What would Asians do?

I feel the need to comment on a recent article that has been brought to my attention repeatedly from different directions. In this year’s annual Macleans university rankings issue, an article made observations about how certain universities have high population of Asian students. All sides read offense in it somehow. An uproar ensues.

So, let’s begin the deconstruction.

It’s entirely true that some of these universities have racial breakdowns that wouldn’t necessarily be representative of the communities in which the university resides. Well of course, students don’t just attend a school because it’s local, but also for their chosen field of study. Do the “white” kids have different aspirations than “Asian” kids? I would venture to say that, aside from minor cultural background variances introduced on the part of parents, most children who grow up here will have a similar breakdown in terms of career aspirations (barring social and financial factors, which are separate problems entirely and should not be confused with this).

So why would students on an equal financial footing and with the same aspirations seek different schools? There are a few different possibilities here, most notably being the question of entrance grades. The competition for some of the programs at these schools is absolutely fierce. It is, at any rate, the result of a supply and demand based industry, where the students far outweigh the available seats (figuratively, as well as literally) at the so called “good” schools. What makes these schools better? An ideal answer would be that the combination of distinguished professors and other high achiever students create an environment perfect for intensive study. Bullshit. Distinguished professors aren’t necessarily good teachers, and it’s your own hard work that makes you a better student, not somebody else’s. The real problem is that a self-fulfilling prophecy keeps syphoning a lot of the good professors to the same few schools because that’s where all the political money is being spent, while there seems to be a gap in the amount of hard work students are willing to put in that falls roughly along racial lines.

Or does it? Let me tell a story that is particular apt for this discussion because it deals with Asians. In the 1980s, immigrants from Hong Kong and Taiwan made up a significant proportion of the Chinese community in Toronto. As a result, there was a significant demand for Chinese heritage education via night and weekend classes which caused the schools to require preregistration and waiting lists for enrollment. Of course, this education requires hard work (because the children had more homework on top of the regular day school material). By the mid 2000s, these numbers had dwindled, mostly coinciding with changes in the sources of new immigrants, but is there not still a significant Chinese community in Toronto? Are there not children of immigrants who probably should be entering the same programs? (It’s actually slightly more complicated, involving different written languages and politics, but this is the gist of it.)

There is one personal character trait that can be generalized to all immigrants, and that is the spirit to drop everything that is familiar, travel to a strange new place, and start anew (what revered UW macroeconomics prof Larry Smith would term “animal spirits”). This trait is not necessarily true of non-immigrants. So, while the children of first generation immigrants are forced (and thus accustomed) to really working hard over and beyond the norm, the prevalence of this trait starts petering out by the second generation. So while no one except the First Nations can actually claim to be native (to be even more technical, they once were immigrants too, just a longer time ago), we have lost some of the drive over time as we settled in.

That there is the real underlying problem, that we don’t all instill in the next generation the requisite character traits of working hard, something that all immigrants must deal with because for the time being they will always be climbing an uphill battle to become part of the community.

The racial lines that have been drawn on this issue are artificial. If it wasn’t one immigrant group it would be another. You can go the American way and implement student race quotas, but then all you’re doing is reducing universities from their intended function: from places of higher learning to a “must see” attraction. I want engineers and doctors who care about what they do, not people who went to a certain school because they wanted to experience the life of an undergrad. Incidentally, the undergrad experience is the same no matter which school you attend. I take offence at the thought that somehow Waterloo engineers work hard but don’t play hard too. Damn it, we drink rum straight!

Releasing next year on XBox 360: “Freshman: The University Experience”. Rated M for gratuitous alcohol and stupid pranks.

(The article has declined to consider that the arts and medical faculties at these same schools may have considerably different racial breakdowns than science, math and engineering, and that McGill also ranks in the world’s top science and engineering schools along with UofT and UBC, but for some reason is not too Asian.)

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