There are two possible ways to interpret the question in the title. One is that Sulu embody the character of Kirk, but then have that role played by a person of Japanese ancestry. The other is that Sulu retain the character that they had in the original show, but then be cast in the position of captain. Either way, could the Star Trek story remain as compelling in these other scenarios as it was in the original?
I will explain in a bit what made me think to ask this question. But before I do I want to note first that most of us hold stereotypical views of others. Students of behavioral economics learn about this via the representativeness heuristic coupled with the conjunction fallacy. The example of Linda the Bank Teller, which I first saw in Stephen Jay Gould's The Streak of Streaks, but which he got from earlier work by Kahneman and Tversky, illustrates the issues nicely and does so in a comparatively safe way. Talking about prejudice yet in a safe manner I believe to be the unspoken value of the example. It is hard to talk about our prejudice without the discussion quickly getting heated. The aim of the question in my title was to emulate the Linda the Bank Teller example in this regard. I leave it for each reader to work through an answer. It will help to do so first, before reading the rest of my post. I will include my answer at the end of this essay.
Over the past several years there have been numerous pieces about Asian-Americans, with a focus on parenting and kid performance in school. But recently the flow of such pieces seem to be accelerating, with a flurry of such essays within the last few weeks. Some of this is the result of Asian-Americans suing Harvard for discrimination in the application process. Another part of this is NYC Mayor De Blasio's plan to change how admissions are done at the elite magnet high schools in the city. I read much more opinion than straight news, recently most of that is from the NY Times Op-Ed page and the New Yorker. The pieces on this topic I've read recently are: The Last of the Tiger Parents, Harvard Is Wrong That Asians Have Terrible Personalities, and Why Asian-Americans Feel Powerless In The Battle Over New York's Elite High Schools.
The thing is, each of these pieces is authored by an Asian-American. It's clear they have enough skin in the game to feel compelled to write these pieces. But as a reader I want a different perspective, if it is possible to get it. This thought is not new to me. A few years back I wrote a post called Boundaries Are Always Harder to Define. The following is a paragraph from that piece.
I am a fairly regular reader of the New York Times Opinion Page. Among the regular columnists, Charles Blow is the one who writes regularly about race issues, often taking on the Republican attack machine in the process. It might be expected that an African American columnist will write on race issues, but as a regular diet of columns I find this problematic. So it occurred to me that Blow should swap columns with somebody else at the Times, Joe Nocera for example. Nocera has written a spate of columns on the NCAA as evil cartel. Imagine if for a month or so that Blow would write about the NCAA, race could certainly enter the discussion there but the constraint would be that there was a connection to NCAA issues, and Nocera would write about race relations, preferably entirely outside the world of sports. The alternative perspective would be helpful to readers.
Alas, we don't get this sort of thing very often at all. For example, it would be interesting to read Charles Blow on Asian-Americans and elite schools, but I suspect we won't see pieces like that from him. So I thought I'd give some bits from my experiences as a professor, to see how the world looks from that angle. I should note straightaway, others have written about these issues as well. I will make reference to some of that in what follows.
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The first example is from a class I taught back in fall 2009 for students in the Campus Honors Program called Designing for Effective Change. It is the only time I've ever taught an undergraduate class that was not in economics. And it was was the first time in my teaching where I had students write weekly blog posts. There were many other unusual aspects to the class that were novel for me. Here I want to focus on just one, the demographic diversity of the class and my reaction to it. By mid semester I had embraced an unarticulated view that women of Asian ancestry would eventually take over the world. The students in that category in my class had both diligence and modesty. I had one male student from India (or whose parents were from India) who was a bit of an operator and the only student in the class who didn't attend regularly. And some of the White students I felt were too entitled and self-absorbed. The last time I can recall thinking this, it was Accounting students taking my intermediate micro class when I was an assistant professor and it was a couple of male students only. This was more than 25 years later. Most of these entitled students were either in engineering or were pre-med. And most of them were women. (The entire class had only 17 students, so this was a small numbers situation.)
Now here is the odd thing. We had live class sessions in discussion mode and the students who dominated those conversations were the entitled students. There were many other quiet students. The bulk of the Asian students were in this category; some of the White students were too. Once they got the hang of the blogging, after about a month or so, many of these quiet students produced more interesting posts. They were more exploratory and open in their writing, and evidently put considerable effort into it. In contrast, the students who were more glib in class seemed to struggle with the blogging, as it was harder for them to find their voice that way. Some of this is explained in the post I linked to. I will add a different dimension to this which I didn't consider in that post, whether the students are extroverts or introverts. My hypothesis is that extroverts are likely to thrive in the live class session while introverts will become more expressive in online writing. I wonder if other instructors have come to a similar conclusion. This was all a surprise to me at the time. Prior to teaching this class I assumed that people who were good in the live classroom would also be good with the blogging. In other words, my prior was that a good student is good across the board. But that's not what I observed.
There was some outstanding student writing in this class done by students who took the course for Advanced Composition credit, which meant they had to do other writing than the blog posts. For the first writing project I had these students do book reviews, a la the reviews I would then read in the New York Review of Books. I guessed that this would be more interesting than the usual term papers, which invariably are dreary to read and I suppose not all that exciting to write. This was one of my experiments that actually paid off. (Many of my experiments go for naught.) I went so far as to share a couple of the reviews with the author of the book being reviewed. When I got a pleased response from him, I shared that with the students. (I redacted a bit of the message to protect the identity of the students. Only first names were retained.) They too were delighted.
Both Christine and Xuan were among the quiet students in the class and both of them are of Chinese ancestry. If I recall correctly, Christine's parents were immigrants. Xuan herself was an immigrant. Christine fit the stereotype in some ways, displaying quite a lot of what Angela Duckworth calls grit. But Christine showed a quality I don't see in many students. She was very coachable, open to my suggestions, and willing to try something that might produce improvement. Perhaps she didn't realize it was all an experiment and I didn't have prior experience in teaching to really know what I was doing. (I did have a lot of prior experience in my own blog writing and it was that which provided a basis for what I was trying to accomplish.) In any event, she distinguished herself in my eyes by producing many drafts, each an improvement on the predecessor.
Xuan was quite apart from the stereotype, although I'm not entirely sure why, though I surmise she was much less dependent on her parents for her own development. One day she came to my office hours and told me that mine was her favorite class. She appreciated the freedom and openness of the class and as a pre-med student wasn't getting a lot of social science thinking in her other courses. She had a hunger for that. I regarded Xuan quite highly by the end of the course.
Now here's a bit of a surprise. Xuan asked me to write a letter of recommendation for her to go to medical school. I agreed to that, though I don't have many students who go that route. She took the MCATs and didn't do well on the written portion of the test, which eventually delayed her admission by a year or two. I tried to understand this outcome, as I viewed her as an outstanding writer. Here are some possible explanations. Xuan is not a native English speaker. I believe writing in English is a labor for her. She is more than willing to produce this labor but it is time consuming for her to do so. The MCATs are a timed exam. That works against a student like Xuan. There is also that she couldn't afford to take a test prep class. And then there are the other writing issues that I think quite important to consider, but usually are ignored.
In my class I encouraged the students to please themselves with the blogging. It was something they had never heard before. I was the one who'd be giving them a grade, so their instinct was to please me. Eventually they came around to understanding that they would please me more if they first pleased themselves. With some frequency their classmates would also read their posts and comment on them, though that wasn't required. The other students were lending support and identifying with some of the writing. Over time the students came to understand the audience they were writing for and the posts improved as a consequence. Further, the posts frequently made reference to earlier pieces, which made the writing feel like an ongoing conversation. Somebody who writes well in that setting may not do nearly as well in a one and done situation, where there is no prior relationship with the reader.
I did have some interaction with a handful of students from that class after the course was over, but now I've lost touch with them all except for Xuan. We corresponded a bit earlier this year. She was getting ready for the medical intern matching program and had some trepidation about that, but she also seemed to have a wealth of experience doing medicine in developing countries, some of which slowed down her formal medical education. I felt sure she'd land on her feet and continue to do great work. It is also so nice for me to see a student who is not motivated primarily by money but rather cares first about doing meaningful work. That seems like a rarity these days.
Both before and after this course was offered I was part of the CHP advisory board. (Teaching the class was a reward for serving on the committee.) But I think I only did admissions one time, which was after the course. The applications to the U of I are quite different from the applications to Harvard. There are no letters of recommendation and often no interviews. And the essays are quite spare. Nonetheless, I used the essays more than the extracurricular activities and standardized test scores in making my recommendations. Students don't actually apply to CHP. They apply to the U of I and exceptional applications are then flagged as possible candidates for CHP, which is a comparatively small program. What I observed may not be surprising, but there seemed to be a negative correlation between quality of the essays and standardized test scores. Indeed, there were several applications with perfect standardized test scores, but the essays were middling. It may well be that for such students the U of I is their "safe school" and they were assured of getting in, so made no effort on the essays. Therefore, I wouldn't read too much into this observation, other than it is another instance where different indicators are negatively correlated yet in advanced I'd have expected the correlation to be positive.
Let me tie these experiences to some consideration of Asian students applying to Harvard. I don't know if the students in my CHP class would have been competitive for getting into Harvard or not, but surely they were in the ballpark regarding their qualifications. My guess is that the quiet students I had would not fare well during the interview process. The more outspoken students, whom I described as entitled, would do better that way. Elite college admissions, it seems to me, is about making a good first impression. The good quiet students I came to admire kind of grow on you. They would be screened out by a process that emphasizes first impressions. Likewise, their essays might fall flat as they'd be more uncomfortable producing them, not having a good feel for the reader in this case. This would be the case for all quiet students. But if race correlates with that, which in my small numbers case it did, then this could be seen as discrimination when it really is just applying the usual criteria by which students are judged for admission.
One might consider hypothetically, an admissions officer at Harvard or at other elite universities who read this piece, agree with much of the analysis, and become convinced that they should score their admissions differently to make it more likely that a quiet student with talent is admitted. Are there things that might be done to encourage that outcome? I don't know but one thought that has me intrigued is whether some of the teachers in the high school spend time evaluating the college prospects of the better students and as part of that they specifically deliberate about those who are quiet in class but who produce high caliber work. On the one hand, one might think that the teachers are in the best position to make this sort of determination. On the other hand, this focus on college prospects may be seen as outside their job description. But if there was an agreed upon demand for this function, then there should be ways to internalize the cost of the activity in a way where it gets done.
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Before getting to the next example, I'd like to give a bit about my philosophy of education. I will do that by posing two different framing questions. Answering those in full can get the reader quite far into understanding what is at issue.
Q1: Is learning work or play?
Q2: Who drives the agenda for the child learner, an authority figure such as a parent or teacher, or the learner himself or herself?
To this you might add a third question.
Q3: Invariably at some point learning will become difficult and the child learner stumbles or gets stuck. Focusing only on the first few times this has happened, what then?
These questions are meant to be interrelated and should be taken together, eventually. One might spend some time first on some definitional clarifying questions - What does it mean to be work or play? Are there evident indicators that it is one or the other? I'm going to assume we've done that already so can get on with the discussion.
Now some fairly obvious derivative questions. Is learning as play what we mean by intrinsic motivation? When learning is work does that require extrinsic motivation to get the learning to occur? If an adult suggests a few different books that a kid might read and the kid chooses one, who is driving the decision? What type of temperament does the kid have when dealing with disappointments, some of which might not have anything to do with learning? (Did the favorite uncle forget to get a birthday present for the kid?)
Casting myself as the adult learner, I have some very strong answers to these questions, which I will give below. I find myself different from most of my students this way and I will posit two possible explanations for that. With that as setup, I will proceed to the second example.
I believe that much learning is play in the sense of going on some adventure, exploring ideas, not knowing in advance where it will take you but having a sense at the outset that the ride will be quite enjoyable. I believe this is tied to developing a reading habit early in life. Reading is key to me. Once in a while it is fine to get direction of what to read from others, but much of the time the learner should choose what to read next and from that experience discover what things to read are appealing. I'm going to delay considering my answer on the stumbling question for a bit and then get back to it.
Over the years I've written a variety of pieces about learning as play. Each takes a somewhat different look, but they are guided by the same personal philosophy. The first of these has the evident title, How do students play at their schoolwork? When kids live at home their parents might direct their time with schoolwork, but in college that becomes their own responsibility. So time on task is one issue to consider. But really, it's a byproduct only. The main product is depth of understanding. At the opposite extreme to play with the schoolwork is rote memorization of the lecture notes. In my view rote was necessary to learn spelling and the times tables, but it should fall by the wayside after that. Rote doesn't produce deep learning at all. Deep learning is about making connections between the stuff being learned and what the learner already knows (or believes). Play establishes those deep connections.
The next piece is entitled PLAs Please. PLA, short for personal learning agenda, was a play on words. (At the time there was something else called a PLE, personal learning environment, an alternative to the learning management system.) It was shorthand for learning that happens outside of classes, which is the type that is driven by the leaner, or possibly is driven by peer pressure or parental pressure, but my focus in that piece was the learner opting in. I wonder now if you surveyed college kids, whether they like to challenge themselves this way or not. My conjecture is that if the learner does a lot of this sort of thing, then school won't be as challenging and classwork will just fit into a larger tapestry. That's pretty much how it was me right through high school.
The last piece I'll mention is called Encouraging the mind to putter. My wife likes to putter in the garden and I'm sure most people know folks who enjoy doing that. I like to putter with ideas, such as with writing a blog post like this. There are lots of choices to make that don't have an obvious answer, one way or the other. For example, is talking about Sulu on Star Trek a good way for the reader to develop the right frame of mind for this piece? Or is it an unnecessary diversion? Not having a good answer on that, I trust my intuition. Puttering conveys the notion of exploration with lots of these type of choices made along the way. If you do it for a while something good may turn out. I would like to see our students do some of this as a matter of course. Having the students write their own blogs for my class, if they do that earnestly, has the potential to encourage mental puttering, though most of the students I've had recently don't stretch themselves enough that way. But I'm getting a little bit ahead of the story here.
Now some bad news. For the last couple of generations authority figures, parents mostly, have gotten in the way of kids learning through play. One way they do this is by attempting to make the physical environment too safe. Hanna Rosin's The Overprotected Kid is a great read on this. Bumps and bruises and even the occasional broken bone are part and parcel of learning how to play. Preventing the "owies" from happening ends up preventing the kids learning how to direct their own play. Something similar happens when all the sports activities kids do are organized with adult supervision. Indeed, I would even argue that its an advantage for a kid to play ball right on the street with his friends - the cars notwithstanding, instead of at some park that is far from home and needs a parent to chauffeur the kids there. The kids organizing their own play is a big deal. Too much dependency on the parents for this is not good. I wrote about this sort of thing in a post called Slapball.
For the kids who are getting good grades in school these days, there is another parallel that William Deresiewicz derisively refers to as Excellent Sheep. These kids become quite skillful at pleasing adults, particularly teachers, which is the excellent part. But they never learn how to please themselves or what actually will do that, which is the sheep part. They sense something is wrong with this picture by the time they are in college, but they don't know how to right the ship.
Now let's consider early stumbling for a kid. With patience and practice a kid can learn to overcome those stumbles. There might be some frustration along the way, but eventually the kid can get over the obstacle, which has by then proved to be a molehill. There is no doubt that this sort of practice to overcome a stumble is work, not play. I don't want to convey that there never is work with learning. I only want to argue that the work part has a limited role to play and this is it. Absent the patience and practice the kid becomes phobic of what caused the stumble. Thereafter the kid will engage in avoidance, if that is possible, or in finding work arounds otherwise.
The phobia contributes to what Carol Dweck refers to as the fixed mindset. The kid comes to believe that he or she is just not good at doing the thing, so can't learn to be good. This may be less troubling for the ordinary student, who can redirect attention elsewhere to activities that are interesting and provide satisfaction in the doing. But for the good student there is now a dilemma. There are certain classes that must be taken. Good grades need to be obtained. School performance becomes an instrument for attaining the good life afterwards. It's all deferred gratification, obtaining a hard to get passport. So the students double down on memorization to carry them through, because they are convinced they are not good at the playful alternative way to learn.
The playful learner, in contrast, has the growth mindset. Early on the two types of kids won't appear that different in school. But after a while, the kid with the growth mindset will seem like a brainiac to the other kids. I want to add my own little spin on this, which is to allow some domains where the kid feels the growth mindset and other domains where the fixed mindset holds sway. For example, while I was very good in school in junior high and high school, I never really learned how to do home repair and how to fix things the right way. On that I go for work arounds only. My dad, was not great in this domain either, but he unabashedly would do his amateurish solution, which my mom was okay with because she was occupied with other matters. I don't know this for certain, but I suspect many other academics are in a similar boat.
Now we should overlay parenting to this discussion, particularly the type practiced by helicopter parents and tiger parents. But to make the discussion fairer, we should also recognize that not all play promotes growth. Some play is purely time dissipation, nothing more. Perhaps some of this dissipative play is necessary as a way to cope with stress. But too much of it is not a good thing. So at root in considering parenting is the parent's mental model of how the kid behaves. Does the parent largely trust the kid to do the right thing? Or does the parent implicitly regard the kid as slothful and thus needing more or less constant pushing to overcome the laziness? Does the parent understand Dweck's Mindset? Or are those ideas alien to the parent? Even with awareness of Dweck's work, there is then that real learning does take time and the parent may be impatient for the kid to master what is next to learn, so pushes the kid in an attempt to short circuit the learning process.
I want to add one more dimension before putting the pieces together. That's the cultural environment that the kids experiences growing up. New York City is simply a fantastic place for cultural opportunities. With enough good experience you develop a sense of taste for what you like that should produce additional good experiences. In college I had a desire to see foreign films (mostly European) as an informal education on matters I wouldn't get from reading the New York times. This desire had to come from somewhere and I think a big part of it was from my high school days, going to the movies with David and Jimmy on Friday evenings after David got off from work in Manhattan. It was a schlep to get there so the experience needed to worthwhile. I think we saw interesting films rather than just junk, partly for that reason. In any event, it usually wasn't me who chose what we'd see. Jimmy was much more plugged into that. The point is that the culture encouraged educative play. My family did that too. I recall having subscriptions both to The New Republic and Scientific American, which I'd call educative, as well as to Sports Illustrated, which was pure fun. I read them all. I don't recall how those subscriptions were paid for, but the money wasn't a big deal. So the approach was to encourage these good experiences rather than place restrictions on the disspative stuff - no TV, for example. I watched plenty of TV too. I view the lack of such restrictions as a cultural matter. Whether that was true for everyone on New York City, or only those from liberal Jewish families, I am less sure. But that there was a strong effect this way for me, that seems evident.
Now here are two possible explanations for why I am different from my students as a learner. The first one emphasizes Dweck's approach. I got on the growth path fairly early after having some major obstacles to get past, but those where more about fine motor skill and physical coordination than they were about intellectual matters. (Handwriting is where those intersected.) I had good teachers and family to help with the obstacles. Then I had a variety of experiences where I could learn at my own pace even as I was in a group setting. I didn't realize it at the time but in many instances I was learning faster than my peers. Yet I started school early so didn't skip a grade, as other bright kids often do. This learning was buttressed by a cultural environment that encouraged learning for its own sake. And regarding parental influence that might have pushed me too hard, I did have some of that with my mom, no doubt. But she was often not around when I was a kid, so there actually was a lot of freedom that way. In contrast, for my students school has always been considered as a gateway to the good life rather than an enjoyment in itself, parents pushed quite hard on getting good grades, but otherwise didn't engage the kid on learning itself, and the kid had some intellectual obstacles that weren't overcome. For that reason memorization became the crutch and school always had an alienating aspect to it as a result. As I said, this is one possible explanation, and is consistent with what I wrote above.
A different explanation is that people who become professors are just different from everyone else, different even from lawyers and doctors who also, of necessity went on to get advanced degrees. A few years ago I had a student who has since gone onto a PhD program in economics. But he was an outlier. Most of the students I teach will enter the world of work after they graduate. Sometime later they may get a professional masters in a field that complements their work, already on a managerial track. But otherwise, they view school as a passport primarily and their attitudes stem from that view. In contrast, I tend to think of the professor view as universal, even as I understand what I've just written. I believe it is human nature to want to learn. The professor view is then an expression of human nature. What confounds things, and I'm afraid the confounding is too great to overcome, is that everyone needs a job and not everyone can be a professor. Further, not every job is something the employee does with passion. Sometimes, it is the case that the paycheck is the motivator. Students don't want to be tantalized by a professor who argues otherwise.
The two explanations are not necessarily incompatible. But the emphasis is clearly different.
Now let me turn to the second example, which was about a voluntary discussion group I had with three former students. In this case they were all international students, with two from China and one from South Korea. For the past several years I have offered students to participate in a weekly discussion group, not for credit just for the sake of having a discussion with me. The year before when I tried it the first time, I didn't get enough takers. This example was the first time it came off. I have done it subsequently, but in several instances it has devolved into mentoring when one student drops out and there is is then only one student left. This discussion group was not mentoring. It was an ongoing conversation on a bunch of related topics chosen to get at asking - how can students be more creative in their learning? An interesting subsidiary question is - why would students opt in to such a discussion group?
Indeed, one of the students from a subsequent class, who later became a mentee of mine, has repeatedly asked me why I have such a discussion group - what's in it for me? To this let me add my own question - can you see it when a student really is learning? If that is happening and you as instructor or mentor share some responsibility for the learning, then it is enormously satisfying to witness it. While on occasion I see it in the blogging the students do, most of them pull their punches there. An ongoing face to face conversation would be better, especially if the student(s) became comfortable enough to open up in that setting. One real reason to want group discussion rather than individual mentoring is that the students tend to be more comfortable in the presence of other students. Further, there is less of a burden on each of them to keep up their end of the conversation.
Many years earlier I had been exposed to the idea that every college student wants to have a personal (intellectual) relationship with a faculty member. One reason to offer this discussion group was to tap into this motivation. I should note here that it may be different with first-year students than it is with students who will be graduating soon. The latter may be focused on the finish line and then have developed signs of senioritis. I don't know if that explains things here or not, but as most of the class were juniors and seniors and all the volunteers for the discussion group were international students, it suggests another possible motive for participation, acculturation on what it means to be American. Sadly, on this score, I'm woefully out of date. For example, we spent one session considering daydreaming and I had them read the James Thurber story The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, which was published in 1939. After a little back and fourth on that, I also sent a link to John Sebastian singing Daydream, from 1970. Whether this says anything about contemporary American culture, I don't know. They are bits from the past that are part of me. So there is acculturation going on, but precisely to what might be an issue.
Nicole, who is from China, was the youngest of the group, the only girl, and a double major in Economics and Psychology. She was an extraordinarily quiet student. Indeed, I don't recall her even once speaking up in my class. Yet she wanted to be part of the discussion group, which itself is an indicator that for quiet students small groups may be a better setting to get participation. As I hardly knew her and she was available early for this purpose, she and I had a one-on-one meeting the week before the discussion group started, so we could get to know one another. It went reasonably well. Among other things, we discussed this piece called The University of China at Illinois, which had been making the rounds. To make a long story short, the U of I has a very strong reputation in China, based primarily on the College of Engineering and more recently on the College of Business. Students want to attend because of that reputation. However, they also want to attend to experience college life at a typical American university. They have high hopes of acculturation while still in China. But the reality is, once the students are on campus they end up hanging out mainly with other students from East Asia. So while the potential for acculturation is there, much of that potential is not realized.
I don't know if this situation has improved in the three and half years since that article appeared, so what I say next might be a bit out of date, but I suspect it is not too inaccurate. There are many possible reasons why there is not as much acculturation as expected. One of those we've already discussed. Quiet students are more apt to stick with people who are already familiar than to challenge themselves socially with people who are apparently unlike themselves. Hanging out with people of your own race and national origin is simply easier. I want to give quite a different explanation here, so the reader begins to appreciate the complexity of the situation. For students who grew up in Illinois and are of legal age, drinking, either at the bars or at a Greek House, is a big part of the social life. Indeed, the following summer after the discussion group had started, the U of I was named the number one party school by Princeton Review. If the local students are partying during the week while the international students are studying at the Library, there is not much chance for interaction. Yet the acculturation, if it were to happen, would be more intensive in a social situation than in an academic setting, for in the former there would be no professor to supervise and play the role of chaperone. So it would be far more authentic. You might think that living in the same dormitory (all first year students are required to live in campus approved housing) would help to break down barriers of this sort (and most first year students are too young to be drinking...legally). But the little I know about this is that people tend to stick with their own clique. Indeed, many local kids hang out with friends they had in high school.
The next member in the group was Yuchen, also from China, who was a senior at the time and would attend graduate school the following fall. He too was a very shy student, at first. Then he scored well on my first midterm, where the class as whole gave a mediocre performance. He became outspoken for a while after that, but then reverted to his original quiet ways. Yuchen told us of some of his experiences in high school back in China. He was only allowed to read the assigned textbooks. Pleasure reading was forbidden. I found this horribly frightening, but also something of an eye opener. If it is the school doing it, rather than the parents, it must be embedded in the culture of the entire society. Then the Amy Chua, tiger mother approach might be understood as an American culture/school system perceived as too soft, so the parent needs to intercede with a firmer hand. I don't endorse this at all, but I think I better understand it now after having had this discussion group.
The last member in the group was Ducky, a nickname he gave to himself. Ducky grew up in South Korea, though he spent a year or two earlier in his life in the U.S. He was also a bit older, having served in the Army, interrupting his studies for that purpose. Ducky was not quiet at all. He was outspoken in class and quite prolific in his blogging. It was as if my class tapped into one of his veins. He then let it flow. Before I brought up the idea of a discussion group, Ducky wanted me to be his mentor, but I declined that in favor of the discussion group, which he willingly participated in. I should add that Ducky reinforced what Yuchen said about the discipline at school, but with an added twist. He attended a boarding school for all or part of high school. (I'm not sure which.) They had study hall till late in the evening, and would experience corporal punishment in the form of a slap on the head, if they drifted off and didn't appear to be paying attention to their studies. Clearly, obedience and discipline are viewed as of greater importance in East Asian cultures. But I wondered if the harshness that was imposed really was necessary or if it was a consequence of something else (e.g., the threat of North Korea requiring people in South Korea to always be on the alert.)
Especially at the beginning of each session, I tried to be playful with them, with some gentle teasing - Ducky you're smiling again. Why are you smiling? They liked that. I think the banter is something that works and should be used more to break down those invisible walls that invariably do exist. Then we did have our more serious discussion. As I wrote in the piece I linked to above, while those discussions were earnest and the students came reasonably prepared for them, I found them not so satisfying after a while because the students themselves seemed unchanged from them. They were getting another arrow for the quiver, but they weren't seeing how they might incorporate it for good use nor how they might change their own processes to better incorporate other arrows for use. Some of this is what I see as the fundamental problem with good students. They sacrifice depth for breadth, particularly because they are time constrained, given how many different activities they engage in. This is not an Asian student problem. It's just as true for White students who care about their school performance. The only difference is that most White students don't aspire for non-American acculturation. I can't really say that depth of experience would have aided this group in their acculturation. But I suspect it might have helped.
Let me try now to tie the lessons from this study group to the case of admissions at Harvard. It is my experience with friends and colleagues who are of Chinese, Korean, Indian, Iranian, and Turkish ancestry that they do fully acculturate by the time they are mid career working professionals Both race and ancestry remain as a factor, but a comparatively unimportant one. I regard these people as individuals, each with their own distinct personalities. What has been invisible to me is how the acculturation happened for them, what trials and tribulations they experienced on the way, and whether that was really necessary or not. When I was a kid growing up in New York City, it was fashionable at the time to refer to NYC as the Melting Pot, and that we all became Americans that way. Sometime later, in college, I took a political science class where we read some pieces by Nathan Glazer, Seymour Martin Lipset, and Patrick Moynihan on Beyond the Melting Pot. (I don't have exact references anymore so won't try to link to something else.) Maybe each of us stayed in our own ethnic community, where we were more comfortable, rather than mixing fully. It was an interesting alternative hypothesis. Now consider kids who are the children of immigrants, very good in school, but who have acculturated only partially into being American. How would such a kid do in an interview for a slot at Harvard?
I can't believe that acculturation is an explicit part of what Harvard admissions officers look for in an applicant. But I do expect that it matters. It might be worth asking how one would measure it. If there were some obvious measures, then those might be gamed just like the standardized tests are gamed now. But if there are tacit impressions only, no hard measures, then some might conclude a different explanation for students who gets rejected, when on clearly measurable criteria their records are outstanding. It must have been racial prejudice. I am less sure that is the right explanation. I'm willing to believe that the interviewer makes honest observations of the candidate, but third parties can't see that, so we're left with the overall impression the interviewer has afterward. That may not be completely satisfying, but that's all there is.
* * * * *
I want to wrap up now by returning to the question in my title. Let me make a quick stab at it by first focusing on Kirk, not Sulu. When I was a kid there was a certain myth propagated about leadership - the best type was from a leader with boyish charm. Two people who fit that bill were JFK, who seemed to crack a joke whenever he gave an interview, and Mickey Mantle. As if to prove the point, Jane Leavy's more adult biography about Mantle is called The Last Boy. The Kirk character is cast in this mold. Kirk is boyish in his informality with McCoy, whom he calls Bones, in his general irreverence, and his willingness to go with his gut in making the key decisions. Star Trek is fundamentally an adventure story. It's the boyish leader who takes the rest of us on an adventure.
Could Sulu be cast as a boyish leader? I've got two different answers to this question, depending on whether it was Sulu in the late 1960s version of the show or it was George Takei, who played Sulu on that show, say 10 years ago after he came out as Gay. I think the original Sulu character was too somber and/or if this had been done back in the 1960s we weren't yet ready as an audience for this. But George Takei has proven to be much more interesting and funny. He could pull it off and now we would be ready for it.
What about the original Sulu as captain without imitating Kirk at all? Truthfully, the Sulu character on the original show was not so fully fleshed out, not nearly as much as Spock or Kirk. If Sulu were captain there would need to be more depth to the character. Beyond that, I think it could work, but it would have changed the character of the show, making what the Enterprise did more of a quest with an ideological fervor than an adventure fueled by a playful imagination. In saying this, I'm thinking about the Ken Watanabe characters in The Last Samurai and Letters from Iwo Jima. The Enterprise was not always in war mode, but the show would have made that more of the ongoing story if Sulu were captain.
I believe the myth about leadership I mentioned survives to this day. We need to understand it better and critique it more. George W. Bush is famous for going with his gut, so in that sense was like JFK or Mickey Mantle, but he was a horrible President. How is it that a boyish leader can be effective and when will that end in a disaster? One thing to note about Star Trek is the excellence of the entire crew, but especially the character of Spock. Kirk could be boyish because he could rely on Spock to be rational and logical, without pursuing his own agenda. In contrast, George W. Bush had Rummy and Cheney, as well as an ideologically driven neocon intelligentsia, who ran rings around the President and were hell bent on empire building and getting rid of Saddam. Look where that has gotten us now. As real leaders won't have a Spock as next in command, they need some bit of Spock in themselves. I'm not down on playfulness at work, which I think can be quite effective. But we need to discard going with the gut as an alternative to thinking, especially when it denies evidence that would lead to a contrary approach. That makes going with with gut a way to cherish ignorance. We should demand better than that.