The Educated people are coming, there goes the Neighborhood

A recent survey tells us that in California, “white families drift away from public schools as more Asian students enroll in them — and fears over academic competition, rather than outright racism, may play the biggest role in driving the departures.” More detail: “With each arrival of an Asian American student in a high-income suburban district, .6 white students left … After adjusting their observations for moving patterns … the effect was even greater, such that each Asian student was associated with the departure of 1.5 white students.”

The article is careful to wash the white families clean of any anti-Asian prejudice. According to survey data, they do not feel repulsion or distrust toward Asians. They just don’t want their kids to be outclassed by them! That in itself is a bit racist, as if seeing members of a group not your own do better in school were some kind of injustice. The unwillingness to compete means an unwillingness to give up one’s unearned benefits. It may not be the kind of racism that Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) upheld as legal but it’s still apartheid, the refusal to be together with certain types of people– the sort of thing that inspired the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882).

And the notion of education that formats the whole thought process here, a notion seemingly shared by the fleeing families, the journalist, and the specialists being interviewed, is that the goal for which you send your kids to a certain district is to have them score a high class ranking and get into “good” colleges. To that way of thinking, the best investment in education would be to move to a district where the kids are not more capable than your own kids, but where the schooling is not catastrophically terrible or encased in physical danger. You could even forego the teaching and the homework and just generate a class ranking based on the number of bedrooms and bathrooms in the student’s house; that would save a bunch of teacher salaries and get right to the point.

Another case, I’d say, of the structural craziness of American society. In most parts of the world, if you learn that a certain school or district is where the smart kids are to be found, you do your best to get close to them. It’s worth it even if you end up being the poorest and strangest-looking family in the neighborhood. We educate each other. An education is not a commodity that you own or carry around on your keychain, it’s something we create in common. And being challenged is the central experience in that joint creation. Diamonds sharpen diamonds. If you spend your time with dullards you will lose your own edge. Just ask Mencius’s mother, whose readiness to move house for her little boy Ke’s sake is legendary.

People who move to get away from people belonging to a group deemed to be smart and hard-working aren’t just racists (whatever they may say on surveys), but self-designated mediocrities. Can a state or two be designated Non-Compete Zones for their peace of mind? And some Potemkin Harvards built on a vacant lot to make them happy?

I guess that is what politics in Florida and Texas are really about these days.

Some notes to avoid confusion.

I don’t think of Asians as a “race,” that is, as a bunch of people sharing some genetic material that automatically gives them some characteristics. Rather, in my view they are people who share some historical experiences that may suggest their adopting certain behaviors. One of those experiences, for Asian folks who show up in the United States, is being categorized as “Asian” and having certain capacities or tendencies attributed to them. Whether or not you actually exhibit the corresponding behaviors, the fact of attribution has its quantum of influence. I’ve known Asian high-schoolers, gifted for language and literary interpretation, turned away from AP programs in literature because, of course, the high school counselors looked at an Asian face and thought “computer science.”

Oh, is that a soapbox? For me? Thank you. Well, ok. Fellow White Folks from Suburbia! I speak as a former one of you who discovered that hanging out with Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese and other Asian people* was not a mode of self-punishment, but the path to some of the most rewarding experiences of my life, a path I never tire of! I think you would do well to imagine learning as a genuinely lifelong activity (I learned stuff from my students in Tuesday’s class, and am grateful), not a thing you do just to get that admissions letter that will allow you to coast for the rest of your days. You may think cosmopolitanism is a boring ideal suited to the kind of kids who join the Model U.N., but it is actually a moral task that is never defined and never completed. So get your heads out of the bucket and start looking around.

Let’s think about education not as a pie that is finite and has to be fought over, but as a chorus that gets louder and richer with more voices. My desideratum is for there to be enough different and equally honorable paths for all talents to flourish, during the time we have left on this planet’s damaged surface. It would be helpful if the Ivy League were not the reward of study (because, in actuality, I’ve been there, it’s not); it would be even more helpful if the good things that the Ivy League confers upon its students and graduates were more widely distributed; even better would be an idea of education that starts early and isn’t based on a ranking but on an agenda to discover and elevate abilities. Folks from Asia also have access to a cultural memory of an examination system that ruthlessly pruned the nation’s intellectual flowering trees for short-term rewards and long-term stultification. Let’s remember that too when we ask what education is for.

*(obviously not a comprehensive listing)