Improving College Teaching, Discrimination Against Asian Americans in Admissions

Sunday September 19, 2021

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Welcome to What Happens Next. My name is Larry Bernstein. What Happens Next is a podcast where experts are given just six minutes to present their argument. And this is followed by a question and answer period for deeper engagement.

This week’s topics include the university classroom and the lack of improvement in both teaching and student performance. And then we will discuss the ongoing discrimination against Asian-American applicants to the top universities.

Our first speaker will be Jonathan Zimmerman, who is a Professor of History of Education and the Judy and Howard Berkowitz Professor of Education at the University of Pennsylvania. Jon has written a new book entitled The Amateur Hour: A History of College Teaching in America. What Jon finds is that there is very little training in the professorate and the teaching results are mediocre. I want to learn from Jon what we can do to change the university’s priorities to emphasize teaching.

Our second speaker will be Patrick Allitt. You’ve met Patrick several times on What Happens Next, both as a speaker and as a co-moderator. You may recall Patrick’s discussion about John Snow solving the cholera epidemic in London in 1854. Patrick also made a presentation earlier in the year about the writings of George Orwell. On this program, Patrick will be discussing the current performance of university students. Patrick is a Professor of History at Emory University and the author of the book, I’m the Teacher, You’re the Student, A Semester in a University Classroom.

Our final speaker today is Kenny Xu, who is the President of Color Us United, which is dedicated to ending the discrimination of Asian-American students in the college admission process. Kenny is one of the leading participants in the ongoing lawsuit, Harvard Students for Fair Admissions versus Harvard. Kenny has recently written the book An Inconvenient Minority: The Attack on Asian-American Excellence and the Fight for Meritocracy.


Jonathan Zimmerman

Topic: The Poor Quality of American College Education since the Beginning
Bio: Professor of History of Education and the Judy and Howard Berkowitz Professor in Education at the University of Pennsylvania
Reading: The Amateur Hour: A History of College Teaching in America is here


Jonathan Zimmerman:
Thanks very much. This book on college teaching began to take shape about 10 years ago when I was teaching in New York University, and I was fortunate enough to receive its university-wide Distinguished Teaching Award, which was a tremendous honor. There was a lovely dinner. Both my parents were still alive then and they came to it. It was a memorable time. But one of the things that stuck with me is when I was called up to receive my award, my Dean introduced me and I looked at the lecture in that little light, and I saw that she had a list of the books I had published. And then at this teaching award dinner, proceeded to list the books that I had written. And to me, that really says a lot. This is not a diss on my Dean, who I really liked, but what else did she have to go on? She had never seen me teach. And even if she had, what would a single snapshot have told her about my teaching?

That’s the reason I call my book The Amateur Hour. It’s not because teaching is bad or that teaching is good. I don’t think amateur refers to either of those things. After all, the best gymnast in my youth was Nadia Comaneci and she was an amateur because at that time, all the Olympians were. It’s called The Amateur Hour because the teaching function remains amateur in a sociological or a structural sense, meaning we don’t have a shared set of understandings about what constitutes good practice. And most of all, we don’t have systems to try to encourage it or see if people are following that practice or not.

I began the book right after going to a debate about online instruction, which has since, of course, because of the pandemic, become a hugely contested subject. And this is about five years ago, and there were two speakers and one of them was taking the futurist position and the other was taking the Luddite position. So the futurist said that everything was going to be better. And the Luddites said that everything was going to be worse in this brave, new, online universe.

And what I realized when I started writing the book is that they had much more in common with each other than they realized. What they had in common with each other was that they both assumed they knew what the baseline was. So if you want to say, quote, everything is going to be worse or everything is going to be better, you need to have some understanding of what constitutes everything. And in fact, we don’t, because this teaching function, in addition to being amateur, it’s also been quite private, which is ironic. College teaching is a public activity that’s done almost entirely in private. So it’s actually quite difficult to research, but I did the best I could, drawing mainly on people’s memoirs and letters, and also student teaching evaluations, to try to tell the story of what college teaching was so we could try to figure out what we wanted to be.

The biggest surprise for me in doing that research was the long history of critique and reform around college teaching. Patrick is going to speak in a while, and he’s going to tell you that college teaching has remained fairly static. And I think he’s right, but what hasn’t been static is that cycle of critique and reform, which has been quite dynamic. What you see across the last hundred years is the university growing, students expressing great disappointment and what that’s done to teaching, followed by bouts of reform or efforts at reform, and then followed by yet more disappointment.

So just to take one example before my six minutes are up. In the 1920s, you might know the university suddenly got very, very large because it was a time of great prosperity in the United States. And mainly because women were now going in huge numbers. So at places like the University of Michigan, students show up for class in a room that fits a hundred, there are 250 people there. There’s a guy speaking into a microphone that doesn’t work. Nobody can understand him. And they start running to the Michigan Daily and saying, “Why are we here? And why are our parents spending money for us to be here?” That’s when student evaluations began, in the 1920s, which were student-driven. That is, they came from the students. Later of course they were adapted and some people say co-opted by the institutions, but there were also a whole set of reforms that came out of that because of student demands. There were smaller seminars and tutorials. There were honors programs created.

And then the pattern would repeat itself in future eras. So in the 1950s and the Cold War, in part because of the GI bill, the universities get suddenly very huge. There’s a lot of dissatisfaction expressed, especially among the veterans who compose half of all undergrads by 1947. They start to demand better teaching. What you see is a growth of new seminars. You also see televised instruction. Neither of those turn out very well.

Then in the 1960s, the same pattern. Enormous growth, in fact, the greatest ever, mainly fueled in this case by the federal government via the Higher Education Act, which freed up federal dollars for people to go to college. But suddenly in places like the University of Minnesota, you have 2,000 students in Intro to Psych. And you see a lot of student dissatisfaction. We tend to forget that the student protest movements in the 1960s, which were, of course, aimed primarily at the war in Vietnam and civil rights, were also protests about poor teaching. Figures like Tom Hayden and Mario Savio savage what they called the mass class. And they said, “Do not fold, bend or mutilate. I am a human being.”

To come up to the present, I think that what we have right now is we have a lot of dissatisfaction among students, but no protests. And even though I’m one minute over, I am going to take a minute to draw from the Netflix show, The Chair, because there’s a perfect example of what I’m talking about in there. This is not a spoiler alert. The Chair hinges on this young male professor who in an ironic gesture uses the Hitler salute. And this creates a huge stir on campus and massive protests, a lot of noise. But the fact that this young male teacher is completely mailing it in, to the point of not even knowing what class he’s teaching when he runs in the classroom, that doesn’t seem to be exercising anybody. So the real question is, when will the students step up and demand, again, that teaching be better.


Patrick Allitt

Topic: Despite Reforms and Societal Change Education Quality and Student Performance is About the Same
Bio: Professor of History at Emory
Reading: I’m the Teacher. You’re the Student: A Semester in the University Classroom is here


Patrick Allitt:
Great. I read Jonathan Zimmerman’s book with great pleasure. And it’s an honor to appear alongside him in this session. There’s something rather special about the book. Historians usually trace change over time, showing how the interplay of social forces, new technologies, and political decisions creates a new reality. But what he’s done is to show how, despite social, technological, and political changes, everything stayed the same. At least in this area of educational history. Students grumbled about having boring professors in the 1790s, and they’re still grumbling about boring professors in the 2020s. Just glance at Back in the 1790s, the professors retorted that the students were lazy, poorly prepared, and insufficiently motivated. They’re still saying it. In every generation, the college administrators have tried something new, but it never works very well. So then they go back to the old methods.

I’ve been a college professor for 33 years, since 1988. When I first took up this job, the Cold War was still going on. And the birth of the students I’m teaching now lay 15 years in the future. When the history of these 33 years comes to be written, it will be brimming with dramatic moments like the fall of the Berlin Wall and 9/11. Also, with tectonic shifts in geopolitics, the rise of the internet, cell phones, renewable energy, virtual reality. But when I look back over my work as a teacher in these decades, I’m far more struck by the continuities than by the changes. It’s all very well to talk about the special characteristics of Generation X, Generation Y, and the Millennials, but all these groups, at least when they played the role of students, had far more similarities than differences.

There are certain bedrock realities in higher education that are going to be as true in the 2020s as they have been for centuries. First, the really successful students are those who educate themselves. Teachers can guide them, but they have to take the initiative and do more than the necessary minimum. They have to be proactive. The reality now, as always, is that most of them are not. On the contrary, the students are specialists in doing just enough and specialists in procrastination. The clearest evidence of this comes in the matter of deadlines. On my syllabus, distributed to students in late August, I wrote that their final papers are due by 5:00 on December the eighth. I already know that not one paper in 30 will arrive before that day and that 26 of them will appear in the last 10 or 15 minutes before 5:00. And that there will also be two or three sad excuses for missing the deadline. This is as true as it was in the ’80s and ’90s, neither more nor less.

Second, the really successful students are the ones who love to read and who when they finish their assignments, read more. Although we enjoy something approaching mass literacy, we certainly don’t have a mass love for books. Regular surveys show that most Americans can’t understand a straightforward recipe or a simple set of instructions, and that they read at or below the eighth-grade level. That’s been true for a long time, too. Throughout most of world history, the idea that everyone could learn to read seemed completely utopian, even when America tried the experiment anyway, and found that it could work, literacy became for most people, little more than a useful tool.

My Emory colleague, Mark Bauerlein, who’s appeared on What Happens Next, published a book in 2008 called The Dumbest Generation, arguing that the students were getting worse. I enjoyed it, but I don’t think he was right. I think the students are just about the same. Higher education is just too hard for most people and it’s always has been. He was right to point out that we now require less work of our students than formerly, and that we give them higher grades. But when everyone’s getting a B plus or better, we still find ways of distinguishing the better from the poorer.

I’m more sympathetic to Bryan Caplan’s 2018 book, The Case Against Education, in which he points out the students and their families pay colleges outrageously high tuition, not because they want education, but because they want credentials. He adds that there ought to be a far more efficient and cost-effective way of giving them.

Another of the perennial discussions among historians, along with the tension between continuity and change, is the question of whether there is such a thing as human nature or whether what we think of as human nature is actually a cultural artifact. The evidence is strong on both sides. In favor of a permanent human nature, we can understand very well the motivation of many characters in Homer and the Bible, written thousands of years ago. In favor of the cultural theory, ideas about honor, honesty, gifts, beauty, freedom, and justice, the things people will sometimes die for, have varied enormously.

Evidence taken from the field of higher education, however, suggests a deep and ineradicable continuity. My six minutes are nearly up, but let me mention one more thing that never changes. We hear a lot today about how higher education is in crisis. Doubtless it is in crisis, but don’t forget, it always has been. There’s never been a moment in American history when one or another group wasn’t lamenting the sorry state of our colleges and universities, deploring the badness of teaching and the badness of students and so forecasting disaster. My prediction for the 2020s is that higher education will in fact go on more or less as it has been doing for the last 200 years with all its joys and all its imperfections and that so will the lamentations.

Questions for Zimmerman and Allitt

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Kenny Xu

Topic: University Admissions Discrimination against Asian Americans
Bio: Professor of NGO Color Us United and a lead participant in the Harvard Students for Fair Admissions vs. Harvard legal case
Reading: An Inconvenient Minority: The Attack on Asian American Excellence and the Fight for Meritocracy is here


Larry Bernstein:
Okay. We’re going to switch it up. We’re going to go to our next speaker, who is Kenny Xu. Kenny is the president of NGO, Color Us United. He is a lead participant in the Harvard Students for Fair Admissions versus Harvard legal case. And he’s also the author of An Inconvenient Minority: The Attack On Asian-American Excellence and the Fight For Meritocracy. Kenny, if you’re there, go ahead.

Kenny Xu:
Well, just thank you so much to Patrick and John. On the matter of does major matter… John mentioned this might be an American or British sort of thing, but as an American, I do have to take the side of Patrick a little more because major does batter. Otherwise, we wouldn’t see the starting salaries of math majors is so much higher than the starting salaries of English majors. And by the way, this is speaking as someone who was both a math and English major, but the starting salaries of math majors are $88,000 a year. The starting salaries of English majors are $50,000 in college, which leads me to my point about what my book An Inconvenient Minority is about. It’s about choices. That’s what my book is really about. It’s protecting the right to the fruits of your choices.

Asian-Americans in this country are some of the hardest studying people in this country, objectively. The average time or hours a week an Asian-American studies per week is about 14 hours a week. That’s average, which is about twice as high as the average American. The average white person is about seven hours, and the average black person is about five hours.
So Asian-Americans study twice as many hours per week as the average American. They also have higher two-parent family structures. They also invest significantly more as a percentage of their income on education, learning-related opportunities, and yet schools like Harvard University, Ivy League, elite schools, UPenn, Princeton, Stanford, the ones that we’ve been talking about unfairly deny them admissions based on their scores, based on the level of their hard work.

Harvard has consistently limited Asian-Americans at their schools to less than 20% of the student body, even though their own analysis says that if merit were the factor, the primary factor in their admission, Asian-Americans would rise to 43%. 43% of their student body. And this is based on the distribution of math and reading SAT scores in this country. Did you know that the number of Asian-Americans in this country who have math SAT scores higher than 700 out of 800 which is an elite math SAT score. The number of Asian-Americans in this country, a proper estimate would suggest it’s about 7,000 to 10,000 per year.

In contrast, the estimated number of black Americans who have scores of the SAT that are above 700 in math is between 500 and 2,000. And Asian-Americans, of course, are a smaller group. We’re half as big as black Americans. Yet they have scores on the upper end, that are four times as much as black Americans, and yet they’re admitted to Harvard at a rate that is about a fourth or a 10th as much as black Americans in these schools.

So ultimately what you’re doing as a culture when you consistently push this kind of policy in our elite universities, which is now spreading to public schools, gifted and talented programs, diversity and inclusion industries in this country, ultimately what you’re doing is you are not allowing the fruits of one’s choices to properly manifest themselves in their reward and in America, which is what meritocracy is. That’s why my book subtitle is: An Inconvenient Minority, The Attack On Asian-American Excellence and the Fight For Meritocracy. The fight to have the fruits of your hard work, your effort, and your skill accurately and properly rewarded in our country.

Questions for Xu

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