Kindred Spirits

A good friend and former colleague of mine, now sixty-seven, still lives on the farm that next year will have been in his family a hundred twenty-five years. In his father’s heyday it produced dairy foods as well as crops, but my friend manages just the crops these days, including the maple syrup I once had for breakfast at the farmhouse with him. The farm being in a northern state, he spends much of the summer preparing for the winter, repairing the barn, bringing in the harvest, and chopping, sawing, and stacking cordwood, the farmhouse’s only source of heat. His main concession to what passes in him for age has been to leave the farm during midwinter for warmer climates.

His education was the result of the same kind of hard work that characterizes his farming: an excellent undergraduate career at the state university followed by a graduate fellowship in history at Harvard. That education took place in the 1960s, but in the intervening years it has become more difficult for people of modest means, whether from the farm or the ‘hood, to attend university: half again as hard, according to one measure.

The exception to this trend is Asian-Americans. A particularly interesting locus of fascination is California, whose people voted some years ago (Proposition 209) to end the use of racial preferences in making admission decisions in public universities.  Now, of the twenty colleges in the U. S. with the highest percentage of Asian-Americans, nine are California public universities, including all but one campus of the University of California.

What Asian-Americans often seem to have in common with my former colleague is a capacity for hard work, the result of a solid upbringing not particularly dependent on the advantages money can buy. But success will have its detractors, and so young Asians get the reputation of workhorses with résumés, who have been whipped into college by horrifying parents. One writer reports that the absurd stereotypes even go so far as to disparage the violin and piano as “Asian instruments” that white children would do well to avoid learning. Most remarkable are reports that minority enrollment in California public universities has declined since the passage of Prop 209, their authors seeming to forget that Asians are a minority—and one with a sad, dark history in California.

Before my career as a teacher I worked in another line that took me into offices in and near San Francisco. Three of my bosses, Japanese-Americans, had spent World War II in “internment” camps, one of them having been born in a camp. Another one of them one day raised his usual curtain of silence to tell me about his experience being uprooted from home at the age of ten and returning after the war to find that the family’s land was sold, or transferred, or something, to others. I am sure that his story was not unique. He went from being almost a refugee in his own country, penniless and landless, to the University of California, where he received his undergraduate and professional degrees. He died last year at the age of eighty-two, having retired from the firm that bore his name.

My current career in teaching has taken me to China, where I have had a chance to teach at schools whose student bodies are mostly Chinese. I need to deal with some stereotypes here, too. At my current school the students are applying to colleges, many of them in the U.S. They have heard what a 2009 study claims, that white students are three times more likely to be admitted to selective universities than Asian students with the same academic record. One of them, a championship debater in English with a SAT I score of 2400 and an IB predicted score of 43, has already received his first rejection, though I am sure he will receive some acceptances “before the season is quite over[1].” He and his classmates are hard-working, but they don’t go around with circles under their eyes or weal-marks on their backs. Most of the music students specialize in instruments other than piano and violin, including some real Asian instruments like the erhu. They field athletic teams that any school would be proud to have; indeed, their swimming and tennis teams would probably thrash most other schools’. And can they think independently? Hong Kong’s PISA scores of reading “reflecting and evaluating” are the third-highest in the world, suggesting that they do not just memorize, a result my experience confirms.

My former colleague on his farm in the Northern Tier would probably find some kindred spirits among these urban students fifty years his junior on the other side of the world. It is to be hoped that the people admitting them to selective colleges in the U.S. will recognize the kinship too.

[1] He was eventually accepted at Columbia from the wait list.

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