It has been a poorly kept secret for many years that the main purpose of racial preferences at the University of California has been to put a ceiling on Asian-American admissions, rather than a floor on admissions for blacks and Hispanics. Since most of the taxpayers of the state are non-Hispanic Caucasians, there are, presumably, political reasons why the University of California is concerned about the low admission rates of whites, particularly at the flagship campuses. Allegations that the recent changes in admissions policies at UC had the effect—and probably the intention—of “whitening” the campus at the expense of Asian-American students did not introduce a new controversy. It simply blew the cover off an old one.
I have posted a number of items to the CASNET Listserv on the recent changes in U.C. admissions policies (see here and here). I do not wish to enter now into the details of that controversy. What I intend to do instead is to address a broader question that the controversy provokes: what is the ideal or model student for a highly selective university like U.C.?
I have lived in Berkeley for the greater part of the last forty-five years, and it is my alma mater, for both undergraduate and graduate studies. I live close to the campus, have friends who work there, frequent cafés close to the campus, and attend events on the campus. I stay in touch.
Some years ago a friend mentioned that a professor at Berkeley he knew had either left for another teaching job or quit teaching altogether (I can’t remember which). The professor had no complaints about the salary, his opportunities to do research and writing, or his department colleagues. In most respects, he was quite happy at Cal—except for the students. And in fact, his complaints about the students were quite limited and specific. He had told my friend that the students were very, very good academically. They could and did do the work. They kept up with the course material, and did well on tests. But they were boring. They weren’t passionate. They weren’t engaged. And because the students were boring, he had come to find teaching boring. So he gave up his tenured position for some other place in academe, or perhaps outside academe altogether.
My friend told me that the professor’s indictment had been directed at virtually all of his students on the campus, but he had mentioned his Asian-American students as the clearest examples of what he had come to dislike about his students—always very bright, always very academically competent, always intent on doing well—but boring.
I know nothing more about this professor, but I did know my friend, and knowing my friend, I would be astonished if the unknown professor’s opinion about his Asian-American students was motivated by racial or ethnic prejudice. More likely, it was prompted by some real—and in many respects—quite admirable characteristics of Asian-American students. There are compelling reasons for thinking of them as the model minority academically. But I can’t help wondering if this special and mostly admirable quality doesn’t often come at a price.
I am not the only one to think so. On February 10, when the blogosphere was rife with postings about the latest UC admissions controversy, the editors at PhiBetaCons posted an email they had received from a Mary Dudasik of Nutely, NJ. After declaring that she was no supporter of holistic admissions when used as a “euphemism for lowering standards to admit low-achieving minorities,” she went on to say that she thought the issues around the SAT II were more complicated than critics of the proposal had acknowledged:
I can also speak from experience that the standardized testing focus of many Asian families, with rigorous testing preparation beginning in elementary school, skews the results. My personal definition of holistic admissions would include a desire to admit involved, well-rounded students who participate in team sports, social and academic organizations, and performing arts while maintaining good grades. Holding a job while juggling all this would also be a plus. Perhaps you haven't met families who focus exclusively on ultra-competitive standardized test scores, but the experience is a sad one—albeit at the opposite end of the spectrum from completely uninvolved families oblivious to the need for academic rigor and discipline.
Clearly a balance is needed. I wish I knew the answer.
Ms. Dudasik probably underestimates the problem in a couple of respects. First, the problem clearly isn’t confined to Asian-Americans, though arguably they present the issue in the clearest form. Second, the problem isn’t confined to standardized testing: the problem is with students who are achievement-oriented generally. Achievement-oriented students will jump every hurdle that society thinks is appropriate on its reward-system pathway. The hurdles do not have to be strictly academic. You want well-rounded? I’ll give you well-rounded, the student says. You want team sports? I’ll give you team sports. You want involved? You want the performing arts? I'll give them all to you as well. I’ll even hold down a job when I’m in high school.
For some years now there has been a growing cottage industry of entrepreneurial counselors who have made a good living advising high school students and their parents on the best combination of extra-curricular activities to maximize a student’s chances of getting into elite and selective universities. So the problem isn’t just limited to standardized tests and academics. It is an obsessively achievement-oriented mentality generally that is the issue.
One observer who has seen the broader dimensions of the problem is Joseph Epstein. In his essay “Obama’s Good Students: A dissent on the ‘valedictocracy'” in The Weekly Standard, Epstein assesses the students he has taught at Northwestern:
[A]fter teaching at a university for 30 years, I have come to distrust the type I think of as "the good student"—that is, the student who sails through school and is easily admitted into the top colleges and professional schools. The good student is the kid who works hard in high school, piles up lots of activities [emphasis mine—TW], and scores high on his SATs, and for his efforts gets into one of the 20 or so schools in the country that ring the gong of success. While there he gets a preponderance of A's. This allows him to move on to the next good, or even slightly better, graduate, business, or professional school, where he will get more A's still, and move onward and ever upward. His perfect résumé in hand, he runs only one risk—that of catching cold from the draft created by all the doors opening for him wherever he goes, as he piles up scads of money, honors, and finally ends up being offered a job at a high level of government. He has, in a sense Spike Lee never intended, done the right thing.
I did my teaching at Northwestern University, where most of the students had what I came to regard as "the habits of achievement." They did the reading, most of them could write a respectable paper, many of them talked decently in response to my questions. They made it difficult for me to give them less than a B for the course. But the only students who genuinely interested me went beyond being good students to become passionate ones. Their minds, I could tell, were engaged upon more than merely getting another high grade. The number of such students was remarkably small; if I had to pin it down, I should say they comprised well under 3 percent, and not all of them received A's from me.
In recent years I have come to think that some of the worst people in the United States have gone to the Harvard or Yale Law Schools: Mr. and Mrs. Eliot Spitzer, Mr. and Mrs. William Clinton, and countless others. And why not, since these institutions serve as the grandest receptacles in the land for our good students: those clever, sometimes brilliant, but rarely deep young men and women who, joining furious drive to burning if ultimately empty ambition, will do anything to get ahead.
The presence and continued flourishing of Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, and the rest do perform a genuine service. They allow America to believe it has a meritocracy, even though there is no genuine known merit about it. Perhaps one has to have taught at or otherwise had a closer look at these institutions to realize how thin they are. I myself feel their thinness so keenly that, on more than one occasion, I have, by way of informing one friend or acquaintance about another, said, "He went to Princeton and then to the Harvard Law School, but, really, he is much better than that."
Since Asian-American students often figure in discussions of this issue, it is probably worth comparing the demographics of Northwestern and Berkeley, and to note the differences.
Institutions of higher education in the U.S. are required to report the racial and ethnic breakdowns of their enrollments to the U.S. Department of Education. This data is included in the Department’s IPEDS/NCES database. The breakdowns can easily be found for any school using the Department’s Navigator.
The percentage of Asian-American students enrolled at UC’s flagship campuses (Berkeley and UCLA) is very high, because Asian-American students are so competitive for admission to its public universities since they are doing so well academically, and because of the state’s demographics. Here is the IPEDS breakdown for U.C. Berkeley (Note: simply expand the “Enrollment” category on the Northwestern page):
White non-Hispanic: 31%
Black non-Hispanic: 3%
Asian-Pacific Islander: 42%
American Indian/Alaskan Native 1%
Race/ethnicity unknown: 8%
Non-resident alien 3%
Compare this with the racial and ethnic breakdown for Northwestern University (Note: simply expand the “Enrollment” category on the Berkeley page):
White non-Hispanic 57%
Black non-Hispanic 6%
Asian/Pacific Islander 16%
American Indian/Alaskan Native 0%
Race/ethnicity unknown 10%
Non-resident alien 5%
Asian-Americans comprise a much smaller percentage of enrollments at Northwestern than at Berkeley. But Epstein doesn’t think much of the students at Northwestern, either, and his criticisms are very similar to those expressed by those who have mentioned Asian-American students specifically in this connection. This is not a racial and ethnic issue. Asian-Americans simply exemplify traits that many faculty and observers of American higher education have started to feel ambivalent about and to find problematic when they are carried beyond a certain point. Furthermore, Epstein seems to put his finger on the wider problem. It’s not just the narrow academic focus: it’s the whole achievement-oriented mentality of the current generation of students—and its predecessors for several decades.
Helen Lefkowtiz Horowitz, a professor of history at Smith College, was perhaps the first careful observer of the college scene to notice the trend, in her very valuable Campus Life: Undergraduate Cultures from the End of the Eighteenth Century to the Present. The book, which was published in 1987 by the University of Chicago Press, anticipated many of the more recent criticisms of American college students.
Horowitz cites the work of Burton Clark and Howard Becker, who discerned that a new type of college student had entered the university in the post-World War II period. Horowitz called these students the New Outsiders. These students were different from the original and much older generation of Outsiders—the Jews and other ethnic minorities and the serious seminary students who took their studies in college seriously. Traditional college life, as Horowitz shows, was dominated by an undergraduate culture centered on the Greek system, which had developed in defiance of the faculty and the academic values that the faculty wanted to impose on its students. The Old Outsiders were not a part of this traditional undergraduate culture. The Old Outsiders studied hard, viewing college as the best opportunity they had to make it in America. The New Outsiders in the post-war period were also outsiders to the traditional undergraduate culture, but their impact was far greater, because their numbers were far greater. Because of the GI Bill and other social changes, the New Outsiders inundated colleges and universities, and changed undergraduate culture forever.
Horowitz sees Clark and Becker as the first analysts to note the seismic shift in college culture that occurred when the New Outsiders became dominant on campus. In their view, this transformation of college culture was inevitable, as America developed economically and technologically and required the development of a large, well educated, and technologically sophisticated professional class.
Horowitz sees a significant continuity in the history of the American university and its undergraduate culture dating from the post-World War II period. Mostly, she doesn’t like what she saw in the college students she interviewed in the 1980s. She deplored their pre-professionalism; their obsession with getting good grades and good résumés as stepping stones to successful post-graduate and professional careers; their conformity; and their anti-intellectualism. On her reading, undergraduate culture was, if anything, even worse in the 1980s than it had been in the 50s, probably due to the severe recession in the first part of the 1980s.
Horowitz’s complaints in Campus Life prefigured those of current observers of the college scene like Joseph Epstein:
When undergraduates perceive college as mere preparation for professional school, they hold themselves in. They push themselves to make high grades and present an unblemished portrait before an admissions committee. This means that they do not let themselves explore their inner selves or their world. How can they afford the luxury of contemplation when they are accumulating the grade point average necessary for application forms? How can they ask themselves the painful questions of youth? Real growth might knock them off the ladder to success.
In increasing numbers the children of Asian immigrants are entering institutions of higher education. In a manner that recalls the Protestant ministers of the early nineteenth century, the Jews of the early twentieth, and the veterans of World War II, they bring intellectual gifts, intense drive, and the hope for social mobility to study. They are encountering the resistance to their special seriousness that the others faced. The most prestigious private institutions set criteria for admission other than test scores and grades, criteria that discriminate against Asians. As proportions of Asian applicants are weighed against proportions of Asians accepted, rumors of quotas circulate. Against Asians the rhetoric of college life resounds anew: their only interest is in study and professional achievement; what about the college's need for athletes, actors, and alumni children?
The important studies of Burton Clark and Howard Becker, Horowitz says, had the “misfortune” of having been published in the 1960s, when observers inside and outside the university were captivated by students who often were not “grinds” and who were not interested in getting a good position for themselves in the emerging technocratic order. Undergraduate radicalism seized center stage in the Sixties. But as Horowtiz points out, neither the demands of the new technocratic order for high performance in college (discussed by Burton Clark), nor the undergraduate response to these new demands (which had been covered by Howard Becker), disappeared during the 1960s. They “just lay in wait,” as she puts it, “for campus turbulence to cease.” It all returned, with special virulence, in the 70s and 80s. Perhaps it is all even worse now.
For Horowitz, and for many other observers, the Sixties were anomalous—and special. Many books have been written about the academic convulsions of the Sixties. None seems to provide a fully satisfactory explanation of what made this period of American higher education so anomalous and so special. But it is pretty clear where Horowitz’s sympathies lie. Although she never says so explicitly, one cannot help suspecting Horowitz of being especially sympathetic to the undergraduate culture of the Sixties—not so much for its political radicalism, but for what might be called its academic radicalism. The students of the Sixties, in Horowitz’s estimate, were different from the pre-professional, unimaginative, and rather boring “grinds” that she kept encountering in the 1980s—and she clearly prefers the undergraduate culture of the Sixties.
I, too, liked the Sixties better. As I’ve already mentioned, I was an undergraduate at Berkeley in the Sixties, and I stayed on to do my graduate work there in philosophy. My clear impression is that the Sixties were the best years for the university, in almost all respects, including the student culture.
There was an excitement and passion about university life in the Sixties that hasn't been present since. There was, of course, plenty of political passion, but the passion and excitement weren't just political. It was equally an intellectual passion and excitement. And the excitement wasn't confined to the rallies at Sproul Hall Plaza. It pervaded the whole campus, and penetrated the classrooms.
Books and ideas were important. Conversations in the cafés weren't just about politics. They weren’t even mostly about politics—they were about books and ideas, and lectures by professors. A student organization called SLATE—a precursor of the Free Speech Movement—issued every semester a Supplement to the university's General Catalogue. The SLATE supplement gave SLATE’s student evaluations of courses and professors. The evaluations weren't about which professors were the easiest graders: it was about which professors were outstanding scholars in their fields and which profs were the most interesting and exciting. We expected our courses to be exciting.
The atmosphere was particularly heady in the humanities and social sciences, but as I recall the difference was perceptible even in the sciences. The sciences weren't seen by most students then as primarily a stepping stone to a good medical school or engineering school. They were seen as intellectually important in their own right, as ends in themselves.
Though I have never audited a class at Berkeley since graduating, and am therefore not in an ideal position to judge the matter, my sense is that this atmosphere of intense engagement, passion, and intellectual curiosity has been missing at Berkeley for decades.
I was therefore surprised, when doing some web researching for this piece, to find another opinion of today's Berkeley students expressed by a former professor of mine in philosophy at Berkeley, John R Searle. In an on-campus interview in 1999, Searle said:
When I've taught at other universities, I teach at a lot of universities, and at some universities I've taught at you get students whose IQs are as high as the Berkeley students, they're just more apathetic. They just don't much care about it. They don't have the hunger for commitment. They don't have the passion that I find in my Berkeley students.
Searle has always been a Berkeley enthusiast. I recall from my undergraduate days a comment by Searle that received some national and international attention: that Berkeley was undoubtedly the most exciting university in the world. It might very well have been when I was there, but I was a rather surprised to hear Searle say that his students in 1999 had passion.
Perhaps the intellectual passion is there in some of the classrooms, even though it doesn't pervade the cafés or the campus climate the way it used to in the Sixties. (The political passion is long gone.) No doubt, there are still engaged and intellectually committed students. In fact, I knew one recently: Annie (my cousin once removed), who loved Cal and who was moved to major in history by courses she had taken by a very popular and prominent post-Civil War historian, Leon Litwack. (Litwack and C. Van Woodward were two of the historians most responsible for revising the traditionally accepted history of Reconstruction in the South.) So far as I know, Annie’s interest in history had nothing to do with any career plans. In fact, the latest word from the family is that she might end up living in Chile, having formed a serious relationship with the son of a family that owns a large agricultural estate near Temuco.
I met with Annie several times before she graduated at the Free Speech Movement Café that adjoins the Moffitt undergraduate library on campus. I was very pleased to see that Annie was enthusiastic and genuinely excited about the coursework and the lectures. But how common are students like Annie these days? And how common are the passionate students that John Searle finds in his classroom? (Both Searle and Litwack have had reputations as outstanding lecturers and teachers on the Berkeley campus for decades, and they might draw an unrepresentative sample of students.) I know far too many faculty members who have a quite different opinion of today's students to think that they are all that common. Only a minority of these friends of mine are at Berkeley. Many are at colleges and universities in other states, and most of them are at highly selective and well-known colleges. A number have taken early retirements when they could, in large part because they have found their students to be immature and boring.
Helen Horowitz also found students in the 1980s who were exceptions to her general rule. In the last pages of her book, she describes some of them. She called them cultural rebels—not political rebels, but rebels against conformity. These students regarded a good liberal education as an end in itself rather than as a gateway to a prosperous future; they resisted careerism; and they were aware that a good liberal education can be profoundly subversive. But they were a minority, and they knew it.
In the Sixties at Berkeley, we shared some of the characteristics of the students Horowitz interviewed (and liked) in the 1980s, but we didn’t have to feel we were non-conformists. We were not swimming against a powerful tide: we felt we were the tide. Our professors in the Sixties at Berkeley might have found us immature, but it is most unlikely that they would have found us boring. The French would have described us as engagé, and I’m sure the university was better for it.
It would be interesting to canvas the opinion of faculty members whose memory covers more than the thirty years that Joseph Epstein taught at Northwestern. That takes Epstein back to 1974—when according to Horowitz undergraduate culture had resumed the trend towards "grade grinding" and pre-professionalism—and not to the Sixties. Perhaps a survey of professors who taught in the Sixties would confirm an impression of mine that might strike many as heretical and shocking: that the Golden Age of the American university was Berkeley (and other universities like it) in the Sixties.