Education: The New Whiz Kids

Why Asian Americans are doing so well, and what it costs them

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Ted Thai

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How then to explain the accomplishment of children whose refugee parents were less well educated? One claim is that Asians are simply smarter than other groups. A subscriber to this theory is Arthur Jensen, a controversial Berkeley educational psychologist. Jensen tested Asian children — 500 in San Francisco and 8,000 in Hong Kong — then compared the results with tests of 1,000 white American children in Bakersfield, Calif. He contends that the children with Asian backgrounds averaged ten I.Q. points higher than the whites, and believes there are "genetic differences" in the rate at which Asians and whites mature mentally.

Most researchers are unconvinced by the natural-superiority argument. But many do believe there is something in Asian culture that breeds success, perhaps Confucian ideals that stress family values and emphasize education. Sociologist William Liu, of the University of Illinois at Chicago, argues that immigrants from Asian countries with the strongest Confucian influence — Japan, Korea, China and Viet Nam — perform best. "The Confucian ethic," he says, "drives people to work, excel and repay the debt they owe their parents." By comparison, San Diego's Rumbaut points out, Laotians and Cambodians, who do somewhat less well, have a gentler, Buddhist approach to life.

Both the genetic and the cultural explanations for academic success worry Asian Americans because of fears that they feed racial stereotyping. Many can remember when Chinese, Japanese and Filipino immigrants were the victims of undisguised public ostracism and discriminatory laws. Indeed, it was not until 1952 that legislation giving all Asian immigrants the right to citizenship was enacted. "Years ago," complains Virginia Kee, a high school teacher in New York's Chinatown, "they used to think you were Fu Manchu or Charlie Chan. ; Then they thought you must own a laundry or restaurant. Now they think all we know how to do is sit in front of a computer." Says Thomas Law, a student at Brooklyn Law School: "We're sick and tired of being seen as the exotic Orientals."

He and other young Asian Americans are also exasperated with being seen as "grade grinds" who do nothing but study. Asks an indignant Henry Der, who heads Chinese for Affirmative Action: "Is anyone telling black and Hispanic kids to engage in extracurricular activities? No, they are being told to study." Moreover, a 1984 study by Samuel Peng, of the Department of Education, showed that Asian Americans actually do participate in a broad range of extracurricular activities, much as other U.S. students do. Nearly a third of the Asian Americans he studied competed on varsity athletic teams, and more than 20% were active in student government. Still, the image of Asian Americans as relentless bookworms persists. "If you are weak in math or science and find yourself assigned to a class with a majority of Asian kids, the only thing to do is transfer to a different section," says a white Yale sophomore.

The performance of Asian Americans also triggers resentment and tension. "Anti-Asian activity in the form of violence, vandalism, harassment and intimidation continues to occur across the nation," the U.S. Civil Rights Commission declared last year. The situation can be particularly rough in inner-city schools. Young immigrant Asians complain that they are called "Chink" or "Chop Suey" and are constantly threatened. At New York City's Washington Irving High School, for example, there were reports last year of some 40 incidents of harassment and violence against Asian-American students.

To Asian-American activists, one of the most serious signs of discrimination is the admissions quotas they believe leading universities have established. "If you are an Asian-American student applying to Harvard, you have the lowest chance of getting in," says Peter Kiang, who teaches Asian-American studies at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. John Bunzel, a senior research fellow at the Hoover Institution, a conservative think tank at Stanford, says he has found indications that Stanford, Harvard, Princeton and Brown discriminate against Asian Americans in their admissions policy.

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