Mental pretzels

Few subjects stir us to such feats of intellectual gymnastics as explaining how our stereotypes aren't really stereotypes.  This article (via Maggie's Farm) explores how American colleges struggle to explain why an Asian student needs an extra 140 points on his SAT in order to compete effectively with any other race.

Asians are the new Jews.  In the early 20th century, Harvard instituted the revolutionary concept of basing admissions on ethnic-neutral tests.  The result?  Culture shock:
"Naturally, after 25 years, one expects to find many changes, but to find that one’s University had become so Hebrewized was a fearful shock.  There were Jews to the right of me, Jews to the left of me, in fact they were so obviously everywhere that instead of leaving the Yard with pleasant memories of the past I left with a feeling of utter disgust of the present and grave doubts about the future of my Alma Mater."
Naturally, something had to be done.  One approach would have been overt discrimination against Jews.  A more subtle approach was to emphasize "legacy students," which is an easy way to claim you're not basing admissions on race even though you're basing them on family descent.  It's a good trick, and it's still being used today to keep Asians from unfairly swamping the admissions process by kicking everyone's butt academically.  Other useful techniques are to hide the admissions policy altogether, and to refuse to discuss it on the ground that it's a "wedge issue."  (I've always loved the "wedge issue" gambit.  "Unfair!  This issue is so damaging to our position that it's likely to sow internal dissension in our ranks!")

Another approach is to admit that Asians are submitting academically impressive applications, but to observe that the admissions process is "holistic."  Unfortunately, as the article points out, this approach includes the unstated assumption that Asian applications are, on the whole, devastatingly sub-par on every non-academic ground.  And what exactly is wrong with all of them in that respect?  Well, it's hard to put into words, but it's "holistic." It's certainly not their ethnicity!

There's a strong human tendency to approve of meritocracies as long as we're pretty sure that the rules for judging merit focus on whatever our sub-group happens to be good at.  As soon as those other guys start to excel, it turns out that the rules for judging merit are missing the important intangible stuff, the stuff that's so hard to put into words.


DL Sly said...

" As soon as those other guys start to excel, it turns out that the rules for judging merit are missing the important intangible stuff, the stuff that's so hard to put into words."

Well, not really, unless you are willing to have the progressive's favorite *card* -- "That's raaaacist!" -- thrown at you.

E Hines said...

There's also Obama's favorite new line, which he stayed up all night memorizing so he could respond to a House-passed (and redundant) bill that would require payment of our national debt ahead of other expenditures, and which he now can trot out for any and all other questions: Such policies are unwise, unworkable, and unacceptably risky.

Eric Hines

Anonymous said...

I'm glad my former neighbor's Chinese Jewish kids went to Yale and George Mason. (Before you ask, Dad's Catholic and Chinese, Mom's American Jewish, the four kids grew up Jewish. Although one is now Church of Christ. {Go figure.})


douglas said...

That's why my 1/4 ethnic Chinese kids won't be claiming to be Asian on any school forms. In our school district, it's so Hispanic now that being white is the ticket into many good schools. Asian students should all just stop putting down that they're Asian, and declare themselves white, or black for that matter. If we can't tell someone whether or not they're male or female, how can we tell them they're white, black, or Asian?