Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Slipping Through The Cracks.

Asian Students And Critical Thinking.

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.


  1. That Wesley Yang article. I just shake my head and sigh hard every time I see an "Asian" article written for white people.

    Anyway, I agree on all your points Ben. I've never felt 100% comfortable in English classes because of improper engagement. One teacher assumed the Asian students were all immigrants when we were born in America. Another would only respond to my questions or input with shorter responses than other students.

    Good point on our high bullying rates stifling creativity, it's something I didn't realize yet makes too much sense. Why raise your hand and raw attention to yourself if you're just going to get more shit for it?

    1. Anonymous

      Welcome and thanks for your comment.

      Yes, how anti-Asian racism manifests in the classroom is a huge gap in our knowledge, and it seems almost guaranteed that stereotyping is present in how teachers engage with Asian students.

  2. asian parents just focus on money. those that are talented are then faced with a racist media. solutions are then to play whitey game. they end up becoming whitewashed sellouts. the peak of asian success in the west is being a sellout. in the east, its different , but because eastern culture cannot spread itself to create novelty for a savvy western audience, it ends up on relying on mystique and tradition that never goes beyond the superficial scratching of the surface, bar a few genuine artists who are fortunate enough to have their voice heard.

    back to the original point, are asians creative? no, because its easier just to ape what exists because when they are, attempts at originality dont pay off due to the above established system of creative acceptance of society

    round and round the merrygoround it goes

    1. Anonymous


      I tend to think that Asian parents are trusting - they take it for granted that educators can be trusted to be unbiased in the classroom. I question this assumption for the reasons given in the post. Plus, I think that what people take to be "savvy" in western audience is often little more than chauvinism against anything non-western.

      But overall, ı would disagree that Asians are not creative, but I also think that non-Asians overrate their own creativity. In any case, I think that subjects of Asian-American creativity, critical thinking, and creativity, can only be understood via the framework of the experience of Asians growing up in the US and being educated in American schools. What role does educator bias, high rates of racial bullying, and unequal engagement between Asian students and educators, play in the supposed inability of Asian-Americans to become leaders, or think critically?

      I think that if we start to investigate these possibilities then we will probably find that wider social hierarchies are being reinforced in the classroom to the detriment of Asian children.

    2. yeahm agree largely with what you say, going by say, the youtube crowd, creativity is there. but its like as i say, its superficial because its pandering to the lowest common denominator in order to make the bucks. its hard to say what that creativty could do if it wasnt constrained by those limitations, i have no comment on the role of educator, but personally i dont trust institutions to do anything creatively for people. creativity in my opinion is something you either have or havent. its nurtured by the individual and supported by the parents.

      in that respect its up to the asian individual to fight hard against those social hierachies and create a force of their own. that the majority dont fight hard enough is maybe just down to the asian personality - practical etc.

      basically, an asian in the west has no excuse not to be creative, the only issue is the practical monetary rewards from doing it, which is parental pressure, once again. and as i tried to state above, trying to make it in a white world.

      and i have no idea what negative effect racial bullying has on a persons creativity. in many ways an artist who chooses solitude to paint melancholy pictures is expressing his sadness maybe as a result of that bullying. to me, thats not negative, its a motivation. at least to a person who is strong enough. maybe to a person who is 'weaker' you may be right.

      again what is a 'weak' asian and a 'strong'one.like many things with the asian dilemma, many things are unmeasurable and unquantifyable, which is why most of asian culture and society is just based on 'getting by' and the 'bottom line'. because with so many variables, creativity is not seen as a worthy or practical endeavour

  3. One problem I've noticed is that any time an Asian tries to be creative or avant garde, it's just dismissed with the stereotype that Asians are so weird, foreign, and whacky. I'm sure you've seen the comment "Japan's so weird" in some youtube video or something. It feels like there's a conflict in stereotypes where Asians are supposed to be boring and uncreative while being so weird and foreign at the same time.

    1. agreed, kind of like what ben said above. non-asians overrate their own creativity and everyone is taught to worship it. regarding the stereotypes, you can see how the racial structure is set up - asians are damned if you do, damned if you dont. set up so that we cannot win.

      this is another reason that playing the white game doesnt work and being a SOW doesnt work unless you deliberately set out to attack and brutalise the existing white social hierarchy. anything else would just come across as a 'whiney'model minority.

      its serious gutsy with little reward given how passive and pathetic the majority of our asian peers are. but still possible.

  4. Hi Ben, by what measure are Asian-Americans rated as less creative? Was there a study of sorts?

  5. Hi Ben, was there a study where creativity was measured for this claim?

    1. Not that I know of. But it is one of those axiomatic things that gets casually thrown about when people want to explain the reason for the under-representation of Asians in leadership roles and such.

      In my experience most of the time when people want to push this particular point they will point out things such as low Nobel prize winning percentages, or lower number of published scientific papers per country.

    2. Well Nobel prizes handicaps East Asians as they have none for engineering and some of the natural sciences as well. And published papers have exploded recently from China [http://www.scimagojr.com/countryrank.php] China is almost on engineering parity with the USA for example.

    3. I agree - there is actually an Asian scientist suing the Nobel company for misrepresenting him and his work, and I think that there is also a growing dissatisfaction with the Nobel "system".

      I had actually read that China is on the verge of reaching parity with the US for published papers. All of it just highlights how prejudices can be held by intelligent and rational people based on the most flimsy pretexts.

  6. Incredibly well-written post, Ben!

    2 points that I want to make:

    1) The whole "Asians lack creativity" argument is an after-the-fact justification for discriminating against Asians. There is an explicit or implicit quota for restricting Asian presence at top schools, board rooms, places of power, etc. The "lacking creativity and leadership" argument is one that is made AFTER the decision to exclude, in order to justify the prejudiced exclusion.

    2) Non-Asian Americans greatly overrate their own creativity, while Asian Americans often buy into the myth that their racial strength is in memorization instead of innovation. A lot of (non-Asian) Americans assume that if they're unskilled in math and science, then they MUST be creative because they like to finger paint and take Instagram pictures.

    1. Hi CJL


      Those are good points and it is sad that so many Asian-Americans buy into it without much questioning.