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The Gig is Up

One of the idols in Asian American homes is the god of Ivy-league institution. It doesn’t take long after a child is born for the word, Harvard or Princeton, to get mentioned. And depending on how hard your parents work you, it becomes ingrained in you pretty early on that getting into a top school is what will set you up for life, ie. get your parents off your back, get the girl, get the job, and make that paper. 

And Asian parents are similar in this regard; I didn’t know too much about “white flight” until I grew up, but when looking for a new home in the metropolitan Atlanta area a year ago, my own dad said simply, “Look for where the Koreans go. They’re all in good school districts. That and taxes is all they look at when they move.” A generalization to be sure, but not inaccurate from what I can tell. Even Asian churches have to move to keep up with this migration to the suburbs. And “cutting edge” Korean churches offer SAT classes to reach out to the Korean community (Lesslie Newbigin would roll over in his grave). We are not tied to the land, we are tied to the opportunity, and if those prospects are strong enough to bring us over from the Pacific, you sure as hell ain’t going to stop us from changing a couple of zip codes. 

And this frantic chase to get into the good schools mirrors the frenzy to get into college from the motherland. In Asia, the competition is so stiff and the awareness of the names of universities are so strong, everyone can mentally rank simply on what schools you get into (or not). Heck, we even do this with seminaries (Columbia what? What about Fuller or Princeton? Princeton is always good). But the impression that I get from a lot of people, is that in Asian universities, once you get in, you’re in. It’s like high school is four years of hazing just to get in, and college, you skate. Your “older brothers” take care of you. 

But the game is different in the US, and getting admitted to these Ivy-league schools is admittedly difficult, but getting out is probably harder. There is no skating at that level. So when Korean parents, in particular, work so hard to pull strings, teach kids entrance strategy, develop those specific skills just to get in…they might get in. But then what? 

They fail. And almost half of them drop out (h/t: Metropolitician).

Forty-four percent of Korean students at top American universities give up their studies halfway through. 

This data is contained in Samuel S. Kim’s doctoral dissertation “First and Second Generation Conflict in Education of the Asian American Community” delivered at Columbia University Friday. 

The drop out rate is much higher than 34 percent of American, 25 percent of Chinese and 21 percent of Indian students. 

Read the article and here’s a clip from the first comment – scathing, but sobering. 

Koreans view university degrees as receipts, not as confirmations of academic achievement. Cheap, shallow, materialism drags Korea and the rest of the world down…Koreans are predatory, see the rest of the world as a mass of sub-humans…You participate in the tearing down of your own cultures to sit with these piranhas and drink formaldehyde. You marry women that treat you as slaves, work for slave-drivers, teach little racists to ingratiate themselves with polite society and encourage Korean exceptionalism. Korean obsession with American education is a servile expression of their neurosis.

Wow. absolutely blistering. But is he wrong?

Education was never the goal, its benefits were. And when we confuse the goal with its benefits, we encourage people to cheat. It’s like learning to play the guitar to get a girl, or becoming a doctor for the money– you will never be a musician worth his salt nor a doctor worthy of being called a healer. You do just enough to get by. 

And what does it means that our churches follow these types of communities out to the suburbs? Same thing…we do just enough to get by, but we rarely reflect the transformative and generative power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The gig’s up…are we in it for the title? or the real thing?

About David Park

Christian 2nd-generation Korean American; Atlanta Georgia; more details to come.

10 responses to “The Gig is Up

  1. elderj

    This provides some interesting context to a conversation I had with two of my youth group kids about their college choice (I’ll blog about it later). Basically I told them that while it’s nice to go to a “good school” they shouldn’t overpay for education, that schools inflate their rankings, and that they should choose a career field where they can get paid for doing what they enjoy and are good at regardless of what other people think about it. And I told them going tens of thousands of dollars into debt just so they can say they went to a “good school” is stupid when they can go to a state university for 10x less and get just as good an education

  2. L T

    great post! i try to encourage students to go to the school that fits them…not all AA kids are suited for the Ivies even tho they can get in…staying in is the issue and then what? what do you make of the experience? some kids just need to go to “other” schools. some church kids would thrive in a christian school where others i say get out and go ivy. the question is what is the goal – our security, our identities in our families, our comfort. if we go to an ivy, we’re guaranteed a better job, the status, the right to say…whatever it is. we’re dreaming the wrong dream for our lives.

    the thing is kids need to own up to their decisions. the guidance from parents is good but i think they and their kids need to take some risks and make faith decisions rather conform to safe calculated cultural obsessions.

    as leaders we have to ask what kind of people and children are we trying to cultivate? how do we motivate the families and students in our churches to faith-think?

  3. daniel so

    David — Wow, are you trying to make all the Koreans here cry? Because it’s basically working 😦

    Pretty much every youth retreat I’ve ever been a part of has a skit featuring a variation on this theme: overbearing parents pushing their kids to get into “Ha-bah-duh” (that skit, and another where Jesus is boxing Satan, but that’s another comment altogether…)

    Yes, barely getting into a brand name school (through a brutal combination of SAT prep classes, five hours of hakwon a day, and private tutoring — along with endless recitations of how friends from church just sent their perfect children to Princeton or Yale) usually ends in tears.

    It could be worse, though. You could graduate from an Ivy League school and Princeton Seminary (no relation to the university, by the way) and still end up a poor, dumb pastor. Like me 🙂 I’m like a worst-case scenario for most Korean parents.

    I agree with LT — we should be encouraging parents to get to know their kids and their hearts, and what would make the most sense for them. And, even if they’re pursuing wrong-headed dreams of wealth and riches for their kids (and, by proxy, for themselves), these days it’s not what you know or what degree you have but, rather, who you know.

    If we could figure out how to open up a tutoring center for Asian American kids on how to schmooze and network in the business world, we’ll be millionaires ourselves!!

  4. John Lamb

    David, I can’t believe I haven’t told you about the book White Flight, by Kevin Kruse. Its subject is the white flight of Atlanta. I read it because the author is a high school classmate of mine (who is now a history professor at Princeton), but I found it fascinating in its own right.

    Of course, I saw so many parallels between the antagonism against African-Americans to the antagonism against immigrants. White Flight was the whites’ backup plan, after all. The first part of the whites’ plan, which ultimately failed, was to keep the African-Americans from coming into their neighborhoods.

    The arguments for this were strikingly similar to the arguments against immigrants today. Using taxes, words like “invasions,” the concept of the neighborhood border, etc.

    I started a site using quotes from the book to illustrate how we are resurrecting rhetoric that should be dead:

  5. john, you have mentioned that book. I just never got a chance to read it, but i love how you’re collecting quotes on that zombie rhetoric site. that’s chillingly fascinating.

  6. John ⋅

    As a Korean-American with three degrees from Ivy League universities (college, doctorate, and professional), I can assure you that Mr. Kim’s claims are completely bogus. In my experience, the undergraduate retention rates at top schools like Harvard, Stanford, and Princeton are typically in the 95-99% range (If you don’t believe me, check any of the college guides at your local bookstore). The Korean-Americans that I knew more often than not excelled in college and graduated with honors. Many went onto top graduate and professional schools and successful careers. In fact, among the 30 or so Korean or Korean-American undergraduates in my Harvard College class, I do not recall a single one who dropped out.

    Mr. Kim’s dissertation is not publicly available for scrutiny but there are already some glaring inconsistencies. For example, how do you reconcile the 95+% retention rates that we know exist at Ivy League schools and the astonishingly high 34% general dropout rate for Americans (and 44% for Koreans or Korean-Americans) Mr. Kim cites in his dissertation? One explanation is that Mr. Kim is very likely not just looking at undergraduates but all degree programs. This might be legitimate, so long as he does not suppress that information, but he cannot use the graduate or professional school dropout data to make sweeping generalizations about undergraduates. Students enrolled in graduate degree programs drop out at higher rates, often for reasons that have nothing to do with academics. Another explanation is that Mr. Kim is using certain state schools, which are known to have very high dropout rates, to make conclusions about Ivy League schools. For example, U.C. Davis and U.C. Berkeley, schools known for a very high percentage of Korean and Korean-American student populations, had 1658 dropouts (general population, not just Koreans) between the two of them. At the same time, all of the eight Ivy League schools combined plus Stanford, Duke, Georgetown, and Amherst, had only 1087 dropouts. Mr. Kim’s dissertation is first and foremost a study of U.C. Davis, a decent school but certainly not a top school, and yet he falsely implies that his data apply to the most elite U.S. universities. I find it rather astonishing that he was able to defend this dissertation successfully. I will not speculate on his motives, but can only say that he has done a serious disservice to his fellow Korean-Americans and Koreans, and to the public at large.

  7. hey john, thanks for the comment.

    all salient points you bring up, and mr. kim must be drawing a distinction between korean vs. korean-american students as his critique was directed at the korean educational system. but who knows if he’s able to defend this dissertation successfully – however the point that he’s trying to make is interesting nonetheless because he’s not saying something is wrong or deficient with korean students inherently, he’s pointing out that the culture or environment pushing students to such levels may be perpetuating some sort of dysfunction or creating a “bubble” due to societal pressures. that certainly seems plausible enough with korean culture, doesn’t it?

    and on a related note, here’s an article about korean american students suspected in an SAT theft–now remember i’m not trying to give our people a bad rap, i’m trying to get to the bottom of what kind of pathology we have to push us to do these types of things. it’s not that we’re not good enough, it’s that we’re willing to be bad to appear that good.

  8. John ⋅

    Mr. Kim’s thesis is entitled “First and Second Generation Conflict in Education of the Asian American Community”. He is actually looking at Korean-Americans, not Koreans who went to high school in Korea. There have been extremely few Korean Koreans in the Ivy League schools until very recently. There was just one in my class, for example, and everybody else was Korean-American.

    I am not arguing that Korean parental pressures are not excessive or that Korean students should ignore extracurriculars and just focus on academics. I am merely pointing out that it is dishonest and wrong to mislead the public by manipulating statistics to draw up false conclusions, as Mr. Kim appears to be doing. It is bad “science”, if you can call it that.

    Another one of Mr. Kim’s contentions is that Korean students at Ivy League schools devote about 75% of their time to academics (as opposed to 25% to extracurriculars), which he considers excessive, and that is why they have a hard time adjusting and drop out. I find this claim completely mystifying and baseless. In my personal experience, my coursework was challenging enough that I probably spent some 80% of my time, perhaps even more, on academics (as did other non-Koreans who did well academically). If I hadn’t done that, I would have almost certainly not graduated with the highest honors. When you are in a class with some of the brightest people in the country who are working their butts off, how can you expect to coast and still get top grades?

  9. thanks john. i’ll let mr. kim know if i run into him.
    what and where did you study? do you also have a doctorate? i think you’re more interesting than this study. do you have any research you’d like to share?

  10. John ⋅

    I would rather not disclose too much identifying information. I can say that I am a research scientist holding a medical degree and a Ph.D. I am also a practicing physician based at a university hospital. I do not have any research to share in the field of education itself; my expertise is in molecular medicine.

    I am a first-generation immigrant and moved to the United States from Korea as a teenager. I come from a working class family. Whether my humble background actually worked in my favor in Ivy League admissions, I do not know. I had strong academic credentials and relatively shabby extracurriculars. It was hard enough to keep up with the academics as a new immigrant and my parents could not have afforded the cost of fancy extracurriculars. Despite my mediocre extracurriculars, I was accepted to a number of top schools. In college, I spent most of my time on academics and graduated with a stellar record, which in turn allowed me to continue onto top medical and graduate programs. Thus I did the exact things that Mr. Kim is warning against, and far from being a college dropout, I have succeeded beyond my wildest dreams.

    Now, there are many ways to succeed in life. Many mediocre students from Ivy League schools will succeed spectacularly in politics, business, etc., and will often do better than the straight A students, because interpersonal skills and other intangibles become more important than intelligence per se (The only exception might be the academia itself, where there is a pretty good correlation between college grades and future success). There is much value in not limiting one’s college experience to academics only. Having said that, there was no shortage of fellow Korean-American classmates in college who were very well-rounded and actively involved in all sorts of extracurriculars, from performance music to sports to student government to community activism. There were other Koreans who were more academically inclined, some of whom later became professors and such. There was a broad range of people among the Korean-American students at Harvard, just as you see in the general student population, and they were for the most part quite remarkable and talented people. So it’s not that hard to understand why I am rather offended by Mr. Kim’s characterization of Koreans at Ivy League schools as single-dimensional geeks with terrible social skills who spend all their time studying (and yet are not even good at it and flunk out at a rate of 44%). It’s so untrue!!!

    Anyway, I’ve said enough on this topic.

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