Last year, I wrote about Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother in this blog,
I’m returning to the subject because I’ve just read Wesley Yang’s essay for New York Magazine, 'Paper Tigers', which has just been nominated for a National Magazine Award.
Yang scrutinises Chua’s basic contention – that exacting absolute obedience from your children and demanding their unswerving dedication to your ambitions for them is the best approach to parenting. Chua presents this as a ‘Chinese’ (for which read ‘East Asian’) approach to parenting, and as evidence for its supremacy, she presents East Asian students’ academic pre-eminence among all America’s races. Yang does not dispute this pre-eminence. In fact, as evidence for it, he presents New York City’s elite Stuysevant High School, admission to which is determined entirely by test scores (with no account taken of socioeconomic background). Students of East Asian descent, who make up 12.6% of New York City, make up 72% of Stuysevant’s student body.
Here's the thing: Yang observes that this dominance (which is a national phenomenon, not one confined to New York City) dissipates after graduation. East Asian students make up 15-20% of Ivy League graduating classes. However, they represent ‘only 0.3% of corporate officers, less than 1% of corporate board members, and around 2% of college presidents.’ And it is not the case (as you might expect) that these general numbers are counterbalanced by dominance in specialised professions. As Yang explains:
In specific fields where Asian-Americans are heavily represented, there is a similar asymmetry. A third of all software engineers in Silicon Valley are Asian, and yet they make up only 6 percent of board members and about 10 percent of corporate officers of the Bay Area’s 25 largest companies. At the National Institutes of Health, where 21.5 percent of tenure-track scientists are Asians, only 4.7 percent of the lab or branch directors are, according to a study conducted in 2005.
It’s difficult to write about the intersection between race, culture, and success, without yourself slipping into racist assumptions, but for the purposes of this article, I’m not interested in which cultural norms are most common among people of which race. This blog post is not an analysis of ‘whether or not people of East Asian descent are good parents’. The answer to that question is ‘some are, and some aren’t’, as it is for any slice of humanity you might care to assess.
However, this discrepancy between academic performance and subsequent employment prospects has serious implications for anyone who cares about social equality, because what it implies about the potential impact of ‘improving attainment’ for any racial, ethnic, or socioeconomic group.
What these numbers suggest is that raising the test scores of any particular underperforming group will not be enough to improve their life chances. The reasons that academic dominance has not led to career dominance for East Asian people in America are complex, and will be subject to ongoing debate. But the basic fact of this discrepancy is not subject to debate.
The barrier that keeps Asian-Americans out of upper management is colloquially called the ‘bamboo ceiling’. If we focus our childrens’ education on the exceptionally narrow goal of raising test scores, then all sorts of young people will have the opportunity to bang their own heads against their own ceilings. Young people – all –young people – deserve more than that.
We'll be talking about how to provide young people with a richer education at our 'flipped conferences' in Manchester and London.
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