Shame on me, I haven't written anything for Asian Pacific Heritage Month (May), and the month is almost over.
Figures a post about APA culture would start with a guilt trip, eh? ;)
I'd like to argue that education is a "stealth" APA issue. It is both a particular obsession within our community and a key concern in the wider community as well. Public education in particular is often one of the first democratic institutions immigrant and American-born APAs are exposed to, and is a powerful acculturating force. At best, it really can be a means to economic and social upward mobility and exposure to a truly diverse society. At worst, it can be an alienating and lonely experience magnifying stratification by race, class, language, and gender/sexual identity.
So much APA consciousness and many cultural formations come out of campus-based activism (Kababayan Filipino Cultural Nights, yo?). College is where the scattered groups of APAs growing up alienated and confused in suburbia come to collide with the sleek, self-assured and moneyed overseas Asians, the 1.5ers who seem at home in their skins, and the laid-back Cali and local-style APAs used to growing up around Asians. It's where KASAs, MAASUs, and ECAASUs and UNAVSAs and SASAs get a taste of organizing and flex some political and cultural power.
We have a very bifurcated community in terms of access to higher ed: "overrepresentation" at elite colleges, "underrepresentation" of key APA ethnicities within the college-bound population. There are still major barriers to achievement when some APA groups don't even graduate from high school. Congressman Mike Honda writes:
According to a report published last month by the National Commission on Asian American and Pacific Islander Research in Education, the majority of Cambodian, Laotian, and Hmong communities living in America, aged 25 years and older, have only a high school degree or less. Equally disconcerting is that only 12-13 percent of them have a bachelor's degree or more. The same problem exists among Tongan, Samoan, Guamanian and Native Hawaiian communities.
Large sectors of the AAPI population, in fact, suffer from soaring secondary school dropout rates, low rates of college participation and low college completion rates. These low educational attainment rates correlate with high unemployment rates, spiraling AAPI subgroups further into poverty. The unemployment rates of poorer-performing Pacific Islanders and Southeast Asians are three to five times greater than those of many East Asian and South Asians. Tongan Americans, for example, who maintain with the highest unemployment rate among all AAPI subgroups at nearly 16 percent, have some of the highest secondary school dropout rates and lowest college completion rates. [emphasis mine]
As progressives we should be devoted to breaking the corporate glass/bamboo ceiling, yes, but equally committed to affordable, accessible college for all. Education is supposed to broaden your horizons as a human being, but also practically speaking, broaden your career opportunities too.
And as APAs, I believe we have a lot to contribute to the "ed reform" debate, currently represented by Michelle Rhee on the covers of mainstream media magazines, and the debate over parenting for student "success", currently represented in the popular culture by Amy Chua. Do we want these to be the only voices from APAs on ed policy? (Hint: no.) Are they even representative? Or progressive? Why aren't more progressive voices on education and parenting reaching the masses?
Another area where it'd be beneficial to hear more of our voices is in the internationalization of U.S. student achievement relative to those students in other nations. While many of the nations that score highly in math and reading are in East Asia, how do we reconcile the inevitable racialization of this discourse with badly-needed useful information that will help us truly enrich education for all students in America? I'm thinking of ways in which Finland's high achievement is fetishized despite real obstacles to implementing the same policies wholesale in our own country, for example. Finland has a few more than 100,000 K-12 students living below their poverty line.
The U.S. has 21% of all children living under our poverty line, or more than 15 million children. At the same time as Finland's school system is envied, East Asian nations are caricatured as turning out pressured, unhappy, robotic-but-high-achieving kids with information that's cherry-picked in the mass media to help convey that image and reassure nervous Americans.
For example, it might be true that high-stakes, test-taking culture in South Korea leads to high numbers of youth suicides among certain groups, but this is no more indicative of the whole culture than a rash of teen suicides from homophobic bullying means all of America is hopelessly homophobic. These sweeping generalizations and unfounded fears obscure rather than illuminate the useful lessons to be learned from education policies in other countries.
More than ever, I feel it's important to develop a progressive APA position on affirmative action in college admissions. It's not entirely clear to me what that position is, or if it's filtered into the general consciousness of APAs generally. With a generation of Asian American and Pacific Islander alumni from elite colleges now having children, will we side with the privilege of legacy admissions and fight for "our" rightful spots, or will we demand that diversity by socieconomic status also be accounted for along with race and other factors?
With regard to ethnic studies, do we accept the demonization and expulsion of Chicano Studies from the K-12 curriculum in Arizona while Asian American, Native American, and African American studies programs are left intact, or do we affirm our role as partners in a pan-ethnic studies coalition? How can we preserve those college Asian American Studies programs that were so crucial to empowering a few generations of students, and now because of budget cuts and declining enrollment, might be eliminated?
I could go on. I've barely touched upon all the issues that are of particular interest to APAs who work as educators, or are themselves students. But regardless of the brevity of this piece, I think APAs asserting themselves in education for progressive goals, where we have a public profile disproportionate to our numbers, could be very powerful force for universal education as an essential part of our democracy as well a form of social justice.
Cynematic writes about education at K-12 News Network.