Some commentators bemoan the fact that 46 percent of students at the University of California, Berkeley, are now Asian. But it certainly proves that Americans are so certain in our principles that we allow meritocracy to flourish, whatever the outcome. If Asians have the highest test scores, of course they should be the ones who are accepted. If this leads to racial imbalances at the university level, so be it.
But concerns linger. Asians often seek a western PhD for its status value and for technical skills training, not because they are intellectually curious or desire to discover new science. This misses the point of the Western educational system, which encourages you to challenge and ask “why” questions. The Asian style is often one of rote memorization, accepting what you are told (whether it makes sense or not), and thinking about it later.
Chinese students I’ve spoken with say that back home they were told what classes to take and what to study, so they didn't need to worry or question anything. They just studied what was put in front of them. It gave them a very comforting feeling.
To apply to western universities, you need a good score on the SAT and GRE tests. A test prep industry in China, including companies like New Oriental, teach students how to do well on tests:
Jia Wen, a 25-year-old graduate student in finance at Boston College, recounted some odd New Oriental gimmicks she learned for the TOEFL's listening section. Her teacher told her to remember that if the answer choices involve food, for instance, hamburgers always taste better than pizza. And that girls in the passages are always more intelligent and harder-working than boys. "You don't need to understand," says Wen, who scored 110. "After many practices, you can recognize the correct answer just by looking at the choices."
Personally, I wouldn't benefit from such a class, because I don't have such raw mental powers of memorization and subtle pattern recognition. But this approach certainly doesn't encourage students to debate, exchange ideas, or think independently. Getting into - and surviving - a top school, for these students, is more about social status than intellectual contribution.
Asians don’t have a tradition of debate, asking questions, and doing critical analysis. Whereas there seems to be a practical desire to further one’s own happiness and wealth in Asia, there’s also a passive acquiescence toward authority. Questioning the teacher is considered impolite, and debate destroys group harmony.
According to Stanford professor Hazel R. Markus (in a recent NYT article):
[S]tudies have found that Asian students do approach academics differently. Whether educated in the United States or abroad, she says, they see professors as authority figures to be listened to, not challenged in the back-and-forth Socratic tradition. “You hear some teachers say that the Asian kids get great grades but just sit there and don’t participate,” she says. “Talking and thinking are not the same thing. Being a student to some Asians means that it’s not your place to question, and that flapping your gums [debating] all day is not the best thing.”
One study ... looked at Asian-American students in lab courses, and found they did better solving problems alone and without conversations with other students. “This can make for some big problems,” [says Markus], like misunderstandings between classmates. “But people are afraid to talk about these differences."
Curiosity and originality and invention are not prized in Asian culture, because innovation often involves conflict. Americans often complain that Chinese simply copy or steal Western ideas and products instead of inventing their own.
The Chinese are transforming from collectivist communism to materialist capitalism, without stopping to identify their core beliefs and values as a society. The collective instinct of the people is to bend and flow around obstacles, not confront them directly. There’s a lack of will—a lack of stubbornness to die for an abstract belief or idea. Yet Asians have a strong sense of dignity, and I hope they can transform that fiercely held subjective trait into a love of abstract principles.
Is it culture or genes that make Asians smart (or at least able to do well on tests)? A recent scientific publication reports that 25 percent of genes studied differ in their level of activity between Europeans and Asians. Does that prove a role for genetics? I’m not so sure. Steven Chu, raised in America, is a Nobel Prize winner. So who knows? Asians may have some innate group differences in temperament (on average) from other groups in America. And that’s fine. As long as Asian immigrants assimilate and respect American values—and more importantly, that those values truly resonate with their character—our nation will survive and thrive.