Too Asian? Too Whyte?

David Suzuki: Canadian hero or too Asian?


Maclean’s magazine has raised the issue of whether Canadian universities are too Asian. (The link is to website that preserved the original version of the article, which has since been scrubbed and replaced by a slightly less offensive piece by Maclean’s). In a fit of irritation, I wrote a response in the National Post asking if Maclean’s is too white (I’m almost tempted to say too Whyte). My article can be read here.

 An excerpt:

Throughout the 1920s, A. Lawrence Lowell, then president of Harvard University, was worried that his beloved school was becoming too Jewish. “The presence of Jews in large numbers tends to drive Gentiles elsewhere,” Lowell wrote in a 1925 letter to Harvard professor. “To prevent a dangerous increase in the proportion of Jews, I know at present only one way which is at the same time straightforward and effective, and that is a selection by a personal estimate of character on the part of Admission authorities.”

Lowell focused on the question of “character” because he believed that Jewish students might well be intellectually gifted but they lacked social graces. A Boston Brahmin and scion of a pedigreed WASP family, Lowell thought that too many Jews spoiled the educational experience of Harvard. Jews as a group, Lowell believed, didn’t assimilate easily into the Anglo-Saxon majority, they tended to cluster together, they’re too pushy and ambitious, they didn’t participate in sports and other extracurricular activities, they lacked the easy comportment expected of true Harvard men. Because Jews lacked “character” and threatened to scare off well-heeled Gentile students, Lowell was at the forefront of a movement among Ivy League universities to impose anti-Semitic quotas.

5 thoughts on “Too Asian? Too Whyte?

  1. Your entire case for the sinister parallel you are alleging comes down to your interpretation of the word “likely”. It is simply not axiomatic (as you present it) that the word is meant to suggest the imposition of a quota system (the only sort of which exists is a liberal invention and currently benefits Asian students in certain forms). So if one abstracts from that bit of implausible speculation on your part, not much of an argument is left: drink less? I don’t know if that was true of Jews back in the day, but is a reasonable generalization about Asians in universities now. Is that bad things? If so, for whom? Well, for academics sober Asians are probably better. And so on. Big deal. The only reasonable point is the overly-generalized use of the term “Asian” in the article.

  2. You’re being disingenuous Wilson. Maclean’s knew they were being provocative when the published the article: almost all the most inflammatory stuff is in the headlines and the front. They wanted to get a rise out of people and get attention. And when critics like me start objecting, the defence is that we’re focusing on a few details, which happen to be the very words that they put in there to provoke. This is a case of trying to have your cake and eat it too: trying to publish a xenophobic article and then cry that you’re being misrepresented when people call attention to the xenophobia.

    By the way, there are all sorts of quotas that were created by conservatives which are still in place which benefit white students (and male students): legacy quotas, geographical quotas and also social quotas (if universities just accepted students by grades, their would be fewer male students but for the sake of “balance” Ivy League schools take in more male students than they would in a meritocracy).

  3. You’re dodging. I don’t disagree that Maclean’s strategy was a sort of inflammatory bait and switch, although that relates mostly to their headline. However, the problem with your analysis is that in order to sustain the sinister “this is just like 1930s anti-semitism” parallel you have to invent the “quotas” claim out of thin air. It is simply not the case that the article’s “likely” necessarily, or even probably, implies quotas (in the context of the article and common sense, it suggests something more like: it’s “likely” good to bolster the academic culture of universities at the expense of other elements of it, as well as reflecting certain social divisions). And without that “quota” line your whole parallel collapses, at least as one that can be presented in particularly sinister light – because, after all, if Asians (which, again, I agree is an overly broad and somewhat prejudicial term) do replicate the patterns of early 20th century North American Jews, that simply says that they’re replicating behaviours which put them well on their way to the top echelons of Canadian society (the fact that some people unfairly resent that success, or even that it involves various forms of social dislocation is a separate issue, and one that can be discussed quite reasonably). I see no evidence in the article for your “quota” claim, and thus the parallel which you attempt to draw is itself provocative and inflammatory.

  4. Maclean’s raised the issue of anti-Asian quotas in the United States and offered this slippery statement: “Canadian universities, apart from highly competitive professional programs and faculties, don’t quiz applicants the same way, and rely entirely on transcripts. Likely that is a good thing. And yet, that meritocratic process results, especially in Canada’s elite university programs, in a concentration of Asian students.”

    I don’t know how this passage can be read except as saying that meritocracy is a provisional (or “likely”) good thing, which might possibly need to be given up since it leads to a putatively bad result “a concentration of Asian students.” Maclean’s isn’t advocating quotas but it’s opening the door to the possibility that they might be needed, a likelihood that feels all the more urgent in an article full of scary stories about universities overstuffed with “Asian” kids.

    If you read any history of the anti-Semitism in the Ivy League you’ll see that many of the arguments were frame in the same way: you don’t call for quotas right away, but rather first raise the issue of how horrible things are without a quota. Step two is to start talking about quotas. It’s a standard rhetorical technique: the “reasonable” anti-Semite followed by the hard-core anti-Semite, the good cop and the bad cop.

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