Friday, November 12, 2010

Redefining merit

When Alexandra and her friend Rachel, both graduates of Toronto’s Havergal College, an all-girls private school, were deciding which university to go to, they didn’t even bother considering the University of Toronto. “The only people from our school who went to U of T were Asian,” explains Alexandra, a second-year student who looks like a girl from an Aritzia billboard. “All the white kids,” she says, “go to Queen’s, Western and McGill.” ...

[A]n “Asian” school has come to mean one that is so academically focused that some students feel they can no longer compete or have fun. Indeed, Rachel, Alexandra and her brother belong to a growing cohort of student that’s eschewing some big-name schools over perceptions that they’re “too Asian.” It’s a term being used in some U.S. academic circles to describe a phenomenon that’s become such a cause for concern to university admissions officers...
--Stephanie Findlay and Nicholas Kohler, Macleans, on too Asian


When [Jerome] Karabel picks up the story shortly after 1900, the colleges were becoming increasingly concerned about the number of Jews who were passing the entrance exams. Since the Protestant upper classes who paid tuition bills had deserted other universities, notably Columbia, where “Hebrew” enrolments were deemed excessive, administrators regarded the increased Jewish presence as both a cultural insult and a threat to their institutional viability.

As a result, the colleges limited the size of their classes and began to reject students by creating a definition of merit that was expressly designed to justify quotas on Jewish applicants. Academic achievement would play second fiddle to the character and manliness thought to be inculcated by prestigious boarding schools. Jews (limited to 15% of the class at Harvard and 10% at Yale) were deemed lacking in these attributes. In the words of a former Harvard dean of admissions, Wilbur Bender, Jews were “effeminates, the precious and affected, the unstable”, while private school boys were “virile, masculine, red-blooded he-men”. ...

“Those who are able to define ‘merit',” [Karabel] writes, “will almost invariably possess more of it, and those with greater resources—cultural, economic, and social—will generally be able to ensure that the educational system will deem their children more meritorious.” Even today, efforts at Harvard to place more emphasis on the sciences (potentially replacing some wealthier white students with nerdy Asian-Americans) have attracted criticism that they might make the student body too one-dimensional instead of iconoclastic and well-rounded—exactly the same style of disparaging argument used to justify the Jewish quotas of yesteryear.
--The Economist on the shifting definition of merit


For [Philip Roth's fictional Jewish character] Alex Portnoy, athleticism was something alien. It was part of a total package that included not only the golden shiksas but their brothers ("engaging, good-natured, confident, clean, swift, and powerful halfbacks"), their fathers ("men with white hair and deep voices"), their mothers who never whined or hectored, their curtained, fireplaced houses, their small noses, their lack of constant nagging worry--in short, the normalcy and confidence that go along with belonging, with being on the inside.

In the Portnoy household nobody played sports--bodies existed only to generate suffering--and there was only one thing that really went well. That, needless to say, was Alex's performance in school. ...

In my many hours standing next to hockey rinks last winter, I sometimes engaged in one of the Jews' secret vices: Jew-counting. All over the ice were little Cohens, little Levys, their names sewed in block letters on the backs of their jerseys. It was amazing how many there were. ...

More to the point, these Jewish kids and their parents have decided to devote endless hours of childhood to an activity with no career payoff. Do you think they're going to 6 a.m. practices for a shot at the National Hockey League? Of course not. They're doing it--mastering hockey, and every conceivable other sport--to promote "growth," "teamwork," "physical fitness," "well-roundedness," "character," and other qualities that may be desirable in a doctor but don't, as a practical matter, help you get into medical school. ...

What all the hockey-playing Jewish kids in America are not doing, during their hundreds of hours hustling to, on, and from the ice rink, is studying. It's not that they don't study at all, because they do. It's that they don't study with the ferociousness and all-out commitment of people who realize (or who have parents who realize) that outstanding school performance is their one shot at big-time opportunity in America.

Meanwhile, there is another ethnic group in America whose children devote their free time not to hockey but to extra study. ... This group is Asian-Americans. ...

[A]s Asians become America's new Jews, Jews are becoming ... Episcopalians.
--Nicholas Lemann, Slate, on Jews as Episcopalians

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