I used to really oppose affirmative action. Whenever the topic would come up in conversation, I’d always strongly argue against it. It’s an unfair policy. Why should students be penalized or rewarded for having a certain ethnicity in college admissions? That’s out of our control. Last year, I even took a survey in which I voted that I was against affirmative action.
But after spending a year and a half in college, my stance has changed. I’d like to take that vote back. Berkeley doesn’t have an affirmative action policy, so I see first hand what it’s like to not have one. And what I see is this: the lack of diversity throughout the campus is detrimental to student learning.
I really only see two ethnic groups on campus — Asians and whites. The black population is almost non-existent — I can count the number of black kids in my four classes on one hand. The Hispanic population is a little bigger, but not by much. In fact, here are the student demographic stats.
And so because of this lack of diversity, we don’t get many different ways of thinking. I can’t speak about white people, but most Asian people are brought up in a similar manner. The prevailing ideology for Asians is this: get good grades to set up a comfortable life. And so for a lot of Asians, the focus is so much on school that there is no time for critical thinking or real world issues.
My discrete math class is mostly Asian. Last week in class, my professor asked us students, “Who watched the debate last night?”. I expected most students to answer yes, but they didn’t. Less than 15 kids raised their hands to say yes, out of about 120 people. Some students then yelled out, “We’re CS majors, we don’t care about this kind of stuff”. Many more people nodded yes to that statement than people who watched the debate.
In China, an estimated 30% of engineering students won’t be able to find jobs after graduation. If you click the link, you’ll see that this isn’t because there are a lack of jobs. It’s because the graduates don’t have the skills necessary to do the jobs. This is somewhat surprising as China ranks first in science achievement at age 15.
But if you look at why China did so well, it was because they put so much emphasis on “beating the test”. A lot of emphasis is put on memorizing solution methods and not on understanding material.
And this is why these engineering students can’t get jobs: they aren’t creative, they aren’t innovative. They can only solve problems that have been solved before. That’s useless in fields of engineering.
If we take a step back and look at why China is this way, it all points to one thing: the Chinese college admissions process. All of China’s education system is based off of the Gao kao. It’s China’s college entrance exam. The score you get determines where you go to school. You can imagine it as a much harder SAT and only those who scored above 2300 can go to Harvard. If you score a 2290, Harvard is no longer an option. The college admissions process is almost completely achievement based.
Chinese people believe that whatever school you go to will determine the rest of your life. And so then the education system is such that everything builds up to the Gao kao. From elementary school to middle school to high school, you learn to memorize. So when memorization is what you’ve been doing your whole life, it’s hard to just suddenly change and think critically, think creatively.
And this isn’t just happening in China, it happens in America too. Asians in America are not well prepared for the job market. If you read James Hong’s story, he brings up the “bamboo ceiling“. And the bamboo ceiling exists because of this: a lot of Chinese immigrants bring the Gao kao mentality with them when they come here to America. The reason you can’t get a managerial position isn’t because people are racist. It’s because you don’t have the skills necessary to get that position.
This weekend I went to my friend’s house. She’s Chinese. Her parents talk a lot about SAT scores — they know pretty much all of their friends’ scores. And they treat it like the Gao kao — they believe that a high SAT score and good grades should be all it takes to get into a good college. They take that mentality and raise their kids with it. Asian parents don’t sit their kids down and teach them about politics. They don’t bring up relevant world issues. They teach them memorization. They raise their kids to be just “good enough”. They raise them to listen to the rules and never question authority. They raise them to be conventional and uncreative. They raise their kids to be drones.
So what does affirmative action do? It brings diversity to campus. It brings different ways of thinking to campus. In my discrete math class, I asked my friends how they solved one of the homework problems from last week and they all used the same method. It was the cut and dry method from our textbook. But there was a much better way to solve the problem, a much easier way. And it was easy to see, but they aren’t used to thinking, they’re used to memorizing. So when I asked my friends from other universities, I got a different way of solving the problem from each one of them. And I learned a lot from each method. I always learn a lot from looking at a problem in a different way, everyone does.
Even more, affirmative action will bring much needed diversity to the Asian community. Sooner or later, because of affirmative action, Asians will learn that it isn’t good enough to just have good grades, good test scores, and good extracurriculars. You as a person, not just your accomplishments, also need to be pretty damn good; you need to be nice, sociable, able to think deeply about things other than school, able to think creatively. It isn’t just about having better achievements than that other kid. It’s about actually being good, actually having the potential to grow. Right now, most Asians are at a plateau. They can’t grow until they learn to think creatively.
And so the shift will be from the grassroots: Asian parents need to start raising their kids to be creative, to be independent. The most important trait of a “genius” is his independence. So let your kids argue with you, research shows that it’s healthy for a kid to be argumentative. Teach them how to be creative and innovative, because it’s a skill that can be taught. The old convention of memorizing methods and solutions, and putting the focus solely on school just isn’t good enough. It won’t even matter that schools haven’t evolved yet, because parents have much more impact on their child than school does.
I want to see a generation that brings us Asian leaders. I want to see an Asian president. I want to see an Asian create an empire that will be as big as Microsoft or Apple. But none of that can happen until we accept and adapt to affirmative action.