The invisible academic Asian

By Razib Khan | June 18, 2012 11:38 pm

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.

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  • http://lablemming.blogspot.com/ Lab Lemming

    On the other hand, their future careers might depend on their ability to bullshit boards of directors, stockholder representatives, or other powerful people in charge of things they don’t understand.

  • http://sjespositoweblog.wordpress.com S.J. Esposito

    #1, that’s not the issue. Instead, these students were purported to be “…the finest philosophical minds” in a student body that consists of supposedly high-achieving individuals. The ability to bullshit is totally worthless to (aspiring) philosophers, despite being a useful skill when in the possession of business-minded folks… and that worthlessness was on display when Khan approached them with an actual broad and possibly engaging question. The point is that an institution like the one above is most likely not preparing students for rather work-a-day careers; instead, they fancy themselves as preparing the next generation of the intelligencia. Whether or not they’re actually doing that is a different question entirely.

  • Charles Nydorf

    My favorite NYC Public School test prep story is that children are taught that if they see ‘homeostasis’ its probably the right answer.

  • Karl Zimmerman

    Just the other week I gave a huge number of my books, including political theory (Marx, Locke, Roseau, Mill, Nietzsche, Gramsci, etc) away to a a books for prisoners group.

    As to giving away the latter, the reasons were twofold. First, they are all no longer under copyright, and thus available in free ebook format online whenever I want to read them. Secondly, I realized I in all honesty barely read them since I graduated from my MA nine years ago, and I realized their main function was actually to make me “look smart,” not actually making me smarter in any real way.

    Anyway, the statistic about the NYC school system is not surprising. The gentrifying white population of New York is either happily childless or tends to move out of the city pretty soon after having kids (it’s a pain going on the subway with strollers!). The “breeders” are for the most part either the truly wealthy (who tend to go to private schools), or the remaining white ethnics in the outer boroughs (particularly Hasidim these days, who are not known for their educational acumen).

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    the haredi (hasidim & black hat) have their own schools.

  • Florida resident

    Dear Mr. Khan !

    1. Best wishes and blessings to your daughter and to her mother.

    2. I understand and respect your interest in the life of Bangladeshi community in USA.

    Ms. Farakh Akbar writes (in the “City Limits” article cited by you):

    “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.”

    I am very appreciative of the efforts to give the kids the best possible education. I went through this myself with respect to my own 3 kids.

    Not sure about Ms. Akbar, but you definitely understand that the group of people who
    “pay for private test prep classes”,
    does not necessarily 100% coincides with those people, whose
    “per capita income … reported in the last census as $10,479.”

    On the other hand, I am sure that a lot of New Yorkers, included in the
    “citywide figure of $22,402 [ per capita ]”,
    do not bother with test prep classes (and educating kids) at all.

    Respectfully yours, Florida resident.

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    2. I understand and respect your interest in the life of Bangladeshi community in USA.

    first hit that came up on google. i don’t actually have that strong of an interest, as i think can one infer from the general content of this weblog. if you had a misimpression, hope i’ve cleared that up!

  • Florida resident

    Thank you, Mr. Khan !
    Your F.r.

  • AG

    Verbal bluffing. Good training for salesman.

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    #9, one reason that people who verbally bluff get really pissed at me is that i instinctively try and prod them about the substance and structure of their thoughts if i know anything about what they are talking about. if i don’t know anything about a topic i don’t say much. but if you make a reference to wittgenstein i might ask you if you agree with wittgenstein part i or wittgenstein part ii… at which point people often get exasperated and pissed. fuck them.

  • ElamBend

    I attended college with several people who went to St. Paul’s, some great people, some louts. From them, I did not get the impression of academic rigor, though the opportunity exists at St. Paul (I know at least one who took advantage of it), but they were good and cramming and of working the academic system. (plus, to have attended this school, they would have good test scores and grades). It just seemed that few had any real curiosity. Based upon the stories I heard, the article rings true, in fact, I think the partying was underplayed (and the author and subject, Mr Khan, may not have participated).

    What was interesting, to me, was the comment of a recent graduate justifying it all:

    “I totally agree that the Humanities curriculum essentially teaches you how to BS, and little else. However, this was exactly what I found at the liberal arts college I went to, and has been an incredibly useful skill professionally. Sure, I sometimes wish I knew more hard facts about history, etc., but those are fairly easy to learn independently.

    Finally, as to the cost– yes, 45k+ a year is incredibly high, and few can afford it. But the author fails to mention the incredibly generous financial aid given. Directly from the SPS website “St. Paul’s has a long history of providing financial aid to families and remains committed to helping low and middle-income families afford our School. To help meet this goal, as a general rule families of admitted students who have a household income of $80,000 or less qualify for full financial aid. For families with a household income of more than $80,000, we offer generous need-based grants and scholarships to help bridge the gap between our costs and your ability to pay.” While schools like St. Paul’s may help keep the wealthy elite, they also provide incredible educations for lots of kids who otherwise would never have access to such resources and opportunities (thanks in part to great foundations like SEEDS and A Better Chance). ”

    Both paragraphs prove two of the essayist’s points: the education gained at St. Paul’s is not what it’s cracked up to be and a modicum of diversity is used make the school look better.

    The guys I knew who went to St. Paul’s were smart and could work hard, but a lot of them were great bullshitters who knew how to work the system.

  • Karl Zimmerman

    Razib,

    I was aware the Hasid & similar groups had their own schools. My point was they wouldn’t be a major group clamoring to get into NYC’s elite magnet schools.

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    #12, coo.

    The guys I knew who went to St. Paul’s were smart and could work hard, but a lot of them were great bullshitters who knew how to work the system.

    yeah. which is fine as far as it goes. you gotta make a living. what makes me livid is when habitual bullshitters try to pull that crap on me as if i’m a retard who is impressed by that. when called out to cut the crap people get really pissed, as if there has been some major norm violation. as i said, fuck you then :-)

  • April Brown

    I learned how to bullshit in liberal arts college, and that was valuable in being able to spot bullshitters, but I have to say, I LOVE it when somebody knows I’m doing it and calls me on it. In my two year stint as a high school teacher in Peace Corps, I had only two students (brother and sister), who were smart and observant and ballsy enough to call bullshit on me. I wish there had been more.

  • AG

    #10. Yes, I use the similar tactics on bullshitters and salseman all the time. One old guy claimed to be retired surgeon and bushitting all the time. And most people believe his story and called him dr. A few simple medical questions can reveal who he really is. A pretender.

    A few pointed questions can make salseman bullshitt fall apart.

  • Euler

    “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.”

    Hmm… Kind of like Dostoevsky!

  • http://@theogonia31 Shashi

    #10, I know exactly what you are talking about. For example, I have had the misfortune of attending a few Long Island atheist meet-ups and I would always be shocked at the hubris and intellectual exhibitionism (attempted) at the meetings. One particular pedant kept interrupting my discussions with obtuse observations … “We philosophers don’t think it works like …”, “As a philosopher I must ….” and just really stupid word-dropping. I decided to take him up on the irrelevant things he was bringing up ” in classical stoicism, etc” and in a matter of fifteen minutes, he revealed that Dan Dennett was an evolutionary psychologist, Steven Pinker was his favorite contemporary philosopher and he did not like neuroscientists even though he failed to name a single neuroscientist and admitted to having never read any Dan Dennett or Pinker books. I asked him bluntly in while everyone was listening, why he was so over-opinionated about topics that he was clearly undereducated about, hijacking every conversation with an aim to impress with sophistry. The guy admitted to not being a (professional) philosopher at all but was unemployed and attending community college where he had taken Intro to Philosophy.

    Needless to say, this was not a rare event in Atheist meet-ups as I learned that it served as little more than a frat house for all these people who are godless by complete accidents but are otherwise just everything I would despise in people. “yeah, I know, the amygdla or something liek that, that’s where god spot is, i read a research”, “group x is so stupid, we are so clever…blah blah blah”

    I quit that group after three meetings.

  • ElamBend

    @ Razib: I agree, there is nothing more dangerous than a clever soul who starts to believe his own bullshit. One of my college room mates actually cried a couple of times when he was called out. Those were particularly egregious times when it couldn’t be avoided, otherwise, I’m a bit ashamed to admit; I’m too timid to call people out directly.

  • AG

    http://www.amazon.com/Liars-Poker-Michael-Lewis/dp/039333869X/ref=la_B000APZ33E_1_4?ie=UTF8&qid=1340149790&sr=1-4

    Those elite private bullshitters/salesman trainings are very useful in USA since there are enough dull people believing them.

    They sell craps and people are willing to pay high price for them. Yes, Liar’s poker game. Deception works in a society where people buy into it. So these bullshitters/scam artist/salesman work perfectly here. At end, enough people believe the shit and high price for the shit stays just like price of Jaguar. If you believe it, you do not feel cheated.

  • Spike Gomes

    #14
    Same here, sometimes bullshitters don’t even realize they’re bullshitting. That’s why I’m happy when someone who knows better schools me and schools me hard when I’m talking out of my ass. It’s the best way to correct misunderstandings because it sticks with you hard. Anyone who doesn’t get that has far too much ego to ever get out of the ideologies they construct around themselves.

    Just as a general note, even worse than being fed a bullshit line is being patronized as someone far too stupid to even grasp their facile shows of intellectual superiority. Being that I don’t look like a well-read person, enjoy manual labor and often affect an islander demeanor and pidgen accent, I can get dismissed as not worth the status display, which is maddening and amusing.

  • Tom Bri

    I have one article on line that gets more traffic from Google India than from any other source. An article on how to motivate kids to study. Every other article gets more hits from Google than anything else.

  • ackbark

    It’s like getting a diploma from the Wizard of Oz.

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This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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