Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 17, 2018

Harvard University, bias against Asian-Americans, affirmative action and “life itself”

Filed under: Academia,affirmative action,bard college,Education — louisproyect @ 9:18 pm

Edward Blum, using Asian-American student grievances to destroy affirmative action

Towards the end of the very fine documentary “The Chinese Exclusion Act” that I reviewed for CounterPunch on Friday, May Ngai, the radical history professor at Columbia University, weighs in on the new forms of discrimination that Chinese face even as the vicious racism directed against coolie labor has ended:

So in the late ’60s and early ’70s you have a disproportionate number of highly educated Asians who came in under the 1965 Act. This is a period of an expanding economy in the United States, with more and more R&D work; technical work. Now, a curious consequence of the Hart-Celler Act is that we’re still left with the idea that Chinese are other. They may not be the Yellow Peril of the 19th century and early 20th century. But now they’re the super-achieving students who keep your kids out of college – right? So they’re either evil or super-achievers.

So when I saw the headline on a NY Times article from two days ago titled “Harvard Rated Asian-American Applicants Lower on Personality Traits, Suit Says”, my immediate reaction was to side with the legal action that forced Harvard to turn over admission records in compliance with a suit being filed against the school for discrimination, especially since this was just a variation on what Jews faced once upon a time. A court document prepared by the Students for Fair Admissions stated: “It turns out that the suspicions of Asian-American alumni, students and applicants were right all along. Harvard today engages in the same kind of discrimination and stereotyping that it used to justify quotas on Jewish applicants in the 1920s and 1930s.”

It turns out that the founder of Students for Fair Admissions, who is not a lawyer, is a Jew named Edward Blum whose purpose it is to connect aggrieved students, who see themselves as victims of affirmative action, with attorneys all too happy to turn back the clock. He helped get the gears in motion in a suit against the University of Texas at Austin two years ago on behalf of two white women–Abigail Noel Fisher and Rachel Multer Michalewicz—who were angry that Black and Latino students with lower grades than theirs were admitted to the school under affirmative action. The Supreme Court rejected their claims. What will happen as Trump nominates more racists in this term and the one likely to follow in 2020 is predictable.

Blum is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of “The Unintended Consequences of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act”. What’s that you ask? It stipulates that states and counties with a history of discriminatory voting practices are not permitted to change the rules for elections without first persuading the Justice Department (or a court) that their new policies will improve, or at least not harm, minority representation. So when Mississippi or Alabama decide to screw Black people out of the right to vote, people like Blum are on the side of the racists. Blum got his way in 2013, when the Supreme Court threw out Section 4 in a suit he helped initiate. Without Section 4, Section 5 is toothless.

In fact, Blum’s last big assault on racial equality took place last year when he heard about a proposed state law that would require had forced Poway, California to redo its voting districts so Latinos would have a better chance of winning elections.

How does Blum get funding for the work he does? It turns out that most of it comes from the Searle Freedom Trust, a rightwing foundation founded by Daniel Searle, the deceased pharmaceutical billionaire who stated its goals on its website as “creating an environment that promotes individual freedom and economic liberties, while encouraging personal responsibilities and a respect for traditional American values.”

In a follow-up article in today’s NY Times, you get a feel for the wariness some Asian-Americans about what Blum is up to. Titled “Asian-Americans Face Multiple Fronts in Battle Over Affirmative Action”, it identifies Indians, Pakistanis and Filipinos in the USA as suffering higher degrees of poverty than Chinese or Japanese-Americans and being sympathetic to affirmative action.

In 2010, T.K. Park, who blogs as Ask a Korean, replied to a query about whether practices such as Harvard follows was an injustice since it limited the numbers of Asian-American admissions:

You might be surprised, because the Korean actually does think it is a good thing.

First of all, allow the Korean to first state his preferred end result: meritocracy must be an important element in college admissions. The meritocracy must involve clearly stated criteria such as test scores, quality of extracurricular activities, quality of letters of recommendation, and so on. And the Korean is not advocating that college campuses mirror exactly the local or national racial mix. There must be some sort of middle ground. The Korean does not know where the proper middle ground is. But the middle ground is probably not the 55 percent Asian American campus as it is in University of California, Irvine.

To explain why the Korean thinks so, allow the Korean to quote John Dewey: “Education is not a preparation for life; education is life itself.” Because the Korean experienced two drastically different educational systems (Korean and American,) the truth of Dewey’s quote resonates even stronger with him. In fact, many of Korean educational system’s flaws (despite its numerous strengths) can be traced to this: Korea treats its schools as a place where students prepare for the real world, as opposed to treating it as the real world in and of itself. Thus, learning knowledge is emphasized, while learning social skills gets a short shrift.

The same principle must apply to colleges. College is not a meal ticket given for a certain set of “good behaviors”. It is a place where one receives education. And if colleges do not adequately reflect the “life itself” as Dewey said, they cannot provide adequate education.

What is missing from the discussion about “reverse discrimination” is any engagement with the broader question of competition among different ethnic groups to succeed in the high stakes game of musical chairs, where admission to an Ivy college will open doors to professional success after graduation.

Last year, a friend of mine who is a professor at Columbia revealed to me that there were four suicides between September and January, 2017. This was not just Columbia’s problems. In 2013, there were three suicides at Harvard. While not an Ivy, NYU is certainly a place that is on any A-List. I remember when George Rupp met with us in Columbia’s IT department to tell us that the competition between his school and NYU was intense. I got a chuckle out of him telling us that the appointment of some high-profile Marxists like Jon Elster had helped our reputation.

So, what do you expect when schools become pressure cookers in such competition? For NYU students, something had to give. After two students jumped from the upper floors walkway to their death inside the Eleanor Bobst Library, the administration enclosed the 12-story atrium with perforated aluminum screens in an effort to prevent suicides, just like they have done at the Golden Gate and George Washington bridges.

The most poignant story, however, was MIT’s. On April 10, 2002, Elizabeth Shin, a Korean-American student, self-immolated in her dormitory room. Even though she sent multiple emails to faculty members threatening suicide, the school ignored the warning signs. The night before she had burned herself to death, she even tried to plunge a knife into her chest but had a failure of nerve. A NY Times article dated April 28, 2002 conveys the hopes her parents placed in her:

For the Shins, M.I.T., whose undergraduate population is 30 percent Asian-American, was the gold standard. Elizabeth was accepted at Yale too. It is possible, her mother says wistfully, that Elizabeth would have been happier there. She was an artistic soul, and if her SAT’s were any measure, she was stronger in English — she got 799 out of 800 on her SAT verbal and her SAT II writing test — than in math and science. But Elizabeth wanted to do something important with her life, like find cures for diseases, as she put it. If that is your goal, her father says, and you get into M.I.T., ”you don’t think twice about it.”

”As far as M.I.T., to me, it’s the best institution on earth,” Cho Shin says.

Back in 1961, I was a junior in high school and well on my way to admission to Columbia University since I had no competition for the valedictorian award. But since my mother worried so much about my alienation and unhappiness from high school, she and the principal agreed that the best thing for me was to skip my senior year and go to Bard College on an early admission plan. Who knows? That might have saved me from jumping out a window. I sometimes think about what it would have been like to be a freshman at a male-only college where every other valedictorian was competing with me and themselves to stand out.

Bard College, as Ask a Korean cited John Dewey, was a place that reflected “life itself”. Armed with a Bard degree, it was likely that Merrill Lynch would have hired a Harvard graduate rather than me but to Bard’s credit it was a place where you would be inculcated against the values that Merrill Lynch represented.

Although I am a bit skeptical about the claim that John Dewey was experiment with democratic socialism (https://www.jacobinmag.com/2018/01/john-dewey-democratic-socialism-liberalism), I do give him credit for helping places like Bard College to create an environment where students don’t kill themselves over the stresses associated with Ivy schools.

In the 1930s, Bard and Sarah Lawrence became models of Deweyite precepts about higher education. His followers at Columbia University transformed an Episcopalian-oriented training ground for the clergy into Bard that some called the “Hudson Valley experimental school.”

An August 5, 1934 NY Times article titled “CURRICULUM IS REVERSED; New Plan at Bard College Is Designed to Give the Student’s Interest Freer Play” indicated how revolutionary the approach would be:

Second, the particular abilities, interests and purposes of the student himself [it became co-ed in 1944] will be the centre around which he will be permitted, under guidance, to build his own course of study. He will not be looked upon as so much material to be run into a mold but as an individual whose growth is to be stimulated and nourished. The student, as soon as he enters, will select one general field of study in which he will try his powers. The field be selects as his own will presumably be the one in which he has been most interested and has demonstrated most ability before coming to college.

That’s what we need, schools in which students are not “material to be run into a mold”. Ironically, it is just such schools that have become historically superseded by the corporatization of higher education and forced into bankruptcy. Ultimately, the goal should be to destroy corporatization in all its forms and allow students to prepare themselves for jobs in a socialist society that are not “bullshit”, as David Graeber puts it. Just as we have entered a new Gilded Age, history is crying out for a new Progressive movement that counted John Dewey among its leading lights. But given the class realities of a decaying capitalist system, the only progressivism that has a chance of succeeding today is one that is based on the need for working people to take power in their own name.

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