Wednesday, December 07, 2005

"White Flight" from intellectual rigor

I knew something was up when a pattern began to emerge in the non-honors sections of some of my large introductory core classes. The top students were not the rich white Anglo kids, but the immigrants -- in our neck of the woods, these were primariliy Romanians, Koreans, Vietnamese and Hmong. Why would the top 5% of students in these classes include immigrants struggling in a foreign language, while the majority of privileged upper-middle class American kids -- who had no language obstacle to contend with -- trolled the bottom of the mindless slough with the rest of the country's antediluvian knuckle-dragging mouth breathers? A momentous shift has occurred in our society over the last fourty years, and the chickens are coming home to roost.

Miami Herald columnist, Leonard Pitts, recently addressed this issue from the point of view of "White Flight" -- namely, of parents taking children out of demanding, mostly Asian schools. In an article entitled "White flight is an old term with a new twist" (Miami Herald, Nov. 28, 2005), he writes:
Perhaps you remember white flight.

That is, of course, the term for what happened in the 1960s when blacks, newly liberated from legal segregation, began fanning out from the neighborhoods to which they'd once been restricted. Traumatized at the thought of living in proximity to their perceived inferiors, white people put their houses on the market at fire sale prices and took flight.

Well, something similar is happening now in Northern California. Similar in the sense of being completely different.

Where whites once ran because they felt they were superior to their new neighbors, they are apparently running now because they feel they are not quite as good.

I refer you to a Nov. 19 story in The Wall Street Journal. Reporter Suein Hwang interviewed white parents who are pulling their kids out of elite public high schools, schools known for sending graduates to the nation's top colleges. They are doing this, writes Hwang, because the schools are too academically rigorous, too narrowly focused on such subjects as math and science. Too Asian.


Yes, you read right. Hwang reports that since 1995, the number of white students at Lynbrook High in San Jose has fallen by almost half. At Monta Vista High in Cupertino, white students now make up less than a third of the population.


White parents are putting their kids into private schools or moving to areas where the public schools are whiter, less Asian and less demanding. Where sports and music also are emphasized, and educators value, as one parent put it, ``the whole child.''

One white woman told Hwang how she dissuaded a young white couple from moving to town, telling them their child might be ''the only Caucasian kid in the class.'' Another said, ``It does help to have a lower Asian population.''

Which plays, of course, into the old stereotype of the hyper-competitive Asian. But the new white flight also has given rise to a new stereotype one educator calls ''the white boy syndrome.'' It says that white kids just don't have it between the ears.

The irony speaks for itself.
Academic Prostitution

Earlier this Spring, Newsweek (April 11, 2005) featured a "My Turn" column by Nicole Kristal entitled: "'Tutoring' Rich Kids Cost Me My Dreams." The subtitle tells the whole story: "It took me a while to figure out what my boss already knew: I had been hired to do their work." Over a period of three years, Kristals says she was "an academic prostitute":
I ruined the curve for the honest and ensured that the wealthiest, and often stupidest, students earned the highest marks. I was a professional paper-writer.
It all started when she saw a TUTORS WANTED flier on the UCLA campus and took on a job with what she thought was a small tutoring agency that serviced affluent familites in the area. "Just sit at her computer and type for her," her boss told her. The students didn't care. The parents knew it. And so did her boss. Kristal writes:
Welcome to the world of professional paper-writing, the dirty secret of the tutoring business. It's facilitated by avaricious agencies, perpetuated by accountability-free parents and made possible by self-loathing nerds like me. For three-hour workdays, the ability to sleep in and the opportunity to get paid to learn, I tackled subjects like Dostoevsky while spoiled jerks smoked pot, took naps, surfed the Internet and had sex. Though some offered me chateaubriand and the occasional illicit drug, most treated me like the help. I put up with it because I feared working in an office for $12 an hour again.

Six months into the job, my boss sent me on a problem-solving mission for $10 more per hour than I was already making. He had earned C's and D's on papers for Evan (not his real name), a USC freshman my boss described as a "typical surfer retard." Evan's parents had hired "tutors" to compose their son's papers since he was 12 because he "wasn't going to be a writer anyway." They were furious.

... during the session Evan purchased an ounce of weed and a bag of Xanax. His WASPy girlfriend washed down a pill with some Smart Water and offered me some. I declined. Evan sent me home with his $3000 PowerBook to write his paper because he was "too busy" to work. Before I left, his girlfriend hired me to write her paper on "Do the Right Thing"....

That summer break, my boss refereed me to a junior at a private Christian university who couldn't spell "college." Come fall, the kid leased my brain three hours a day, five days a week. Depressed, I lounged around ... until he finished class, then wadedthrough rush-hour traffic to demoralize myself....

Last spring, two months shy of my client's graduation date, I snapped while staring at a term-paper assignment on Margaret Thatcher. "I can't do this anymore," I mumbled. I had completed nearly two years of college for him. He replaced me with a teacher about to earn his Ph.D. who charged $15 less per hour than I did.

Despite my intellect, I handed over my self-respect to rich losers. I allowed myself to be blinded by privilege and the hope that some of it would rub off on me ....
Back to Leonard Pitts. Near the end of his column, Pitts observes that in recent years, he's been appalled how often he's encountered students, in the elite public high school where he teaches writing, who could not even put a sentence together and had no concept of basic grammar and punctuation. "They tell me I'm a touch grader," he muses, but "the funny thing is, I think of myself as a soft touch." "I've always gotten A's before," sniffed one girl to whom he thought he was being generous in awarding a C plus, he writes. He concludes:
It occurs to me that this is the fruit of our dumbing down education in the name of "self-esteem." This is what we get for making the work easier instead of demanding the students work harder -- and the parents be more involved.

So this new white flight is less a surprise than a fresh disappointment. And I've got news for those white parents:

They should be running in the opposite direction.

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