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Should the Ivies Cap the Number of Asians?: An Argument Against “Meritocracy”

Andover_Hall,_Harvard_Divinity_School_-_general_viewI know what many of you are thinking, “Oh look, a black guy against relying only on grades and tests scores to decide college admissions. What a surprise.” And yes, I am against test scores and GPA’s being the sole determining factor for deciding who does and does not get into America’s top universities, and apparently some universities are too. But what this boils down to is a lot more than just an issue of race. It’s about what the purpose of education is, what being intelligent means and what the best possible education actually looks like for top students. And for all these reasons, I support universities having the right to create the most diverse student bodies possible, even it means going against what many would mistakenly call “meritocracy.”

Before I go any further, let me explain what brought all this up. A few weeks ago, NSB’s resident comedian, Dan Wiberg, thought it would be funny to toss a bomb into the editorial staff’s message thread. He shared a link to an LA Times’ article exploring whether or not Asian Americans have to over perform to get into the Ivies, and a long discussion ensued.

Just to be perfectly clear, I am against raising standards on any group as a way to keep them out of any business, institution, school, position, whatever. That is discriminatory and it is intolerable. However, that’s not exactly what we’re talking about here. What we’re talking about is trying to prevent one segment of society from benefiting from top notch education at rates that significantly surpasses their representation in society. When it comes to the Ivy League, for example, Asian Americans make up 16% of the students while only being 4% of the general population. In California they makeup 40-70% of the student body at some public universities while comprising only 15% of the State’s population.  For me, my issue with this has nothing to do with Asian Americans. It’s entirely about my belief that no segment of society should be vastly over represented at top schools. This is because I believe that when this happens it is a sure sign that the pathway to get into top schools has been either made unfairly preferential or ridiculously narrow. What I mean by narrow is only considering things such as grades and test scores, which some claim to be meritocratic, while ignoring things like potential, circumstances and the intrinsic educational value of having a diverse student body.

students-taking_testOne of my main concerns with “pure meritocracy” is that it will cause our education system to become like East Asia’s, specifically China’s and Korea’s. For nearly six years I worked in the textbook publishing industry in South Korea’s hyper competitive education system. In both Korea and China, grades and tests scores are everything. Students sometimes do 16 hour days between school and after school programs. The result? Korea has the second best test scores in the world. Quite an accomplishment. However, it also has the unhappiest children in the world, and that’s according to the children themselves. The level of competition and stress placed on these children is so high that between 43-47% of them admit to having contemplated suicide and more than a few have gone through with it after feeling that they did badly on Korea’s equivalent to the SATs. Along with the fact that this kind of hyper-competition and stressful approach to education makes children miserable and the UN has called it a violation of a child’s “right to play,” many experts also believe this style of rote memorization as a means of preparing for standardized tests is producing students who have little to no ability to think creatively. In fact, the German coach for South Korea’s national soccer team recently came out and questioned the Korean education system because of his players’ inability to improvise during games.

Think this could never happen in America? Well, the model for academic success seen in the Asian American community is completely based on how education is done in places like Korea. Parents drive their children hard, pay for extra classes and private tutors and demand excellence, and it has worked out, in terms of good grades and test scores. But there is more to life than good grades and there is more to being smart than good test scores and if that is all a school is allowed to consider in admitting students, then that means parents all over the country will be forced to follow the lead of the most hyper-competitive in their ranks. It also means a family’s wealth becomes an even bigger factor than it already is since on top of school systems being unequally funded, parents will also be forced to go out of pocket to pay for tutors to compete in this version of “meritocracy,” and that simply shouldn’t be how the entire system works. Parents with different belief systems and different priorities in life, and of different economic means shouldn’t have to face seeing their children locked out of all the top schools because a small segment of society only values grades and is taking up all the slots in the best or most affordable universities.

imagesGoing hand in hand with this is my belief that diversity has an intrinsic educational value of its own, especially at the university level. America is still an unbelievably segregated country, and some schools are worse now than before segregation ended. I bring this up not because of race per se, I bring it up because there is so much benefit and learning that can arise from people of different backgrounds and experiences being exposed to each other. The diversity I’m talking about goes well-beyond race. It needs to include socioeconomics, sexual orientation, religion, ethnicity, immigrant status, rural vs urban and countless other factors. I’m talking about an MTV-Real-World kind of experience (the old Real World, not the Frat Boy, get drunk nonsense they have now). All of these people have different life experiences and different perspectives of the world because of their backgrounds and they also have similarities no one would expect and universities need to bring these groups, who don’t normally get to meet each other, together to better connect our society and to improve education. I know my political science class in college benefited tremendously from having a Bosnian immigrant there to give us his take on the Balkan War. I don’t know what his SAT score was, but I know I learned from him because he had a different path in life than me.

Meanwhile, look at the LA Time’s article and you’ll find one explanation for why Asian American students might have to over perform and it’s because hyper-competitive education produces cookie cutter students. Too many of the students write about their family’s immigrant experience, too many play tennis and piano and too many are only interested in being doctors, accountants, lawyers or engineers. Maybe they will all get a long well, but they aren’t going to learn as much from each other as they could by being around a more diverse group of people with a more diverse set of interest and aspirations. I don’t care what subject a person is trying to study, their education will be significantly more complete by meeting different kinds of people while studying it.

My last reason for supporting  caps is because this notion that grades and test scores equals meritocracy is lazy. Education in this country keeps becoming more and more ridged, less valuing of creativity and more unthinking. Trying to rely only on quantifiable date to determine admissions is a ridiculously simplistic idea that doesn’t come close to accounting for the notion that there are different kinds of intelligence. It also flies in the face of the idea that a university education is supposed to provide an opportunity to the best and brightest. Instead, it turns education into simply giving an opportunity to the kid’s who parents are the hardest on them and willing to spend the most money. It doesn’t allow room for improvement, potential or circumstances and there is nothing meritocratic about that.

Is anyone going to argue that a New Orleans student whose education was significantly disrupted by Hurricane Katrina and who scores 50 points less on the SAT’s than a rich kid from a stable home and good school system might actually be the more talented one? What about a 14-year-old student who is immature because he’s 14 and blows off the first year of high school but comes roaring back the three years after? Should what a person does at 14 override the fact they improved and became a top student? What if they had a bad year because one of their parents got really sick or their family got evicted? Schools must be allowed room to evaluate potential and consider circumstances. Grades and test scores cannot be the only factors because it creates such a narrow path to admissions that schools are going to end up with very similar people, with very similar personality types and characteristics attending.

If you still don’t agree with me, answer this hypothetical:  Let’s pretend there are two school districts in the country that are right next to each other. They have the best schools, best teachers, best resources and produce the best students. All the students are the same race, income bracket and have very similar life experiences. Just between these two school districts, they produce enough top students to, by grades and tests scores alone, make up all of Harvard’s Freshman class. Should Harvard have to take them? Pure meritocracy says yes. But will that really make for the best educational environment possible for Harvard and for those students?  (Don’t argue about the scenario, explain why test and GPA meritocracy is still OK (that’s law school 101, FYI)).

Graduation groupLet me conclude by saying it is a mistake to frame this issue as Asian Americans vs Affirmative Actions (AA) as everyone wants to do. Even with AA in place, blacks and Hispanics are still underrepresented in top universities around the country. In other words, they aren’t taking up much space. So the effort to keep the number of Asian American students down isn’t about making room at the margins, it’s about making room in the middle for rich, mediocre white students with wealthy donor parents and good connections. (Welcome to America, Asian Americans. You done poked the bear.) The academic success of Asian Americans and their over-representation in top universities doesn’t affect groups that are already underrepresented nearly as much as it does the biggest group of over represented students (rich white people, who view the Ivies as their birthright). That this issue tries to pit Asian Americans against AA is a red herring. It is not AA when it is being used to help the powerful, it’s American history repeating itself and the elites once again deciding their offspring should be the winners.  It’s just like the early 20th century when the Ivy Leagues felt they were being overrun by over-performing Jewish Students and began considering extra curricular activities as a way to discriminate without officially discriminating against Jewish students who had top test scores.

The reality is that this embedded system of entitlement and privilege is the real issue and must be addressed as more and more students are competing to go to the same small group of elite schools. My point in writing all this was to say that “meritocracy” is not the way to do it because it brings with it a lot of problems. Creating new elite schools instead of having an ever increasing number of people fight over the same number of spots is closer to a real solution, and raises the question of if the Ivies are so good, why haven’t they been able to duplicate themselves?

SideBar: I have recently completed a book about my six years living and working in South Korea. My hope is that STRANGER IN A STRANGER LAND: MY SIX YEARS IN KOREA, will either find a publisher or be self-published sometime this year. In it, I discuss serious topics like Korea’s impressive infrastructure, its deeply embedded racism, its 1950’s style sexism, its demanding but unproductive work culture and its highly lauded but deeply flawed education system. However, I also talk about lighter subjects like K-pop, the expat and Korean dating scenes, its debaucherous drinking culture, and why I think Seoul should be considered the party capital of Asia.

By time readers are done, they’ll have an understanding of how a lot of expats view Korea, what some of its most significant and peculiar cultural differences are and some of the problems it’s currently facing. They’ll also understand how some of these things are related to its modern and ancient history and the ways this tradition laden country is rapidly changing.

Brian M. Williams
Brian is the author of the recently published travel memoir "Stranger in a Stranger Land: My Six Years in Korea." (Click this profile for more information.) He's also a law school grad with Southern charm and Virginia roots. He recently returned to America after nearly seven years traveling and working abroad. He loves dive bars, international travel and foreign accents. He's particularly good at small talk and was the first person to notice there's no "I" in "team."

3 thoughts on “Should the Ivies Cap the Number of Asians?: An Argument Against “Meritocracy”

  1. You nailed it, white privilege. There was a time when getting into a top school meant being a “well rounded” student. One who made good grades, participated in student activities like sports and extracurricular activities as well as outside of school like being a good citizen of the community. Of course that was a way for poor white kids to enter college, we had to force schools to take children of color who possessed the same credentials. There is no advantage to a school system that creates drones. People who cannot socialize outside of their narrow sub-group, who cannot think critically or cannot lead. Although it wouldn’t surprise me if that isn’t the goal. Who needs their expendable workforce to value qualities like leadership and creativity when those positions in life are already filled with the legacy children of our ruling elite. It’s the reason a frat boy loser like George Bush can be president. It’s scary and makes me depressed since I have young adult children of my own but none of this is surprising considering the state of the world today. I’m convinced human progress is dead. We’ve buried with money. The arts, humanities and even science is rotting in a shallow grave covered by rolex watches and BMWs.

  2. TJ, another insightful, thoughtful and powerful comment. If you’d ever have an interest in writing for us. please feel free to contact us via our facebook fan page.

    That said, I’m not as cynical as you seem to be about all this. I think education at the top has for sure lost some of its steam, but there’s a lot of bottom up changes happening like Khan academy and Minerva University. While it might be time to start devaluing these old schools, there are some new exciting things coming to take their place.

    1. Well sweetie all I can say is I’ve probably lived longer than you. I’m in my 50’s and cynicism seems to be symptom of my age group. When you were weaned on the civil rights movement, the promise of exploring the universe, preserving the environment, feminism, alleviating poverty and disease and ending war the current state of world is enough to throw you into a serious funk. Who would have thought 40 years ago that we’d be talking about a “ruling elite” again and they wouldn’t be 40 times more well off than the rest of us but almost 400 times more wealthy and powerful.

      Did we even have a hint back then that women would still be fighting for not just equal pay and workforce rights but to keep from losing autonomy over our own bodies? Could we have guessed that in this new world of “information” and “technology” that we’d lose the arts and sciences in our schools and universities? It would have been unthinkable to abandon so many children to poverty and neglect or to fast track so many of our young men straight into a for profit prison system. We don’t even have the “freedom” to really make choices anymore. The food you eat is produced on huge corporate farms subsidized with tax payer money and on the backs of debt ridden franchise farmers and immigrant labor. The clothes and shoes we wear are made by child laborers in oppressive poverty stricken countries. You can’t find anything American made unless you make it yourself. We’ve talked about meritocracy here in higher learning but what is even more pressing is the cost. The cost that has saddled an entire generation with crushing debt.

      I like the way you think and I’m glad you’re still optimistic. We need young people to wake up. Get their heads out of their cell phones and stop daydreaming. I’m sorry for what my generation and your grandparents generation have done but you guys are going to have to undo it.

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