In Chris Hayes’ piece in The Nation, Why Elites Fail, there is a particular lacunae which I noted: he does not make it clear to a non-New York audience which is well known to any New York based reader: elite public schools in the city are dominated by Asians. I pointed this out to both Hayes and Matt Yglesias on Twitter. Hayes makes much of the advantages accrued to the wealthy via test prep, but neglects to mention the racialized cast of this: test prep and competition for these public school slots is driven by the children of Asian immigrants. Consider, Test Fuels Anxiety—And An Industry:
The challenging test, known as the “Sci-Hi” exam for short, consists of a math and verbal sections. More than 27,000 kids took the test last fall. Only about one in five students wins admission to the specialized high schools. Asians and South Asians were 57 percent of the students who learned in February that they’ve been admitted to one of the eight competitive specialized high schools.
The city’s Department of Education offers free prep classes for economically disadvantaged students. But many immigrant families pay for private test prep classes despite having incomes that in many cases are low: In the case of Bangladeshis, their per capita income in New York City was reported in the last census as $10,479—less than half of the citywide figure of $22,402. Mostly by word of mouth over the years, the Bangladeshi community of New York City picked up on the importance of these schools, valued by previous generations of working class immigrants as a stepping stone to American mainstream.
As I have said before, South Korea is a great nation, but I do not think the USA should emulate South Korea, or many other Asian nations, in the fixation on test prep. The tests are supposed to measure something real, they are not the ends in and of themselves. But that’s not how it seems when you’re a kid whose future depends on the test.
In contrast to New York public schools, see this write-up about an elite private school by Austin Bramwell (himself, a graduate of the school in question). This section is horrifying, but not surprising to me:
By this method, St. Paul’s claims to inculcate nothing less than mastery of Western (if not world) civilization. According to course descriptions, the third form (ninth grade) Humanities curriculum follows the “central ideas in the Western tradition through literature, religion, and history.” In fifth form (11th grade), students “encounter … a rich interdisciplinary study of European civilization from the beginnings of the Renaissance to the First World War, integrating [sic] literary, visual, musical, historical, philosophical, and religious themes that help develop perspectives useful to the understanding the complexities of the twenty-first century.” If one takes these words at face value, St. Paul’s routinely graduates an army of young Arnold Toynbees.
Not surprisingly, the reality is somewhat less impressive. During his year teaching at St. Paul’s, two seniors asked Khan to lead them on an independent study of Spinoza, Nietzsche, and Kant. Bemused by their ambitious proposal, Khan agreed, only to find on the first day of class that the two boys—described by their former Humanities instructor as “two of the finest philosophical minds in the school”—were unable, when asked to define the Enlightenment, “to generate any ideas that might even loosely connect with Enlightenment developments.” It turns out that they did not even know who Spinoza was. They only chose the name because it sounded cool. St. Paul’s teaches 17-year-olds that, no matter how ignorant, they can bluff their way through anything. After all, the two boys who approached Khan had already persuaded their Humanities teacher that they had the makings of fine philosophers.
According to the theory of the Humanities curriculum, knowledge doesn’t matter. Students are rewarded for blurting out “Like Everyman!” or “Kinda like Dostoevsky!” but not for knowing who wrote The Prince or who fought the Peloponnesian War. Arch-humanist Francois Rabelais recommended that one learn at least five ancient languages, memorize the best texts, and keep one’s mind well stocked with every tale from history. St. Paul’s recommends instead that to keep one’s mind wholly un-stocked by anything. St. Paul’s own claim that Humanities helps “develop perspectives useful to the understanding the complexities of the twenty-first century”—whatever that means—gives the game away: a claim need not be true so long as it sounds impressive. In a twist that Rabelais, the old scatologist, might have enjoyed, St. Paul’s teaches not knowledge but bullshit.
I assume that Bramwell exaggerates somewhat for literary effect. But this “name-checking” sounds all too familiar to me. It’s more disgusting than being plainly stupid. If one is given the gift of intelligence, one should attempt to cultivate it with decent humility and a genuine sincere striving toward excellence, not the pretense of intelligence suitable only to impress the dull. One’s life is finite. What will you say when you face your inevitable death? That you applied your mind to impressing callow adolescents and gullible adults, rather than daring to actually understand something deeper about the world to which you are are but a stranger? That’s why I react with such disgust to those who leave comments more to show off their false erudition or preen and prance about, signalling to their ideological peers their suitability and virtuosity. How one wastes one’s own life is a matter of personal choice. How you waste the seconds of the lives of others is a matter of grave concern.