In my recent post, "Why the U.S. Technology Work Force Needs the Asian Influence," I argued that the strong emphasis that Asian cultures tend to place on education in general, and high academic achievement in particular, is a positive influence from which other cultures can benefit. The point was that this influence should be thought of as a valuable resource that can boost our country's academic achievement, and ultimately make our work force more globally competitive.
There are a couple of follow-up points that are worth making in our discussion of the topic. But before I get to those, let me reiterate a point I made in the previous post: Nobody is saying that Asian students are smarter than non-Asian students. A CNN report dating back to 2007 that looked at why Asian students in the United States lead their peers in overall grade point averages did a good job of emphasizing the distinction between intelligence and academic success. It quoted Hazel Markus, a cultural psychologist at Stanford University, who noted that Asian students tend to be backed by a family support structure that prizes education:
It's not a matter of biology or genetic differences. [For Asian students] it's the most important role. It's your job, it's what you are supposed to do, is to bring honor to the family by becoming educated.
With that understood, the first follow-up point is that there's no reason for any of this to evoke resentment or defensiveness on anyone's part, so let's not get our undergarments in a twist. Personally, I got a kick out of the lighthearted way the topic was addressed a couple of months ago by David Brooks, a tech blogger for the Nashua Telegraph in New Hampshire:
In the Telegraph newsroom, a couple of us have a tongue-in-cheek contest: Any time we get a press release about a school science or math competition, we bet whether there will be any obviously white or black or Hispanic names among the winners. Amazingly often, there aren't - the background reflected by the names will be predominantly south Asian (those mile-long Indian monikers) or east Asian (Chinese/Korean/Japanese names that you *know* aren't pronounced the way the Latin alphabet spelling makes it seem they are). The rest of the world must make do with prizes for English (not spelling, though; that's another south Asian stronghold) or stuff like debating. Or sports, of course.
A case in point: this week's education column about a Nashua middle-school Mathcounts team that got its second state title in three years. Not a lot of ancestors of that cheerful group came over in the Mayflower.
This is hardly news - it is well known in college, where white students semi-joke that they avoid classes with too many Asian students because that means the class will be hard - but it's particularly impressive in New Hampshire, which isn't exactly teeming with non-whites.
And it reflects how much culture matters, unless you think that half the world's population has some weird I-quantify-well gene. Their families and friends admire science and math accomplishment, so they do well in it. It's that simple or, rather, that difficult, because changing culture is very, very tough.
The other follow-up point is that the positive influence of a different culture is never a one-way phenomenon. The foreign nationals from Asia, recent immigrants from Asia and children of recent immigrants from Asia that I referred to in my previous post of course have much of value to learn from the U.S. culture, too.
That point was made very eloquently by two sisters whose parents emigrated from South Korea - Soo Kim Abboud and Jane Kim, authors of the book, "Top of the Class: How Asian Parents Raise High Achievers and How You Can Too." A 2005 Voice of America News report about the sisters, one a surgeon and assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and the other an attorney, echoed the importance of distinguishing between high academic achievement and being smarter:
"There is a great statistic that I like to share," Soo says. "When 15-year-old teenagers were asked whether they expect to graduate from college, 58% of white teenagers expected to graduate from college. Eighty-five percent of Korean and Japanese teenagers expected to graduate from college, and 95% of Indian teenagers expected to graduate from college. I think this shows there is a tremendous emphasis and prioritization of education in these Asian families. That's something to be proud of. We aren't saying we are any smarter, it's just the emphasis on education that makes a difference." In American families, I think, most of them stress effort," Jane says. "We always hear that saying, 'As long as you try, it's O.K.' In Asian families, they really believe in that principle, but they also stress the achievement. They want you to put your best foot forward, but they also want you to achieve. Asian parents take the time out to really get involved and know what their child is doing in the classroom. They are very aware of what's going on."
At the same time, the sisters are clear that they appreciate the advantages of being raised in the United States:
"I think the American culture is wonderful," Soo says. "It promotes creativity, independence and emotional development. I think the key here is to get the best of the American culture. You also have to embrace and keep what's made the Asian cultures so special: the discipline, the ability to delay gratification and emphasis on education. I think the two of those together is probably the best combination you can have."
However, Asian parents also make mistakes. And that's what the sisters focus on in the last chapter of their book.
"Asian parents sometimes pressure too much to force their kids in one direction," Jane says. "But I think the key here is that Asian parents can learn something from non-Asian parents about expressing that their child's happiness does mean as much as any educational achievement," Soo adds.