Follow-up: Asian Academic Excellence Warrants Examination

Don Tennant

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.

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Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
May 24, 2011 10:07 AM hoapres hoapres  says: in response to Joe D


Don please stay focused and stop wandering off.

Remember your "great" article entitled "Over 50 and stop whining. Get back to work"

Do you remember ?

I among other discovered that the job "found" was a $10 to $14 an hour job as a customer service rep.

The question that was asked is : Do you consider that a success ??

What Don does outside of misrepresenting everyone who disagrees with him is to wander off on a new article hoping that no one "calls him out".

Don gets busted again.

Let's see.

Don writes an article which is basically "Asians are smarter than Americans" then it is shown not to be the case.

Solution for Don.

Write a new article hoping that no one notices the prior articles.

Doesn't work.

May 24, 2011 4:29 PM Dolores Dolores  says:

This is really nothing but racial stereotyping dressed up in a new 21st century suit.

May 24, 2011 6:21 PM Joe D Joe D  says:

Racism and racial differences have been studied from ages and though the facts point to something else the perceptption always deceives facts , the reason is the hue and cry made by disadvantaged race which tries to creatively cover up the facts .

While all cows are the same the Jersey breed gives the maximum milk while the asian ones give least however 50 asian cows combined can give the same amount of milk as Jersey cow . The same truth exists for human specie . The caucasian race in past 200 years have been racially superior there is no doubting that and since Human specie is always calibred as per the Brain power more than anything else Caucasians score over others .

    However since the majority wins over the minority its true that Caucasians truth is submerged in the hue of cry of majority which is non caucasian .

May 26, 2011 11:44 AM mataj mataj  says:

A fine example of Asian culture:


"I agree that, in order for the company to protect me and others, it can send me to a hospital should I exhibit abnormal physical or mental problems."

May 26, 2011 6:24 PM Jutin Jutin  says: in response to Joe D


Next time you see an Asian taking over an "American" job, don't fret and cry about it.

As you stated: "Caucasian are historically superior" and in the long run after may be 200 years they will still be better placed... right???

So don't bother what happens in the short term :D:D:

You can ignore substantiated facts if you want to!!

And I think you are forgetting that more % of doctors, scientists in US are of Asian origin than Caucasian.

US provides better opportunities. I agree. Its more advanced. Agreed. Caucasians are superior or Asians: I don't know. I know one thing that Asians are hardworking.

Even if Asians have lets say 10% less brain/logic than caucasians (which I doubt), but since they work harder (lets say 150% of caucasian) than thier caucasian counterparts... who can calculate who fairs better.

May 31, 2011 1:06 PM Drunken Economist Drunken Economist  says: in response to Jutin

While NASSCOM Don takes a break from his normal India, Inc paycheck, let your Uncle Drunky reply to Jutin:

1/ I've been to your neck o' the woods (East Asia) and taught your kids. Some of them are really bright. What you have on your side is POPULATION. Proportionally there are the same ratio of 'geniuses' to 'everybody else'... And I saw this in China, Japan, and Korea. 

2/ There's a big trade off: Yes, more Chinese, Japanese, and Korean kids are 'passed' but what they are taught is rote. Advantage: knowledge, disadvantage: what westerners call 'critical thinking' & 'judgement'.

Now don't get me wrong: given what's happened in the last 10 years since 9-11-2001, I now think any "advantage" that the west had with introspection or judgment has DRASTICALLY diminished. But we're good at making war & buying trinkets from China, right?? Oh, and doing away with personal freedoms.

3/ Any talk of 'physiology' smacks of Eugenics. And personally I won't have it. My 'racism' or 'criticisms' stem from the dark underbellies of culture: 'ours' and 'theirs'. Chinese/Japanese/Koreans with their conformity to the point of suicide. Indians with their slippery grasp of 'ethics'. Ditto for the Americans.

Nobody is 'smarter'.. but some have the cultural drive to do anything at any cost.. to the detriment of others, and the the advancement of all.

NASSCOM Don has been around LONG ENOUGH to remember all the bull that was propagated around Japan Inc., and how they were 'smarter' for adopting processes by the likes of Peter Drucker, etal.

But by willfully ignoring externals (like weakened US$, labor arbitrage) all he himself is doing is spreading the same old stereotypes that weren't true then nor now.

-Drunken Economist



Jun 3, 2011 11:42 AM Justin Justin  says: in response to Drunken Economist

I am not saying who is smarter..who is not...

I am just saying Indians/Asians are hard working... and no one can deny that even when drunk. Not even a drunken economist who knows the economics of business and trade.

And that is the reason, more and more Asians (in terms of salary) are immigrating to US and dispacing US jobs.

"but some have the cultural drive to do anything at any cost.. to the detriment of others, and the the advancement of all"

"to the detriment of others" - if u were given a job that pays u twice of what u r paid...u will take it even if it displaces 2 jobs. Humans are individualistic by nature and betterment of self (ppl who had difficulty finding a sigle meal a day understand that better).

Ethics come into picture when u have enough to eat all ur life...

And again I am not saying one should not have ethics if ur stomach is empty. But i am just saying everyone to himself/herself first and then social cause.

I would accept a job offer if it displaces 2 and so would you.

Jun 7, 2011 6:24 PM Alvin Zechariah Alvin Zechariah  says:

Don, I would suggest you focus on how you can help local students do well, rather than targeting a group who are successful. I can smell prejudice.

Also, pls. remember that these kids are Americans (Citizens) just like you.


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