In my ongoing series of interviews with Asian American academics that highlight new books and research that illuminate different aspects and details related to the Asian and Asian American experiences, I am very happy to present an interview with my fellow sociologist, Pawan Dhingra, Professor of American Studies at Amherst College. Pawan’s new book is titled, Hyper Education: Why Good Schools, Good Grades, and Good Behavior Are Not Enough and it explores how the U.S. educational system has become increasingly intense and pressurized and has led to an “arms race” among families, many of them Asian American, to do everything possible to ensure the educational success of their children using a veritable “arsenal” of programs such as after-school tutoring, academic competitions, and extracurricular “enrichment” activities, to name just a few. The book’s description:
Beyond soccer leagues, music camps, and drama lessons, today’s youth are in an education arms race that begins in elementary school. In Hyper Education, Pawan Dhingra uncovers the growing world of high-achievement education and the after-school learning centers, spelling bees, and math competitions that it has spawned. It is a world where immigrant families vie with other Americans to be at the head of the class, putting in hours of studying and testing in order to gain a foothold in the supposed meritocracy of American public education. A world where enrichment centers, like Kumon, have seen 194 percent growth since 2002 and target children as young as three. Even families and teachers who avoid after-school academics are getting swept up.
Drawing on over 100 in-depth interviews with teachers, tutors, principals, children, and parents, Dhingra delves into the why people participate in this phenomenon and examines how schools, families, and communities play their part. Moving past “Tiger Mom” stereotypes, he addresses why Asian American and white families practice what he calls “hyper education” and whether or not it makes sense. By taking a behind-the-scenes look at the Scripps National Spelling Bee, other national competitions, and learning centers, Dhingra shows why good schools, good grades, and good behavior are seen as not enough for high-achieving students and their parents and why the education arms race is likely to continue to expand.
- Why has the arena of education become so high-pressured and intensely competitive in recent years? What are some of the major factors from the institutional/ international level down to the individual/family level? Education is increasingly competitive as more individuals have their eyes on a college degree. The United States is an extremely unequal society without much of a safety net, and so families want their children to get a degree in the hopes that they will grow up to be financially stable. For parents who have a college degree, they are committed to their children doing the same. For parents without such a degree, they can see college attainment as a key stepping stone to a more secure future. As more people seek degrees, the status of the university matters more and more. So, families vie for the few slots in elite universities. This puts pressure all the way down the university system. So, competition become more intense.
- Did you find any differences between how Asian international parents/families and U.S.-born Asian American families deal with these pressures and societal expectations in regard to educational attainment?
Asian immigrants often came to this country through their high educational credentials and like all parents they try to instill into their children the same upbringing that they received if they think it was helpful. Since educational achievement was foundational to their mobility, these parents turn to the same tactic for their children. Asian immigrant parents who do not have a high level of education often care about college for their children as well.I spoke to so small business owners, for instance who insisted their children get a college degree even though they themselves didn’t rely on such formal education. Their thinking was similar to other parents, that a college degree helped ensure that the children would have better life chances, even if their career ended up not needing one. For Asian Americans raised in the United States, their thinking overlapped with that of immigrants but differed markedly in how intense they were. U.S.-raised Asian Americans had comparable approaches to U.S.-raised whites who pursued extra education, that they wanted to give their children learning opportunities but did not feel as urgent about it as did immigrants, having grown up in a different educational and labor market environment.
- At the other end of the spectrum, how do you assess the likelihood that the U.S. educational system can be reformed to improve the chances of success for the most vulnerable and underprivileged students across the country?
This is a longstanding concern that shows little sign of large-scale progress. We should be investing in teachers, in the emotional and mental well-being of students, and their physical comfort. Instead, we see governors partner with billionaire philanthropists who have a poor record of progress in education. Federal legislation promotes one-size-fits-all assessments that take control out of teachers’ hands. Parents respond by seeking more educational resources for their children outside of school because they want more individualized learning for their children, thereby widening the gap between their academics and that of most others. With that in mind, the likelihood of equal educational outcomes is dim.
- On a related note, what are your thoughts about the controversy and debate about whether specialized public schools like New York City’s Stuyvesant High should or should not expand their admissions criteria and move away from strictly relying on standardized tests in order to improve the representation of Black and Latinx students?
Steps that can further the representation of Black and Latinx students in elite schools should be taken seriously. The problem has been, however, that the steps taken in the name of supporting disenfranchised minorities end up providing more opportunities to privileged students, namely whites, who feel that their spaces are being taken by Asian Americans. We need to be watchful of reforms to ensure they have the intended effect. Also, it is important to keep in mind that Asian Americans turn to elite schools not out of a sense of privilege or legacy but as a mechanism of upward mobility. Their needs must be attended to if the admissions system changes in ways that limit their numbers.
- How do you think the cultural dynamics will play out between a relatively small but very vocal group of recently-immigrated Chinese who oppose affirmative action and progressive Asian Americans who support affirmative action?
It is not surprising that some Asian Americans have turned against affirmative action in an effort to give their children every possible advantage in college entry. But, even as it is not surprising, it is helpful to remember that they represent a minority of Asian Americans. The one positive outcome of the lawsuit that conservative and progressive Asian Americans can agree on is the shedding of light on the Harvard admissions process and its possible bias against Asian Americans. While the lawsuit fortunately maintained affirmative action, it did not exonerate Harvard fro anti-Asian bias. Conservative and progressive Asian Americans can also agree on the negative impact of legacy admissions. It is also important to keep in mind that while the public attention is on Harvard, most Asian Americans who attend college are not in elite places. We should focus our attention on the admissions process and what ongoing support is available to Asian Americans in universities.
- Beyond what you’ve written so far, what was the most interesting finding or memorable moment that you came across in doing your research for this book? When I asked an Asian immigrant father at a spelling bee why more Americans did not enroll their children in after-school academics, he cupped his hand as if holding a glass and said they are, “busy doing this,” and went on to pretend to drink an alcoholic beverage. A white American mother, when I asked her why she had her son in a once a week after-school math class, replied, “My grandparents worked really hard. They’re Holocaust survivors. My parents worked really hard, and, you know, they never paid for my college, so you have to do it yourself.” She drew a line between surviving the Holocaust and taking extra academics, for it instilled the right work ethic. In other words, parents have deep, moral reasons for why they pursue extra academics, beyond getting better grades. Children, on the other hand, are the ones caught between parental expectations and school expectations. I greatly appreciated talking with many youth who shared with me the pride they had in their work and how they formed a community of like-minded friends.