When Asians enroll! (And other tales from meritocracy's margins)

The myth of meritocracy has been exposed on more than one occasion. Sociologists like Lani Guinier, Stephen McNamee, Robert Miller, and numerous others have pointed out exactly how the promise of meritocracy -- "hard work rewards the deserving" -- is an empty one.

Meritocracy forgets privilege, and the fact that folks from marginalized groups have to work a hell of a lot harder for the same reward as their more upwardly mobile counterparts. By the logic of meritocracy, the cream would rise naturally to the top, regardless of status or association, and yet generations passed wherein the "cream" remained almost consistently white and male... that is, until just recently, when the world woke up to the news that minorities were not just gratefully accepting the token slots assigned them, but slowly and surely invading campuses in force, dramatically shifting the demographic away from the white, male, middle-class face of higher education. Meritocracy was somehow, if unevenly, coming through on its promise of diversity. Calamity ensued.

Let's start with women and the "pussification" of schools. Rant after rant, each less coherent than the last, has blamed the increasing enrollment of women in higher education for all kinds of "male afflictions" (likened by one commentator to a "plague"): a mass exodus of boys from schools at all levels, suddenly put off by title pages and hand raising; dateless young women reduced to hyper-educated spinsters at the tender age of 23; and what about "the family" (where all anti-feminist roads end), ever at the point of demise? Never mind that the education system as it exists and operates today is no more estrogen-riddled than it ever was -- teaching has always been a feminized occupation -- or that, historically, wherever girls have been admitted, they have outpaced boys, just not outnumbered them. Forget, as well, that the regimentation and "sit still and behave" pedagogical norm is not a recent phenomenon, but the vestige of 19th-century British education reforms by which military-and factory-drawn models of discipline and hierarchy were applied to private and semi-public schools -- whose clients were then exclusively boys.

The current dropout problem cannot be tackled without a view to race, class, and gender pressures; it begs a major re-investment in an under-valued teaching profession and rethinking of public education, not the resurrection of a tired, unproductive, anti-feminist backlash. This is evidenced by things many people are vaguely aware of but don't want, or know how, to explain: scholastic disengagement is a problem that affects racialized and working-class boys differently, and more adversely than white, middle-class boys (First Nations students of all genders are the most acutely affected). Schools continue to fail to address the pressures of gender conformity and the policing of sexuality, including forms of homophobic bullying, which can be especially devastating for boys. In provinces like Alberta (with one of the higher the male dropout rates) leaving school often has as much, if not more, to do with a beckoning unskilled job market as with scholastic failure. In many places where the male dropout rate can be charted as a worrisome downward angle, the "drop-in" rate shows signs of a heartening rebound. In short, what we're currently struggling to modify is not the girlification of education that seems to menace so many in the media; rather, it's an education system designed for and by the male educated classes of two centuries ago that simply no longer fits.

Take as a second example the ‘Asian invasion,' as recently reported in Maclean's magazine in an article that seemed snatched from The Onion. The piece is almost relentlessly offensive -- though the authors are ostensibly warning Canadian institutions to beware of false multiculturalism, they seem to hint that quotas, though ugly, may be necessary. We are introduced to this "problem" via the perspectives of a hard-done-by private-school girl and her brother, who have shunned the University of Toronto for it's "too Asian" reputation, where the white kids can no longer compete and party, and that's a bummer. In another episode recounted in the piece, a white mother berates an Asian-heritage student for "stealing" her son's future.

The three-page piece taps into the recent revelation of elite American institutions covertly capping the enrollment of Asian-heritage students and inflating the acceptance rates of white students in order to maintain their school's attractiveness to white applicants. (The title "Too Asian?" seems to be taken from the title of a 2006 panel of the American National Association for College Admission Counseling.) The problem: Intimidated white students don't apply to schools perceived as "too Asian." The solution: Adjust the enrollment quota so that deserving Asian students are rejected in favour of their lower-achieving white counterparts. Similar proposals have been suggested for Canadian institutions to curb the enrollment of women. I chose these two admittedly broad and limiting categories -- 'women' and 'Asian' students -- because they have been the objects of the most visible examples of such a backlash in recent memory; these are by no means monolithic categories and I am sure there are countless similar resonances and incidents both within and beyond these cumbersome place markers.

Herein lies the paradox to this whole story that is mind bending, though maybe not surprising to meritocracy's skeptics. The excellence of individuals other than middle-class white males within an education system designed for and by the latter has aroused a mass panic and sense of social crisis -- the blame for which is placed not on the system, but those excelling individuals. Meanwhile, though the ideal of meritocracy remains intact, elements of "affirmative action" are insinuated into university acceptance processes, not in the service of historically excluded groups, but rather, it seems, to soothe the self-esteem of the privileged.

Though these are separate issues, the same kind of language permeates both sets of complaints. Both women and Asians (I can only imagine the threat posed by an Asian woman) are perceived to have adapted almost too well to the disciplinary expectations of public and higher education: in classes, girls are too competent, too malleable, too disciplined, too obedient. In the Maclean's article, Asian students are described as hyper-studious, almost machine-like in their drive and focus, sacrificing food, sleep, even booze, to maintain their GPA. Suddenly, the terms of merit that are supposed to earn individuals success are re-scripted as faults, even disadvantages (though whether to themselves or others is not always clear).

This trend should occasion some new reflections on meritocracy -- and its nemesis, affirmative action. For years, affirmative action has been the bane of conservatives and others invested in the logic of "competition," arguing that it undermined the meritorious foundations of the (North) American Dream. But when hard work actually appears to pay off for women and racial minorities, affirmative action comes to the rescue as a viable corrective to this "imbalance." In a reversal of the meritocratic logic, the hard-working and talented are punished rather than rewarded. But it seems that room can be made for this contradiction when cherished race and gender investments are involved. This raises the theory that meritocracy has always been about sustaining certain kinds of race, class, and gender hierarchies, though articulating them within the framework of "talent" and "achievement." 

From this view, the myth of meritocracy closely resembles the prophesy of meritocracy -- this was, in fact, a myth first busted by the man who coined the term. Michael Young's 1958 novel Rise of the Meritocracy predicted that "the meritocracy" that succeeded the aristocracy would represent not an upheaval, but simply the reorganization of signifiers of mobility, falling largely on the same historically privileged groups. Young anticipated that "achievement" would become a false marker that obscured class and other social hierarchies at play.

The point here is not to dismiss the premises of earning, achievement, and hard work as themselves inherently unworthy. The point is that these otherwise admirable notions do not exist in a vacuum, separate from power and ideology. More importantly, clinging to them as though they do has obscured long traditions of exclusion. This becomes clear when the sudden fulfillment of the promise of meritocracy comes not as an affirmation but as an ambush.

Sarah Ghabrial is a PhD candidate in History at McGill University, Montreal. She is also a co-founder of The Miss G_ Project for Equity in Education, a grassroots organization that works to combat all forms of oppression in and through education.

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