Class Struggle by Jay Mathews, Education Columnist

I Am an Asian Parent

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 6, 2005; 3:31 PM

Fifteen years ago one of my son's friends, Jim Ho, now a clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, interviewed me for a high school paper he was writing on Asians and education. That was the first time I told anyone I thought I was an Asian parent too, just like his mother and father. I had, and still have, the same values and obsessions. I think school and family are very important. I want my children to do their homework. I think it is good to think early about what you want to do with your life. Competition, I think, is healthy. Intellectual excellence can bring life-long satisfaction and also open up opportunities for a good income.

Now there is a new book by two Korean-American sisters, Soo Kim Abboud, a physician, and Jane Kim, a lawyer: "Top of the Class: How Asian Parents Raise High Achievers -- and How You Can Too" (paperback, $10.40 at amazon.com). They make a crucial assertion on page 2: "The reason that Asian students outperform their peers in the classroom has nothing to do with how they are born and everything to do with how they are raised." They are no more intelligent than students in other ethnic groups. They just tend, on average, to take school more seriously.

If this is such a good thing for our schools, as I think it is, then how do I explain a story on the front page of the Nov. 19-20 Wall Street Journal, "The New White Flight"? The article by Suein Hwang, a fine reporter, says white parents in Silicon Valley say they are pulling their children out of some of the local public high schools because they have too many Asian students and "are too academically driven and too narrowly invested in subjects such as math and science at the expense of liberal arts and extracurriculars like sports and other personal interests."

Hwang quotes administrators in those schools saying the white parents are wrong, and she identifies only two white families who think the schools have changed because of the new ethnic mix. There is no data to show that the rising portion of Asians and declining portion of whites in those schools is anything more than what has often happened in American history when immigrant groups -- Irish, Italians, Jews, Iranians -- have acquired enough wealth to afford homes in the best neighborhoods, like the ones where Monta Vista High and Lynbrook High schools featured in the Journal piece are located.

But I have heard white families say the same things about Asian families, so I suspect Hwang's story accurately reflects the thinking of many people in such communities, even if the reality of their schools is quite different.

I am sure many Asian parents are amused by the notion, implicit in the white families' complaints, that they can just transfer their children to a high school that does not have many Asian students and all those academic pressures will ease. My daughter Katie would be in hysterics to think anyone would suggest her Washington private high school classmates, only 5 percent of whom were Asian, was any less oppressed by the middle-class American obsession with grades and college admissions than my son Joe's Pasadena, Calif., private high school, where the three non-Asians in his math class were called the "Caucasian Corner."

Step into any of the challenging public high schools that I write so often about in this column, and you find the same thing: energetic students of every ethnicity who want the same life satisfactions that their parents have and are willing to work as hard as their parents have to get them.

I say to the concerned white parents of Silicon Valley: Those Asian parents are us, and we are them. As Abboud and Kim show, there is nothing wrong with that.

Their chapter titles prove the point. Each identifies what they call a "secret" of the Asian parents' success. Secret 1 is "instill a love and need for learning and education." Secret 7 is "determine and develop your child's individual talents." Secret 16 is "help your child view America as a great land of opportunity."

Helpfully, they also point out that all concerned parents should guard against going overboard. It is not a good idea to insist that the child who wants to play soccer go to piano practice instead, or demand that she apply to Harvard when what she really wants is the engineering program at Lehigh.

The only part of the book that troubles me is Secret 11: "Forget the 'do whatever makes you happy' mentality and strive for professions with financial security and intellectual fulfillment." Even though many parents, of every ethnicity, believe that our children will have happier lives if they make the big bucks, it is rare today to hear any of us say that out loud. I have my little fantasies about Katie going to med school and setting her mother and me up in a $1 million bungalow in Carmel-by-the-Sea with her earnings from that cancer cure she's going to discover, but it is just one of our many family jokes. Abboud and Kim, on the other hand, are serious.

Abboud was the usual perfect first-born child. She answered her parents' prayers by attending the famous public boarding school, the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, then got her bachelor's and medical degrees at Johns Hopkins. Kim did well at the American School in Japan, then George Mason University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to get her bachelor's, but resisted her parents' urging that she go to law school. After a year on her own in dead-end jobs, she succumbed and got a law degree at Temple. The book says "she now admits that our parents were right all along."

I have met too many happy and satisfied school teachers to buy into the notion that the most lucrative jobs are better than the others. But Abboud and Kim persist: "Do your child a favor by being honest with them: teach them how much financial insecurity will affect their happiness in the long-run," they say. "Although an education certainly does not guarantee a high salary, no other means will consistently open as many doors on an intellectual, social and financial level."

Abboud, 32, is the same age as Joe, my oldest child. Kim is 29. Only Abboud is married, and neither have children yet. I hope they return to this topic once they have actually had to deal with the dreams and dislikes of their own offspring. All of us experienced parents will ask if they really want to fight that many battles.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company