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Harvard’s Admissions Bigotry — A Partial Theory

Graduating students take part in commencement exercises at Harvard University in 2017. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

I floated this idea on last week’s episode of The Editors but I think it’s worth exploring here.

My father always thought it was remarkable how, despite the bias against Jews in higher education, so many Jews of his generation, and the generation before his, still managed to go to college and become doctors and lawyers. Why did it happen? Because it was a cultural imperative imposed at the family level. If Harvard wouldn’t take you, try Yale. If Yale said no, try Cornell. If none of the Ivies wanted you, try the University of Michigan (my Dad’s alma mater). The stereotype of Jewish families placing an enormous emphasis on education is a stereotype for a reason.

Asian Americans have a similar stereotype, and it too has a basis in reality.

Anyway, here’s my theory. According to reports, Harvard discriminated against Asian applicants because they had “bad” personalities. Wesley Yang has a moving op-ed in the New York Times today on the subject. He recounts how Casey Pedrick, an assistant principal at (the ruthlessly meritocratic) Stuyvesant High School in New York City was brought to tears by the evidence that Harvard discriminated against high-scoring, high-achieving, Asian-American students. Yang writes:

Ms. Pedrick knows that her Asian students believe they have to earn their admission to Stuyvesant in the only way anyone has for more than four decades: by passing a rigorous entrance exam. Their parents will often invest a major share of the family income into test preparation courses to help them pass — this despite the fact that more Asians live in poverty than any other group in New York City.

Asian students come from families that put an enormous emphasis on education as a bulwark against poverty and as a ticket to economic prosperity (not always the same thing). Contrary to some reporting, this doesn’t mean they don’t spend time on extra-curricular activities. The Asian students had more extra-curricular activities than white applicants. But, I would bet that the Asian kids were more focused on education as high-end vocational training. The white kids come from a milieu where college is seen as a place for making social connections and a rite of passage. The Asian kids want careers, specifically careers in STEM professions.


So here’s my theory: It’s not that these kids don’t have good personalities, it’s that they don’t have fully “woke” personalities. They don’t speak the language of cosmopolitan, secular noblesse oblige that so often takes the form of political correctness — at least not with sufficient fluency. They don’t know the shibboleths that demonstrate they understand what higher education is really for.

Moreover, their inability or unwillingness to care enough about such stuff is an indication of what they want out of college. Perhaps there are a bunch of Asian-immigrant parents out there who would be perfectly happy to have their kids go to Harvard and major in gender theory or some such. But I suspect not.

As I recently recounted, my father-in-law had the kind of practicality that comes from being a refugee. His favorite response to self-indulgent ideas about what to do for a living was, “Yeah, but can you eat it?” What he meant was that careers, education, and business ideas should be grounded in something real, something useful. I suspect that there are many Asian-American Paul Gavoras out there.

If Harvard lifted its anti-Asian criteria, Harvard’s own Office of Institutional Research said the share of Asian students at Harvard would more than double, from 19 percent to 43 percent. But that 43 percent wouldn’t be distributed equally among all courses and disciplines. It would be a boon for computer-science and biology classes, but even more seats would go empty in women’s history or poetry courses. And I can’t help but think that the faculties in the humanities and the softer social sciences have disproportionate sway on the cultural and political assumptions of the school’s administration. They are, after all, the talkers.

Of course, I’m making a sweeping generalization. I have no doubt there are plenty of Asian kids interested in such things, but, as a statistical generalization, I’m sure I am right. I don’t think for a moment that this theory explains the whole phenomena. The question is, how much of the bias against Asians can be explained by the desire of a guild to protect its own racket?


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