admits, there are plenty of Asians and Chinese people who employ “Western” parenting techniques, and plenty of non-Chinese who use the same methods she does (though probably not to that insane extreme), but statistics show that Asian-Americans, especially those of Chinese, Korean, and east Indian origin, do better scholastically. Politically correct people who disagree are living in denial. The secret is not genetic, it’s work ethic. These kids work harder in school. Culture and history matter. When Jewish, Italian, Polish and other immigrants came to the United States 100+ years ago, they left under conditions that had some differences and similarities, but they also came with different cultures, and thus had different academic and economic outcomes in America. The same is true of the post-1960s immigrants from Asia and elsewhere, and of the second and third generations from a variety of lands. Rather than deny this, we should try to explain it.

Of all the commentary on this piece, perhaps the best comes from my the publication I used to write for, The Harvard Crimson. Sophomore Nataliya Nedzhvetskaya argues for a middle road, for “authoritative” rather than “authoritarian” parenting. She notes:

Sorry, Amy Chua, but “Chinese mothers” are not superior. Instead, parents who promote the value of education without sacrificing their children’s autonomy are. It would be ideal to combine the best of both worlds and stress academics while giving them room for growth. It would be best to make them understand that there are more important things in life than impersonating Kim Kardashian, but let them watch enough TV to know who Kim Kardashian is. Not only will they turn out to be smart, competent human beings, but they’ll be independent, socially adept, and self-motivated.

Maybe I’m a sucker for a Kim Kardashian reference, but that balance captures my ideal perfectly. Soon, I’ll have another post about Amy Chua, looking at “The Jewish Angle” (but of course). But since I don’t have an Amy Chua breathing down my neck, it’s not ready yet.

Written by David Weinfeld

January 21, 2011 at 08:48

Asians in Universities: A Canada-US Comparison

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by Weiner

A recent Maclean’s magazine article reported that some white Canadians students worried about the growing Asian and Asian-Canadian presence of university campuses. Originally titled, “‘Too Asian’?” (now retitled “The Enrollment Controversy”), the piece noted:

When Alexandra and her friend Rachel, both graduates of Toronto’s Havergal College, an all-girls private school, were deciding which university to go to, they didn’t even bother considering the University of Toronto. “The only people from our school who went to U of T were Asian,” explains Alexandra, a second-year student who looks like a girl from an Aritzia billboard. “All the white kids,” she says, “go to Queen’s, Western and McGill.” …

Alexandra… explains her little brother wants to study hard, but is also looking for a good time—which rules out U of T, a school with an academic reputation that can be a bit of a killjoy.

Or, as Alexandra puts it—she asked that her real name not be used in this article, and broached the topic of race at universities hesitantly—a “reputation of being Asian.” ….

…an “Asian” school has come to mean one that is so academically focused that some students feel they can no longer compete or have fun. Indeed, Rachel, Alexandra and her brother belong to a growing cohort of student that’s eschewing some big-name schools over perceptions that they’re “too Asian.”….

…“Too Asian” is not about racism, say students like Alexandra: many white students simply believe that competing with Asians—both Asian Canadians and international students—requires a sacrifice of time and freedom they’re not willing to make. They complain that they can’t compete for spots in the best schools and can’t party as much as they’d like (too bad for them, most will say). Asian kids, meanwhile, say they are resented for taking the spots of white kids. “At graduation a Canadian—i.e. ‘white’—mother told me that I’m the reason her son didn’t get a space in university and that all the immigrants in the country are taking up university spots,” says Frankie Mao, a 22-year-old arts student at the University of British Columbia. “I knew it was wrong, being generalized in this category,” says Mao, “but f–k, I worked hard for it.”

The article has generated a good deal of controversy, along with spirited defence from Margaret Wente in The Globe and Mail and fierce criticism from  Jeet Heer in The National Post (as well as Heer’s response to Wente in The Walrus). There is no question that the original article, by Stephanie Findlay and Nicholas Kohler, made some sloppy arguments. As Heer correctly observes, it over-generalizes based on only a few schools and few departments, it lumps Asian foreign students with Asian-Canadians, counts east Asians but not south Asians, dismisses the plight of non-Asian foreign students, ignores working class white students (and any notion of class really) and stereotypes many groups unfairly.

And yet, Heer’s criticism of the article “obfuscates” (to use his word) as much as Wente’s defense of it does. He misses two crucial aspects of the story: 1) the potential pitfalls of Canada’s purely numbers-oriented university admissions system and 2) the very interesting–from an objective, academic perspective–statistical over-representation of students of Asian background in elite Canadian and American universities.

The Maclean’s article, along with Wente’s defense, runs off a number of statistics: 38% of Vancouver’s University of British Columbia students self-identify as white, compared to 43% as Korean, Chinese, or Japanese, in a city in which only 21.5% of the population falls into one of these three groups. In California, Asians make up 40% of the student body in public universities, despite only forming 13% of the state population. In the United States more broadly, Asians are 5% of the population but between 10 to 40% at elite colleges. They make up especially large portions at science oriented schools like Caltech and MIT.

I don’t have access to the data on-hand, but I have no reason to dispute these numbers. Rather than run away from them, however, I think we (referring to those people, regardless of race or ethnicity, interested in higher education) should try to ask questions: what do these numbers mean? How can we explain them? And to what extent, if any, should our investigation affect education policy?

The authors of the Maclean’s article insist, “that Asian students work harder is a fact born out by hard data.” I’m not sure how “hard” the data are, but I suspect that there is a great deal of truth to this assertion. But this “fact” plays out differently in different contexts. Certain Asian groups are statistically more over-represented in public American universities, Canadian universities, and science-oriented universities (CalTech, MIT) than they are in top American private schools, like the Ivies, Stanford, Duke, and elite liberal arts colleges. Why is this the case?

I’ll try to answer this question with a personal anecdote. When I applied to college, I applied to only one Canadian school, McGill. I wanted to apply for a scholarship there. In order to do so, I needed an “R” score of 33. I was never quite clear on what the “R” score was, except that it was some figure tabulated using my grades in CEGEP (a two-year non-remedial form of junior college that Quebec students attend before beginning their undergraduate career) as well as some grades from the end of my high school career. When I was applying to college, my “R” score stood at 32.9. I thought, surely, at only a fraction of a point under the requirement, some exception could be made. I called the admissions office. My father, who is a professor at McGill, called the admissions office. There would be no exceptions. I tried to tell them that I participated in extra-curricular activities. That my grades had steadily improved, and would continue to improve in my final semester at CEGEP (they did). None of this mattered. Scholarships to Canadian universities, like admissions, are a numbers game. If you don’t make the cut-off, you’re out. My R score was good enough to get in to McGill (which I did) but not good enough to even apply for a scholarship.

This was in stark contrast to my experience applying to American colleges. I applied to all the Ivy League colleges (except Dartmouth, which my parents deemed too goyish). Every one of them read my entire application. Canadian university applications often require only a transcript. American schools want much more. Beyond transcripts and standardized test scores,  elite American schools typically require an application essay (sometimes multiple essays), a CV and letters of recommendation. They also accepted poetry, artwork, musical recordings, and other evidence of extra-curricular talent. I submitted the 100 page non-fiction self-published book on baseball that I wrote at age 13 (my wife submitted her award-winning photography portfolio). I got in to Harvard, and off I went.

In setting up this contrast, the strengths and weaknesses of each approach appear quite clearly to me now. On the one hand, there’s something wonderful about the more purely “meritocratic” Canadian system. School is about academics: those with the highest grades should get in. While the Canadian system favours the wealthy, who benefit from tutors, better schools, more access to books and other class-based advantages, the American system is even more class-biased. Entire industries serve to help richer students best the SAT, write the perfect application essay and sufficiently pad their resumes. Canadian schools also lack the resources to use the more “holistic” approach that American schools do for each and every one of their applicants. Instinctively, I sympathize with the Canadian admissions system, even if I had my own (albeit very minor and ultimately inconsequential) difficulties with it.

There are benefits to the American holistic approach, though. I clearly didn’t suffer because my scholarship application was not considered. But it’s certainly conceivable that some Canadian students do suffer: students from under-privileged backgrounds who have to work jobs which cut into their studying time, or have to help raise brothers and sisters because their single parent is at work. These are the kinds of circumstances that are often communicated in application essays, which Canadian universities, because they don’t require them, never see. Indeed, even if poorer students are too ashamed to mention these things in essays, American schools demand to know the incomes of their applicants’ families, what schools their parents went to, and yes, their race and ethnicity. All these factors are carefully considered in weighing applications. Some students are advantaged by being “legacies,” i.e. their parents went to Harvard, or because they are recruited athletes (by far the most advantaged) and so they get in as well. But others are “advantaged” because they grew up on welfare, or one of their parents died when they were in elementary school, or any other reason that might compensate for a less-than-perfect academic record.

I’m frankly not sure which system is better. But implicit in the absurd and offensive question “Too Asian?” are more reasonable questions as to whether there are other admissions processes which might be more “fair,” at least in terms of admitting people of lower socio-economic status.

In comparing the article to anti-Jewish quotas at Ivy League schools before WW2, Heer misses the irony. Today, quotas in American colleges, which exist more informally than they did back then, serve to INCREASE the presence of disadvantaged minorities, namely Blacks, Latinos and Native Americans. At least that is the theory. In the famous 1978 US Supreme Court Case Regents of the University of California v. Bakke which enshrined the principle of Affirmative Action into American law, quotas were rejected, but race was allowed to be considered as a factor in university admissions in order to promote the court-sanctioned goal of diversity.

And so we get to the crux of the matter. Are Asians “disadvantaged” and do they promote or stifle “diversity”?”

Of course this is a matter of opinion. The important opinion here is those of admissions committees at selective American schools. Without all the data, I can only speculate as to their criteria. My suspicion is that Asian immigrants might be treated as somewhat disadvantaged, and thus given some preference, while the evidence seems to show that native born Asian-Americans are penalized because there are so many strong applicants that fit that ethnic profile. I don’t know if the different immigration policies in each country lead to large differences in the make-up of the Asian communities therein. Canada tends to favor educated, middle-class immigrants, so it’s possible that Asian-Canadians already have a leg-up, though I’ve heard similar theories about Asian Americans.

Again, it’s important to remember not to lump all Asians together: Chinese and Korean and south-Asian students perform better, on average, than Filipinos and Pacific Islanders. I don’t know the data for Cambodians, Thai, Vietnamese, and other groups. But the point is that even among Asian groups, and within those groups, large differences exist.

Also, while students of colour (in Canada, called “visible minorities”) face racial discrimination, many of these students at elite universities come from relatively privileged backgrounds. So determining who if anyone deserves preferential treatment in admissions requires looking at race and class. Some even argue that class-based preferences make more sense, to make sure that the iconic white “coal miner’s daughter” is not passed over in favour of a wealthy suburban African American or Latino applicant.

The take-away here is: the issue is complicated. Canadian universities’ relatively simple “meritocratic” approach avoids these difficulties. This is another huge point in its favour.

At Harvard, they used to say that they could fill their class with people who got 1600 on their SATs, or people who went to Stuyvesant High School in NYC, but that wouldn’t create the diverse student body they’re looking for. This leads to questions as to what the university’s mission is all about: is it to educate in the classroom and prepare students for careers that require some form of expertise, or is it to expose them to different cultures, to build future leaders and active participants in the local, national and international community? As an aspiring academic, I’m sympathetic to the former goal, though I also understand the desire for the latter. My impression is that in Europe, higher education seems to be about the schooling, not about “campus life.” In the United States, it’s the opposite: a rite of passage on the way to adulthood. Canada might be somewhere in the middle. And maybe that’s the right place to be.

Last, there’s the issue of explanation. Why do some Asian and Asian-American and Asian-Canadian groups perform so well in school? There are probably lots of good historical, cultural and socioeconomic explanations. But the point is that we should work to answer these questions, rather than run away from them. Let me refer to the 2004 essay by historian David Hollinger, which argues that “the failure to pursue this question implicitly fuels largely un-expressed speculations that Jews are, after all, superior.” Hollinger is right. And if you switch Jews for Asians then you have the Maclean’s story. So lets ask the question, and try to answer it.

Postscript: Since I began writing this post, Maclean’s has responded to the controversy surrounding the initial article with an emphatic defence of “merit.” It reiterates the claim that Canadian universities are “pure meritocracies.” The editors “find the trend toward race-based admission policies in some American schools deplorable.” They write:

Our article notes that Canadian universities select students regardless of race or creed. That, in our view, is the best and only acceptable approach: merit should be the sole criteria for entrance to higher education in Canada, and universities should always give preference to our best and brightest regardless of cultural background.

Again, this is true and isn’t: Canadian schools may not not discriminate based on race or creed, but they still do favour the middle and upper classes, who apply with distinct advantages. Still, I think the Canadian university admissions system is probably more fair than the American version. Last, I think the Maclean’s editors are right: Asian and Asian-Canadian academic success, like all academic success, should be celebrated. That way, humour like that of the Family Guy clip above becomes funny rather than offensive.

Written by David Weinfeld

December 4, 2010 at 18:27