Where Cherished Values Collide

Margaret Wente, Toronto Globe and Mail, November 23, 2010

Oh, dear. Maclean’s has stepped in it again. “Too Asian?” it asked provocatively in its universities issue. The article alleged that some preppy, privileged white kids seem to think so. They’re passing up campuses like the University of Toronto and the University of British Columbia because they’re afraid they’ll have to work too hard to keep up with the growing number of Asian kids. They want to drink and party and play volleyball, and Asian students just want to study hard and get A-pluses.

Vicious ethnic stereotyping? I don’t think so. The headline was a (perhaps too) cheeky hook for an important subject. But others did not agree. “Disgracefully xenophobic,” fumed some. “Racist,” insisted others. The harshest criticism came from those who saw alarming parallels between the attitudes expressed in the article and the attitudes of white elites in the 1920s who imposed Jewish quotas. “It echoes the anti-Semitism of old–that a disproportionate number of Jewish kids were coming into the Ivy League,” argued Jeet Heer on the CBC radio show Q. Because he took a shot at me during the show (and because the subject is important), I shall now attempt to explain why neither I nor Maclean’s are anti-Asian.

The growing Asian presence on North American campuses is a big story–culturally, demographically, politically. It’s also a story that pits some of our most cherished values against each other. We believe that our public universities should broadly reflect society. We also believe they should be meritocratic. But what if those two values collide?

Consider the University of California at Berkeley, once famous for its hippie radicals and free-speech rallies. These days, all is quiet on the campus, because everyone is studying. Although Asian-Americans make up about 12 per cent of California’s population, Berkeley’s current freshman class is 42 per cent Asian, and the unofficial second language is Mandarin. Most of the Asian students are the kids of immigrants. So what’s the draw? As freshman Jonathan Hu explained to The New York Times, “It’s the intellectual atmosphere–this place is intense.”

Asians make up less than 5 per cent of the U.S. population, but 10 to 30 per cent of students at the top colleges. Yet because of affirmative action (i.e., racial engineering), Asians applying to top U.S. schools need significantly higher SAT scores than other groups. In that way they are, indeed, the new Jews. If academic performance were all that counted, the numbers would be even higher.

They are the new Jews in other ways as well. Many Asian kids come from cultures where children are supposed to work hard and defer gratification, and where being educated is the most honourable thing to do. Both cultures, not coincidentally, are also known for pushy parents.

UBC is currently the most Asian campus in Canada. While Chinese-, Korean- and Japanese-Canadians make up only 21.5 per cent of Vancouver’s residents, they make up 43 per cent of UBC undergraduates. Because of high Asian immigration rates to Canada, the numbers are bound to increase. But here, the Jewish analogy breaks down–nobody is talking about quotas. (Least of all me.) If anything, they’re talking about how to instill a less self-indulgent work ethic among kids who’ve been raised on the gospel of self-actualization and self-esteem.

The rise of the Asian campus is a good thing. It reflects the meritocracy at work. It also introduces a variety of important social questions. We shouldn’t be too timid to discuss them.

[The Macleans article “‘Too Asian’?” can be read here.]

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