304 North Cardinal St.
Dorchester Center, MA 02124
304 North Cardinal St.
Dorchester Center, MA 02124
I lived across the street from Manhattan’s best public high school, Stuyvesant, for many years, and sometimes the father of a student would give me a ride. He was a Pakistani taxi driver who liked to start conversations with his customers. We usually talked about two things: how proud he was of his smart kids (one of them was already at Cornell) and how sad he was about how things were going in Pakistan.
The child from Stuyvesant eventually went to another top university, and I saw my friendly driverless and less. I then moved out of the city. But I’ve been thinking about him again because of the two best things I’ve read about immigrants in the past few months and what they both say about how we always argue about what “American values” are.
The first was Michael Powell’s brilliant article in The Times last week called “How It Feels to Be an Asian Student in an Elite Public School.” The second is Roya Hakakian’s book “A Beginner’s Guide to America,” which is a gem of sociological and psychological analysis in the style of Alexis de Tocqueville. It explains to a mostly American audience how strange this country can be for a newcomer, even (or especially) in the most everyday things.
Powell’s story is mostly about Stuyvesant’s sister school, Brooklyn Tech, where 61 percent of the nearly 6,000 students are of Asian descent and only 15 percent are black or Latino. This is almost the exact opposite of the ethnic makeup of New York’s public schools, which has led to accusations that schools like Brooklyn Tech, where admission is based on how well you do on a test, are racist.
This has led to calls to get rid of the test, set different passing scores to make the school more diverse, or change something else about the strict meritocratic system that has made Brooklyn Tech and Stuyvesant into factories for Nobel laureates and other high achievers.
Powell’s story has a lot to think about, but two things stand out. The first is how much real diversity is lost in the way we talk about diversity now, which only talks about black and Latino people.
Powell says that at Brooklyn Tech, there is a “river of teenagers” who are “Bengali and Tibetan, Egyptian and Chinese, Sinhalese and Russian, Dominican and Puerto Rican, West Indian and African American.” Nearly two-thirds of them come from low-income homes, and many of them don’t speak English at home. How is this proof of racism, whether it is functional or not?
The second is the progressive war on the idea of merit, which came to a head last year when former Mayor Bill de Blasio tried to get rid of the city’s programs for gifted and talented young children. His successor, Eric Adams, stopped him.
Powell says that in 1981, almost two-thirds of the students at Brooklyn Tech were black or Latino. It’s not true that New Yorkers have become more racist over the past 40 years. It’s that New York’s public schools have failed so many students horribly by lowering expectations, cutting back on curriculum, and giving them few chances to learn faster, even though they spend the most per student of any of the country’s largest school systems. The success of Brooklyn Tech only makes every other part of the public school system look bad.
But there is another part to this story that is best told by Hakakian, a poet and essayist who is Jewish and came to the United States from Iran. She captures what I could sometimes see in my rides with my Pakistani taxi driver: not just a parent’s hope for his child’s success or even the redemption of his own sacrifices, but also the end of a journey from identity to self.
“In America, ‘I’ comes first.” Hakakian writes as if he or she still thinks of the United States as a little bit of a foreign country. In praise of self-assertion, they say, “Lean in.”
She also says that the idea of “me time” is so American that it might as well be wearing a Stetson and cowboy boots.
One paradox of being an immigrant is that parents from cultures that value community often raise children who are good at achieving their own goals. These are the kinds of kids who fill the hallways at Brooklyn Tech.
Today, conservatives are very angry about what they see as the left’s attack on meritocracy and traditional family values. And progressives are furious about what they see as the right’s attack on progress in equality and public education. But is there anywhere else in America where the ideas of meritocracy, equality, traditional values, and the public good all fit together as well as they do at Brooklyn Tech?
Not too long ago, Americans understood that the promise of this country lay in its belief that being open to immigrants was an affirmation of our values, not a rejection of them; that our belief in equality was a way to strengthen the idea of merit, not to get in the way of it; and that the goal of a public education was to get beyond the politics of identity, not to wallow in it. It shouldn’t be too late to start over with these ideas.
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