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Jonathan Kay on our increasingly Asian campuses: We’re all ‘Tiger Mothers’ now
By Jonathan Kay
posted 10-Feb-2012  ·  

According to census results released on Wednesday, Canada has the fastest-growing population of any G8 nation, with two-thirds of the growth coming from immigration. These newcomers aren’t just redrawing Canada’s population map: They’re also radically transforming our elite educational institutions.

This is especially true of immigrants from Philippines, India and China, who collectively make up about a third of all migrants to Canada, and who tend to exhibit high levels of academic performance. A 2010 study of Toronto District School Board students found that 72% of students from Eastern Asian immigrant families, and 50% from Southern Asian families, went on to university — as compared to just 42% of Canadian-born students (and, tragically, 12% of Caribbean students). The city of Vancouver is about 21% East Asian. Yet roughly double that proportion of UBC students self-identify as East Asian.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that the trend is the same in competitive high schools. When I attended Selwyn House School in Montreal in the 1970s and 1980s, there were exactly three Asian students in my class. When I returned to SHS recently to give a speech at career day, 25 years later, it was, let us say, a world transformed. The same pattern is on exhibit here in Toronto, where high-achieving Asian students now account for a huge component of the incoming class at schools such as Bishop Strachan and Havergal, which once were as white as mayo on Wonder bread.

For many Asian immigrants to Canada, the key to success is a work ethic so powerful that it often serves to smother normal teenage distractions. Back in Nov. 2010, in aMaclean‘s cover article called “Too Asian?”, Stephanie Findlay and Nicholas Köhler described how the student bodies at some of Canada’s best universities — University of Toronto, UBC and Waterloo, in particular — were becoming increasingly populated by hard-working Asian students who are strangers to every part of campus except the classroom and library. A pair of white graduates from an elite Toronto high school candidly told Maclean’s that “the only people from our school who went to U of T were Asian.”

“All the white kids,” one added, “go to Queen’s, Western and McGill” — good schools that also are known for sports, clubs, and a decent party scene.

The Maclean’s article focused on campus social dynamics. But the issue is more fundamental than that: Competition from Asian students is coming to shape the parenting practices and scholastic expectations of millions of native-born Canadian parents.

It used to be that upwardly mobile native-born parents could count on getting any reasonably bright child into a good private school and university. Now, those children are in competition against Asian immigrants who spend their weekends drilling math and spelling-bee lists.

For native-born Canadian parents, that’s a scary thing. Last year, my wife read Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua, and laughed at the author’s insanely Type-A mothering techniques. But when she put Chua’s book down, the first words out of her mouth were “Should we put our kids in piano lessons?”

And so we did. We also sent our youngest child to after-school reading lessons, even though I’m not sure she needed them. The competition from highly motivated immigrants is making stressed out Tiger Mothers of us all.

There’s a century-old precedent for all of this. At Harvard University in 1908, Jews represented only about 9% of the student body. By 1925, following on the great waves of immigrants from Europe and Russia, the proportion had gone up to 28%. At Columbia, the number reached 40%.

The complaints about Jews back then — that they were soulless worker bees who didn’t participate in campus civil life — mirrored those we hear about Asian students today: Ivy League School administrators in the flapper age spoke euphemistically about Jewish applicants who lacked “character” or “leadership” skills.

Then, as now, there was some substance to the stereotype. Twenty-eight percent of Jews at Harvard in the 1920s graduated with distinction, versus just 15% for gentiles. But just a quarter of Jews participated in Harvard athletics, half the rate for gentiles. An observer at Columbia at the time complained that “As one casually observes the men of the College, one is struck by the complete lack of undergraduate atmosphere about any group of [Jews].” Sound familiar?

The WASP Brahmins of Harvard, Yale and Princeton dealt with this problem (as they imagined it) with quotas. In the mid-1920s, amid mounting alarm about “foreign elements” on campus, applicants to Harvard were asked, for the first time, to state their “religious preference.” They also were asked to submit a passport-sized photo, also a novelty at the time. As a result, Jewish admissions plummeted, and WASP America was given a couple of extra decades to adapt to the Jewish challenge. Not until the Cold War, when Americans realized they needed to marshal all their brainpower to beat the Russians, was the quota system fully reformed.

But of course, quotas aren’t a realistic option for schools in today’s Canada. For one thing, they’re racist. For another, it’s morally wrong to lure immigrants to Canada and then deny their children a fair shot at our best schools. In a globalized economy in which Canada is competing for immigrant brainpower, university quotas would be the quickest way to repel the best and brightest. It’s a situation we’re going to have to live with.

Yet few want to talk about it. For all the obsessive attention we heap on “reasonable accommodation,” and the problem of a few Muslim kids running around soccer fields in head scarves, I don’t think Canadian policy-makers have done much thinking about the far more important phenomenon unfolding on the nation’s campuses. The same is true of educators, who (rightly) see the whole subject as a politically correct minefield, and would rather just ignore it.

The optimist will say that rising standards in high schools and universities will benefit everyone. And no doubt it’s true that Canadian children could stand to watch a little less television and do a little more homework. But the sight of elite campuses increasingly dominated by new Canadians also is bound to arouse some of the tribalistic impulses that usually lie dormant in our society.

Ordinary parents, meanwhile, are just going to have to get out the flash cards and adapt as best they can. All in all, I’d say, it’s a good time to be in the business of teaching piano.

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