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Nov 24 2010

Racial lines drawn in post-secondary schools

Many of you know that I did my undergraduate degree at the University of Waterloo. A good friend who I met in my program there sent me this article from Macleans magazine:

To quell the influx of Jewish students, Ivy League schools abandoned their meritocratic admissions processes in favour of one that focused on the details of an applicant’s private life—questions about race, religion, even about the maiden name of an applicant’s mother. Schools also began looking at such intangibles as character, personality and leadership potential. Canadian universities, apart from highly competitive professional programs and faculties, don’t quiz applicants the same way, and rely entirely on transcripts. Likely that is a good thing. And yet, that meritocratic process results, especially in Canada’s elite university programs, in a concentration of Asian students.

Waterloo, for those of you who don’t know, is a school with large engineering and mathematics faculties. It is, non-coincidentally, a school with a very large east-Asian and south-Asian students, many of whom are born in China, India or Pakistan. The culture in which these students were raised puts education at a premium, particularly in fields like engineering. Waterloo was sometimes referred to, by white and Asian students alike, as “Water-Woo”, referring to the Chinese population (as opposed to a particular propensity for homeopathy). My high school in Brampton had a large population of Indian and Pakistani students who were expected to study business or accounting or a related field in university. It really didn’t matter what the kids wanted – the parents called the shots.

Once at Waterloo, it was common (though not exclusively true by any stretch) to see Chinese students associating in groups, rather than as part of multicultural groups. Part of that, I’m sure, has to do with familiarity, particularly of language. Whenever someone complained, I pointed out that nobody thought it was odd to see a group of all-white students congregating together. However, the Macleans article suggests another, perhaps more familiar to readers here, reason why this is happening:

“I do have traditional Asian parents. I feel the pressure of finding a good job and raising a good family.” That pressure helps shape more than just the way [UBC student Susie] Su handles study and school assignments; it shapes the way she interacts with her colleagues. “If I feel like it’s going to be an event where it’s all white people, I probably wouldn’t want to go,” she says. “There’s a lot of just drinking. It’s not that I don’t like white people. But you tend to hang out with people of the same race.”

Catherine Costigan, a psychology assistant prof at the University of Victoria, says it’s unsurprising that Asian students are segregated from “mainstream” campus life. She cites studies that show Chinese youth are bullied more than their non-Asian peers. As a so-called “model minority,” they are more frequently targeted because of being “too smart” and “teachers’ pets.” To counter peer ostracism and resentment, Costigan says Chinese students reaffirm their ethnicity.

Imagine you went to a school where your peers were predominantly conservative Muslims – no pub nights, regular interruptions for prayer, constant discussion of religion, and a feeling of disquiet every time you wear shorts or leave your head uncovered. Of course you’d cling to a group of people who share your more liberal, non-religious values. You’d be less likely to get involved in the community at large, and your friends would tend to come from the group that is most like you – not out of any particular aversion to Muslim students, but because you don’t feel comfortable surrounded by a culture that you don’t share.

Such is the case for the population of Chinese students who come to universities in Canada. To be sure, there are many who eschew the traditional background – or whose parents aren’t particularly traditional – and feel comfortable in mixed-race groups. This is particularly true of Canadian-born people of Chinese descent who feel a greater allegiance to other Canadian-born students than they do to the country of their parents’ birth. But because of the difference in attitudes towards school, white students are starting to feel the effects of this voluntary segregation as well:

“Too Asian” is not about racism, say students like Alexandra: many white students simply believe that competing with Asians—both Asian Canadians and international students—requires a sacrifice of time and freedom they’re not willing to make. They complain that they can’t compete for spots in the best schools and can’t party as much as they’d like (too bad for them, most will say).

I am not so quick to dismiss the disincentivization of social interaction as Macleans is though. Many of the social skills I picked up while “partying” during undergrad have been instrumental in getting me where I am today, far more than my marks have. When the degree is the only goal, we risk losing many of the other experiences that make the undergraduate degree useful, including network development and teamwork skills. Funneling students into disciplines like engineering and math (or pre-med and business) means that Asian students are less likely to study language, history, philosophy, psychology, any of the fields that are helpful in developing into a well-rounded human being. It also disincentivizes critical thinking, which will ultimately come back to bite us in the ass as a society. This has nothing, however, to do with being “too Asian” or any such nonsense – it has more to do with what we consider an ‘education’, and how we measure merit.

The sad thing is that white students are choosing to migrate further afield to schools that are more monochromatic, like Queen’s and Western. This segregation will, over time, become more deeply entrenched as people’s networks become more insular and less multicultural. This represents a challenge for Canada – do we abandon merit-based education based on marks, or do we only admit students who adhere to our nebulous definition of “Canadian culture”? Is this perhaps just a facet of privilege, as we move away from a “traditional” view of what a student is, or does this represent the actual loss of something valuable? For once, I can’t even offer an idea of an answer. Maybe one of you can.

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4 comments

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  1. 1
    Kevin

    After one advanced degree and into my second I cannot agree more strenuously with the point that it takes more than good grades in high school to excel in university. I think that’s true in technical fields as well where context is as important as technical content.

    For its part, Waterloo Engineering has a very comprehensive non-transcript based admissions process. It is somewhat infamous for tracking the quality of feeder high schools to adjust the grades they give their students. Admissions also credits students with equivalent GPA boosts for extra-curricular activities like student government, high school sports, and competitions. Perhaps the fact that you get points on your GPA means that’s what they care about most, instead of your GPA and activities (and admissions essay, etc.) going into another score. I think that admissions process and co-op are what give Waterloo a certain competitive advantage within Canada and internationally.

    There’s only so much you can do outside the classroom to boost your average, but if your overall admissions-desirability-score had academic, professional, athletic and social components it would represent those factors by proxy without giving unfair weight to academic scores. (n.b. unfair is the wrong word, but I can’t think of a better word)

  2. 2
    Katherine

    “Too Asian” is not about racism, say students like Alexandra: many white students simply believe that competing with Asians—both Asian Canadians and international students—requires a sacrifice of time and freedom they’re not willing to make. They complain that they can’t compete for spots in the best schools and can’t party as much as they’d like (too bad for them, most will say).

    I am not so quick to dismiss the disincentivization of social interaction as Macleans is though.

    I wholeheartedly agree. Among other things, we need to ask ourselves if we really want the kind of single-minded dedication to academics that is often typified among East Asian cultures. (I realize I’m making a generalization here.)

    After all, when you read about stuff like this:

    http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200806/plight-the-little-emperors

    http://www.nytimes.com/2006/01/15/magazine/15japanese.html

    …not to mention the stories you hear about both of these highly competitive countries having a high suicide rate b/c of young kids committing suicide over the pressure to succeed.

    Don’t get me wrong; there’s a lot to be said for the discipline and excellent education these countries get. But I fear they often don’t see the forest for the trees in the case of education, where so much stress is put on success that their social and emotional growth is sometimes stunted.

    Nor am I saying the west is SO AWESOME and what is wrong with those asians!111111racism111 But I think our North American obsession with being “more like East Asia/Japan, which has great education!” is misguided.

  3. 3
    Daniel Schealler

    I’ll join in with the others.

    I’ve been involved in a couple of interviews in my time where I was on the hiring side of the table. Not as the decision-maker, but just to get my input on people I would be working with.

    I’ve come across a few A+ grade graduates in my time that had no problem-solving skills. Give them a training manual, and they’ll regurgitate it back. Ask them to apply that knowledge to a slightly out-of-the-ordinary situation? They need hand-holding the entire way.

    Obviously, not all A+ students are like this. But at the end of the day, regurgitation isn’t as important as an actual skill set, and a skill set isn’t the same as knowing how to independently solve problems for yourself.

  4. 4
    Daniel Schealler

    Just realized as I hit send that this is another manifestation of a common problem – pursuing the measurement itself rather than the quality being measured.

    In this case, the pursuit of a grade as opposed to the pursuit of skills and abilities that grade is intended to quantify.

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