During my research for my recent post called "Seven Things", I revisited the essay of Wesley Yang from a couple of years ago in which he detailed with angst-driven-drama the follies of raising Asian kids the "Asian Way". Overall, I found Yang's piece to, frustratingly, rely too heavily on presumptions informed by racial stereotypes rather than legitimate research. Yet, in re-reading the article, one point stood out for me which I didn't address in my original commentary on the piece........
It’s racist to think that any given Asian individual is unlikely to be creative or risk-taking. It’s simple cultural observation to say that a group whose education has historically focused on rote memorization and “pumping the iron of math” is, on aggregate, unlikely to yield many people inclined to challenge authority or break with inherited ways of doing things.This was an intriguing point and one that seems to present a fairly common belief about Asian cultures and the minds that they produce. I hear this a lot in Asian-America as one explanation for a number of seeming deficiencies in the Asian character that hinder our abilities to function effectively in American society, from attaining leadership positions, to being supposedly uncreative, poor critical thinkers, or just being unable to "pick up chicks". The sentiment being expressed here is that Asian culture as manifested through "Asian" educational systems churn out automatons with no charisma, leadership skills, or critical thinking skills. In my "Seven Things" post I already outlined how the "Asians are compliant" axiom fails to correspond to the reality of the historical record, or the regularly reported fact of Asian non-compliance in their (oftentimes life-risking) engagement with their governments.
Funnily enough, though, in Yang's case (and most for Asians raised in the US) the school systems in Asia are not - indeed cannot possibly be - the problem here. What no-one seems to notice is that Yang (like most Asians raised in the US) was actually educated in American schools by American teachers using the American educational curriculum, yet, somehow through some unspecified process - apparently metaphysical in nature - the ghost of "Asian" education supersedes and exerts a greater influence over the abilities of children who never went through any Asian system than the eight-or-so-hours-a-day, five-days-a-week spent in American schools since first-grade.
Let's be clear about what is being said here; despite being entirely educated in the American education system, Yang implies that some of the character qualities and thinking abilities of some Asian-Americans may be more heavily influenced by the education system of some country thousands of miles away, where they never actually attended school, than the twelve years, or so, of the education they received in the American system by American teachers. This is plain nonsense.
It is actually a somewhat commonly accepted notion that Asian-American students lack a creative spark and the ability to reason critically that puts them at a disadvantage in the real world. This is most commonly heard in discussions on college admissions policies that reportedly find Asian-American students wanting in these areas, and also in discussions on the dearth of Asians in leadership, or management positions. The "Asian" system of rote memorization is often blamed yet, it is never explained how this could possibly affect Asian-Americans whose schooling took place entirely (or almost entirely) in the US - where, I'm told, education prizes critical thinking and creativity.
This raises some uncomfortable questions about how American educators engage with students of Asian descent in the school environment - if it is true, then why are Asian-American students graduating from American secondary education, and even college, without the ability to think critically or creatively? The nonsense of placing blame on Asian education systems allows us to conveniently avoid looking at the other, more probable, possibility that American schools and the educators who run them are failing the Asian students they are charged with educating. Usually it is the children themselves who are blamed, yet, it is difficult to imagine how students who, generally, have sufficient IQs, full family and community support, and who (by all accounts) are extremely attentive in the classroom, could not be capable of learning critical thinking skills or even creativity.
No, there has to be a problem in the way that Asian students are engaged by educators in the education system. If it is true that Asian students come through the American system without these important skills, then there are two possibilities; either the system itself is over-rating its own ability to teach children how to think, or educators are engaging with Asian students in such a way that these skills are not being imparted. The former point doesn't carry much weight because - again I'm told - that there are plenty of non-Asians who go through the system who have learned amazing thinking skills, so, apparently, the system works for some. This leaves the educators themselves and the way that Asian students are engaged in the classroom.
A common theme of my blog is to examine the profound anti-Asian hostility embedded in American culture - and acknowledging this may give us some insight into the nature of interactions between Asian-American students and American educators. In American culture, Asians are almost universally dehumanized and vilified in the rhetoric of its politicians. This cultural racism is so pervasive and accepted that it serves as the model for the permissiveness of racist behaviour towards Asians - as evidenced by the permissiveness of comfortable anti-Asian racist behaviour and sentiment in broadcast media. Furthermore, it limits the scope of how Asians can be conceived of such that mainstream America can "know" about us - and act accordingly - based entirely on their own cultural misrepresentations. I see no reason why educators would, as a rule, have a way of conceiving of Asians that is different or less demeaning than what is accepted as the cultural norm.
I'm not necessarily saying that educators are explicitly demeaning Asian students (although I don't rule this out), just that their engagement with the Asian students may be reinforcing stereotypes, and racial hierarchies. For example, have any of you Asian readers ever been in a situation - like I have - in which you came up with a great idea in your job, that everyone in the room ignored, only to have some white dude suggest exactly the same things minutes later and for everyone to jump on it like it was the most fantastic thing ever? The truth is - and we all know it - that American culture exalts the contributions of white males but downplays those of everyone else. There are studies that show that educators give more weight and attention to the input of boys than they do to girls - possibly because culturally we are conditioned to believe that boys (particularly Caucasian boys) have more value. It may be that this same process may be skewing how educators engage with Asian students in the classroom. For example, white boys may be given more time and opportunity to speak up in the classroom than their Asian counter-parts, and perhaps their input receives undue greater positive reinforcement than that of Asian students.
Given that we know this phenomenon exists across gender, it doesn't seem far-fetched that race might be a factor in educator engagement in the classroom - particularly for a group that is openly derided and dehumanized. Furthermore, given that American culture models racist behaviour towards Asians as normative, the question has to be asked how much racism is considered permissive in the classroom. If it is normal and acceptable for American culture to mock and deride the racial characteristics, contributions, or even achievements, of Asian people, then one wonders if this attitude is somehow reinforced in the classroom - hierarchies being reinforced by permitting demeaning behaviour towards Asian students.
In summary, we have a situation in which American students of Asian descent are charged with lacking creativity, and the ability to think critically. At the same time we know that as a general rule that the students in question (those with college potential) record high IQ levels, strong family support, strong community culture of educational attainment, as well as strong participation in extra-curricula activities. Bear in mind also, that America's educators take great pride in the fact that they have been able to take black and Latino students from impoverished, violent, criminal, abused backgrounds, with no parental, or community support, and turn them into good students.Yet, despite their seemingly advantageous background, Asian-American students are graduating high schools across the country supposedly unable to think or innovate? Even more implausibly still, it is implied - by Asians like Yang, and non-Asians alike - that the "Asian System" of rote memorization may bear some responsibility for this state of affairs.
I maintain that this is a ludicrous theory and that if Asian-American students are, indeed, failing to learn critical thinking in the American school system, then it is the American system and/or the American educators who bear responsibility for this - not some foreign school system thousands of miles away. Of course, there are those who would move the goalposts and argue that "Asian" culture teaches non-questioning compliance and, so, this is to blame. But what this would mean is that Asian parents are actively telling their children to not comply (like the irony?) with their American teachers' methods of supposedly teaching critical thinking. We all know that this is nonsense.
A more likely scenario is that anti-Asian prejudice is seeping into the classroom environment and may be shaping the manner in which American educators engage with Asian students. This is not far-fetched given that we know that Asian children experience higher levels of racial bullying in American schools - that in itself may partially account for why some Asian kids stay silent in the classroom, and itself raises questions of how much racist behaviour is permitted in the classroom.
Of course, blaming Asian culture is moot if it turns out that Asians have no problem thinking critically, and that these accusations exist solely as a means for justifying discrimination in the workplace and college admissions. With that in mind I will leave you with this link to a study that purports to show the abilities of students around the world to......
......to apply knowledge and skills in key subject areas and to their ability to analyse, reason and communicate effectively as they pose, interpret and solve problems in a variety of situations....that is, think critically. Korean students scored highest (along with Finns), and Japanese students were in the top five.