Why are Asian-Americans so good at school? Or, to put it another way, why is Xuan-Trang Ho so perfect?
Trang came to the United States in 1994 as an 11-year-old Vietnamese girl who spoke no English. Her parents, neither having more than a high school education, settled in Nebraska and found jobs as manual laborers.
The youngest of eight children, Trang learned English well enough that when she graduated from high school, she was valedictorian. Now she is a senior at Nebraska Wesleyan with a 3.99 average, a member of the USA Today All-USA College Academic Team and a new Rhodes Scholar.
Increasingly in America, stellar academic achievement has an Asian face. In 2005, Asian-Americans averaged a combined math-verbal SAT of 1091, compared with 1068 for whites, 982 for American Indians, 922 for Hispanics and 864 for blacks. Forty-four percent of Asian-American students take calculus in high school, compared with 28 percent of all students.
Among whites, 2 percent score 750 or better in either the math or verbal SAT. Among Asian-Americans, 3 percent beat 750 in verbal, and 8 percent in math. Frankly, you sometimes feel at an intellectual disadvantage if your great-grandparents weren’t peasants in an Asian village.
So I asked Trang why Asian-Americans do so well in school.
“I can’t speak for all Asian-Americans,” Trang told me, “but for me and my friends, it was because of the sacrifices that our parents made. … It’s so difficult to see my parents get up at 5 each morning to go to factories to earn $6.30 an hour. I see that there is so much that I can do in America that my parents couldn’t.”
Of course, not all Asian-Americans are so painfully perfect — Filipinos are among the largest groups of Asian-Americans and they do very well without being stellar. Success goes particularly to those whose ancestors came from the Confucian belt from Japan through Korea and China to Vietnam.
It’s not just the immigrant mentality, for Japanese-American students are mostly fourth- and fifth-generation now, and they’re still excelling. Nor is it just about family background, for Chinese-Americans who trace their origins to peasant villages also graduate summa.
One theory percolating among some geneticists is that in societies that were among the first with occupations that depended on brains, genetic selection may have raised I.Q.’s slightly — a theory suggesting that maybe Asians are just smarter. But I’m skeptical, partly because so much depends on context.
In the U.S., for example, ethnic Koreans are academic stars. But in Japan, ethnic Koreans languish in an underclass, often doing poorly in schools and becoming involved in the yakuza mafia. One lesson may be that if you discriminate against a minority and repeatedly shove its members off the social escalator, then you create pathologies of self-doubt that can become self-sustaining.
So then why do Asian-Americans really succeed in school? Aside from immigrant optimism, I see two and a half reasons:
First, as Trang suggests, is the filial piety nurtured by Confucianism for 2,500 years. Teenagers rebel all over the world, but somehow Asian-American kids often manage both to exasperate and to finish their homework. And Asian-American families may not always be warm and fuzzy, but they tend to be intact and focused on their children’s getting ahead.
Second, Confucianism encourages a reverence for education. In Chinese villages, you still sometimes see a monument to a young man who centuries ago passed the jinshi exam — the Ming dynasty equivalent of getting a perfect SAT. In a Confucian culture, it is intuitive that the way to achieve glory and success is by working hard and getting A’s.
Then there’s the half-reason: American kids typically say in polls that the students who succeed in school are the “brains.” Asian kids typically say that the A students are those who work hard. That means no Asian-American ever has an excuse for not becoming valedictorian.
“Anybody can be smart, can do great on standardized tests,” Trang explains. “But unless you work hard, you’re not going to do well.”
If I’m right, the success of Asian-Americans is mostly about culture, and there’s no way to transplant a culture. But there are lessons we can absorb, and maybe the easiest is that respect for education pays dividends. That can come, for example, in the form of higher teacher salaries, or greater public efforts to honor star students. While there are no magic bullets, we would be fools not to try to learn some Asian lessons.