now that i’m a parent, my son’s future is always at the forefront of my thoughts. i joke with HB that maybe by giving the Unreliable Narrator a guitar or encouraging an interest in poker, he can bypass college altogether and make his living as a rock star or pro poker player. those seem like much more satisfying career paths than desk jockey…even a highly-paid desk jockey.
but the fact remains that not going to college is more likely a guarantee of limited horizons than a way to a good life, so in spite of all our seemingly flippant attitudes, it does matter. quite a bit. HB and i count up our chits–both undergrads at cornell, HB a master’s degree from UW-Madison (though we’d count it a failure if the UN went to ANY college in the midwest*…), me a master’s degree and a doctorate from UC Berkeley.
i should unpack the assumptions behind college desirability which are merely implied above. why you should go to a good college, not necessarily in this order:
so it’s with a lot of ambivalence and hella baggage that i read this current snapshot of UC-Berkeley, which is almost 46% asian pacific american.
as a veteran of the toxic immigration wars of the ’90s in california, when governor pete wilson and other conservatives waged war on the poor and on immigrants in obnoxious proposition after proposition (which we opposition activists lost repeatedly in soul-dispiriting ways), i thought for sure some of the grumblings in the article would echo aggrieved chinese american families who were appalled in the late ’90s that their 4.3 GPA, SAT-acing children were denied their “rightful” spots at UCB. that vein of thinking–then as now–usually makes me cringe, as it hides a slam against “other minorities” (read: blacks and latinos) who have lower scores and yet are accepted. so-called meritocracy with a racist edge. yuck.
the “Little Asia on the Hill” NYT article quoted a yale freshman who was suing princeton for discriminatory non-acceptance. he started with the same tune as the aggrieved parents of the ’90s:
“This is just a very, very egregious system,” Mr. Li told me. “Asians are held to different standards simply because of their race.”
but then hit different notes:
Affirmative action has a neutral effect on the number of whites admitted, Mr. Li is arguing, but it raises the bar for Asians. The way Princeton selects its entering class, Mr. Li wrote in his complaint, “seems to be a calculated move by a historically white institution to protect its racial identity while at the same time maintaining a facade of progressivism.”
how intriguing. one interpretation of his argument is that instead of lashing out at unspecified (but always understood “other, less qualified”) minorities in racially problematic arguments of yore, this young man was criticizing the princeton administration for circumscribing the overall numbers of students of color and cynically overpopulating/manipulating/or limiting that category with asian pacific americans AT THE EXPENSE OF other students of color AND ALSO BY NEVER REDUCING the numbers of white students. basically, princeton is using apas to say it is diverse without actually truly diversifying the kinds of racial minorities it is open to and because the numbers of white students never change, princeton never really erodes the privilege it affords to whites. so princeton has its cake and eats it too, going for a cheap diversity and not ever dismantling white “entitlement” to attend princeton. i mean really, only 13% of the undergrads at princeton are asian? that’s shameful. as is yale at 14%. i’m sure black and latino enrollment is just as vexed and probably miniscule as well.
as i understand it, the implications of young mr. li’s argument are that more blacks and latinos can/should be admitted to princeton, along with more asian americans (like himself obviously), and that if anything the numbers of white students should fluctuate to reflect this.
in the end, it seems like hair-splitting to say princeton this, yale that…mr. li is currently attending yale (and i wonder how they like coming off as the “second choice school” in mr. li’s legal complaint?).
what’s interesting about berkeley’s campus composition versus princeton’s, for example, is how UCB has not allowed white “entitlement” to acceptance at berkeley to stand (to its credit) while balancing meritocracy uncomfortably (and unfairly) on black and latino enrollment. at least UCB chancellor robert birgenau has the decency to be appalled by the ridiculously low numbers of african american students at cal:
“I just don’t believe that in a state with three million African-Americans there is not a single engineering student for the state’s premier public university,” says the chancellor, who has called for reinstating racial preferences.
what’s in need of more investigation are the class issues among talented african americans (they seem to be attending stanford–i don’t blame them) and the generational issues among asian americans. why aren’t there better and more scholarships to fund talented african american undergrads at UCB? in terms of generational issues among apas, it’s notable to me that at UCB,
About 95 percent of Asian freshmen come from a family in which one or both parents were born outside the United States.
so does that mean slacker american born asians are going to the other UC campuses in droves? is it immigrant vigor that fuels the apa elite college boom, at least the one at the UC campuses? again, is this about a class divide wrt american borns considering elite colleges vs. those considering elite colleges born of immigrant parents? not all immigrant parents are poor if you go by socio-economic status.
i wonder, if the american born asians accrue greater social capital, will it mean less of an emphasis on getting into The Right college? because if daddy or mommy can call up Ye Old Alum and have a nice internship or first job open up for junior, then it matters less what highfalutin’ school junior went to and more that junior doesn’t screw up the chance she or he is given.
would i groom the UN to go to berkeley? well, later i might try to groom him for stanford, but 3 is a bit young to talk about grooming him for anything besides really excellent playtime.
i do know that i have reservations about a mostly-asian environment. HB and i have discussed moving to san marino or south pas or la canada in search of a great public high school. but is it any more diverse to attend an all-asian high school, even one with incredible academics, if you’re asian?
i weigh the comfortable cocoon of growing up in a predominantly asian environment with growing up in a more diverse (truly meaningful ratios of blacks to latinos to asians to whites) environment. for that reason, if the Unreliable Narrator were to grow up among the mostly chinese or taiwanese kids at san marino high who hold a lot of traditional asian values (held by traditional asian/immigrant parents) that frankly i find stifling and flat out stupid, i’d find that a detriment. HB and i did all that JOY LUCK CLUB angst and we’d like to move on now, and give the UN new difficulties and challenges. all those san marino high school kids are aiming at harvard. but is harvard worth it? (was cornell worth it, was berkeley worth it?)
in the end, i come down to this: wherever you are, it’s what you make of it. harvard could be a total waste or an incredible place to flower, or become a world-beater. harvard alone guarantees nothing. it’s what you do with your experience there that counts. and i’d hope that if anything, we teach the UN the amazing life skill of sucking the marrow out of the bones of life, wherever he is, and to the purposes and gifts for which he’s uniquely suited. of course, better to do that stanford than at Little College for Dunderheads.
*the midwest: no critical mass of asian pacific americans with whom to form community, a source of inconsequential socio-politcal-intellectual capital if you want to have any impact in new media or the arts, geographically/climatically undesirable, no forward-looking significant hub of technology or arts in the region to speak of…why bother?
or as the “Little Asia on the Hill” article put it,
BERKELEY is “Asian heaven,” as one student puts it. “When I went back East my Asian friends were like, ‘Wow, you go to Berkeley — that must be great…’”You need only go to colleges in, say, the Midwest to appreciate the Asian feel of [Berkeley].