Jews in Second Place
When Asian-Americans become the "new Jews," what happens to the Jews?
At the front end of the American meritocratic machine, Asians are replacing Jews as the No. 1 group. They are winning the science prizes and scholarships. Jews, meanwhile, at our moment of maximum triumph at the back end of the meritocracy, the midlife, top-job end, are discovering sports and the virtues of being well-rounded. Which is cause and which is effect here is an open question. But as Asians become America's new Jews, Jews are becoming ... Episcopalians.
The one extracurricular venue where I run into a lot of Asian-Americans is a Very Serious music school in Scarsdale, the suburban town in the New York area that (because of its famous school system) has the most name-brand appeal for transferred Japanese executives. Music is a form of extracurricular activity that Mrs. Portnoys approve of, and the atmosphere at this school would be familiar to earlier generations of American Jews. In the lobby, children waiting for music lessons bend over their homework, mom perched at their shoulder. Musical exercises drift through the air, along with snatches of conversation about AP courses, recommendations, test prep, tracking, and nursery-school admissions.
The hockey ethos is to be elaborately casual and gruff about competitive achievement: Outstanding performance gets you a little slap on the helmet, a good-natured insult. At the music school they take the straightforward approach. At my younger son's first piano lesson, his teacher, Mrs. Sun, explained the rules. "Every week, Theo, at the end of the lesson, I give you stamps," she said. "If you're a good boy, I give you one stamp. If you're a very good boy, I give you two stamps. And if you're a very, very good boy, I give you three stamps! Then, every time you get 25 stamps, I give you a statue of a great composer." Watching 7-year-old Theo take this in, I could see that he was hooked. Ancient imperatives had kicked in. When he hit 25 stamps for the first time, Mrs. Sun gave him a plastic statuette of Mozart. "Do you know how old he was when he composed his first piece of music, Theo?" A look of rapt anticipation from Theo. "Four years old! Three years younger than you." Theo, get to work.
My mother grew up in New Jersey, not too far from Philip Roth. I was raised on the story of her crushing disappointment over being only the salutatorian of her class at Perth Amboy High School, when she had been valedictorian of her junior high school class. Her father, a small-town pediatrician, had somehow gone to medical school without having gone to college, or possibly even (here we begin to slip into the realm of Marquez-like fable) finishing high school. Every relative in my grandparents' generation seems to have graduated from high school at some improbable age like 14 or 12. Then, for the most part, at least as the story was received by the young me, life turned disappointing. Why? Because school is the only part of American society that's fair. Afterward, a vast, subtle conspiracy arranges to hold you back in favor of those more advantaged by birth.
Even by my school days, the academic hunger had begun to wane. By now, it is barely producing a pulse, except among Jews who are within one generation of the immigration cycle. Jews have not become notable as academic underachievers. But something is gone: That old intense and generalized academic commitment, linked to sociological ambition, is no longer a defining cultural characteristic of the group.
What has replaced it is a cultural insider's sort of academic preoccupation: a task-specific, in-the-know concern with successfully negotiating the key junctures--mainly, college admission. Jews are now successful people who want to move the levers of the system (levers whose location we're quite familiar with) so as to ensure that our children will be as successful as we are. This is quite different from being yearning, not-successful-enough people who hope, rather than know for sure, that study will generate dramatic upward mobility for our children.
Jews' new second-place status in the strivers' hierarchy is most noticeable in places with good public school systems like Westchester County, N.Y., (where I live) and the San Gabriel Valley, outside of Los Angeles. The same is true of super-meritocratic public educational institutions like Lowell High School in San Francisco, the University of California at Berkeley, and Bronx High School of Science and Stuyvesant High School in New York, which are all now Asian-plurality.
By contrast, the Asian presence is noticeably less, and the Jewish presence noticeably more, in private schools. In these, no matter how great the meritocratic pretenses, the contest is always less completely open than it is in public institutions. Just at the moment when Harvard, Yale, and Princeton have presidents named Rudenstine, Levin, and Shapiro, those institutions are widely suspected of having informal ceilings on Asian admissions, of the kind that were imposed on Jews two generations ago.
Asian achievement is highest in areas like science and classical music, where there is no advantage from familiarity with the culture. This also once was true of Jews (why do you think my grandfather become a doctor?) but isn't any more. Several years ago, Asian-American groups in California successfully lobbied to keep an essay section out of the Scholastic Aptitude Test. It's impossible to imagine organized Jewry caring.
In his famous 1958 book, The Rise of the Meritocracy, British sociologist Michael Young proposed the following formula: IQ plus effort equals merit. Young, like many theorists of meritocracy, assumed that ethnicity would become a nonissue (should be nonissue) under such a system. Instead, it's an overwhelming issue. Accounting for ethnicity, you might amend Young this way (to the extent that "merit" and academic performance are the same thing): an ethnic group's long-term cultural orientation to education, plus its level of sociological ambition in American society at the moment, will equal its members' merit. The cultural connection seems so obvious that it amazes me how often ethnic differences in the meritocracy are explained in terms of genes.
By these standards, Asian-Americans today have two advantages over Jews. They have a lower average income, and so are more motivated. And most back-home Asian cultures rival or surpass Jewish culture in their reverence for study. Therefore Jews are going to have to get used to being No. 2.
Nicholas Lemann is national correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly and the author, most recently, of The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America. He is now at work on a history of meritocracy in the United States.