Friday, December 21, 2012

Asians: Too Smart for Their Own Good?

This is the title of a NYT opinion piece by Carolyn Chen, Director of the Asian American Studies Program at Northwestern. In it, she argues forcefully for lifting the quotas for Asian Americans at top universities, the way those were renoved for superachieving Jewish students back in the 1960s. Of course, the Asian quotas can now only be secret, which makes their fallout all the more devastating: “At highly selective colleges, the quotas are implicit, but very real. So are the psychological consequences. At Northwestern, Asian-American students tell me that they feel ashamed of their identity — that they feel viewed as a faceless bunch of geeks and virtuosos. When they succeed, their peers chalk it up to being Asian. They are too smart and hard-working for their own good.” And Amy Chua’s “tiger mom” bravado comes in for a beating since it “set back Asian kids by attributing their successes to overzealous (and even pathological) parenting rather than individual effort.

Given the current Zeitgeist, it’s hard to argue against such a passionate defense of true meritocracy (a vision whose presence in Dr. Chen’s column is also implicit). Yet, for the sake of the argument, a couple of possible concerns can be pondered briefly:

1. The word “meritocracy” had its origins in British social satire back in the 1950s.

2. As Adam Curtis’s documentaries seek to demonstrate, some individuals can, perhaps, be too smart for their own – and society’s – good (and no, he isn't picking on Asians - or Jews, for that matter).

3. The academic (and musical) successes of Asian Americans are obviously not the result only of individual effort. There must be some structural reason why a much larger proportion of any group would engage – and often excel – in specific pursuits; or do the opposite.

4. Dr. Chen claims she would still support affirmative action for underprivileged minorities. But once you make individual effort and reward the measure of all things, it’s not quite clear on what grounds any affirmative action can be supported.

These points, of course, would be mute from a mostly individualistic perspective on social practices. Dr. Chen, by the way, is an associate professor of sociology. So is Eric Klinenberg.