SAN FRANCISCO — Some months ago the Japanese prime minister was unfortunately quoted on the subject of American education. Yasuhiro Nakasone remarked that Japanese society surpasses U.S. society because of the low literacy skills of blacks, Puerto Ricans and Mexicans in the United States.
There followed a predictable outcry from public America. And my mother wrote an angry letter. The prime minister was forced in the end to beg the pardon of his fellow countrymen for an international indiscretion.
Even so, I suspect that some Americans, maybe lots of Americans, sort of, you know, agree that America is burdened, weighted low by Puerto Ricans, blacks and Mexicans. We are, are we not, looking for a convenient explanation for Asia's technological ascendancy, the American eclipse?
Consider the recent spate of magazine cover stories, newspaper articles and television essays on the academic success of Asian Americans in higher education. One senses a rattled anxiety channeling the news wires. Gothic-masted American dailies appear willing enough to print the conjectures of loonies: the Berkeley psychologist who composes biochemical confetti into a theory about the racial (intellectual) superiority of Asians; the Harvard pediatrician who asserts that Chinese and Japanese infants have the advantage of a more tranquil gestation in their mothers' wombs.
The composite white student invariably is measured against a superior Asian composite. Whole races are appraised in charts of test scores. And thus, too, does the black student get judged. Woven throughout the glowing newspaper and magazine reports on Asian academic success, in fact, will be nagging reminders of black and Hispanic failure, the wondering why.
Several weeks ago, in its cover story on "the new whiz kids," Time magazine concluded its survey of Asian-American academic success with this remarkable observation: "The largely successful Asian-American experience is a challenging counterpoint to the charges that U.S. schools are . . . failing to help underclass blacks and Hispanics." Which is to say, our schools work after all. Which is again to say, if only certain Americans would take the Asian example of hard work, our schools would work for all students.
Lately I have heard black and brown administrators of American universities privately express resentment at the celebrity that attaches to Asian-American academic success. The rhetorical rug has been pulled out from under black and brown critics of American education. And, more important, as the population of Asian students has grown on campus, the old 1960s notion of a minority student as a "person of color" in white America has become confused.
When I was a boy in Sacramento, I remember my father saying he wished his children had Asian friends. A remarkable remark; my father was not in the habit of ethnic speculations. He said it just that once.
His admiration for Asian sobriety? I knew, of the Asians my father knew, that he admired their seriousness. The word in Spanish is formal. It was perhaps some seriousness of purpose my father wanted for me, living in glib America. Keep a sober house.
Certainly what my father knew was that Chinese culture is different from Mexican culture. And that differences could be shared.
It remains worth saying in 1987 that cultures are different. And that what we discern as Asian culture is different from what we lump as Hispanic culture. More to the point: The perceived success of one ethnic group should never be made to serve as a critique of another ethnic group. Cultures are different.
Invariably newspaper and magazine articles on Asian-American success cite the importance of family. Asian children seek to honor their parents. I could say the same thing about Mexican children. Mexican-American children seek to honor their parents. But whereas in one culture to honor one's parents means doing well in public, in another culture honoring one's parents may mean staying closer to home, not getting "too much education." (A friend of mine, an Irish priest, remembers the deathless caution he received from his catechism nun when he left for the seminary: "Don't get too smart, John.")
I am not easy talking about national cultures as they relate to the American classroom. Education is not about culture nor is it about class but about the individual reach for experience, about Eliza Doolittle, Holden Caulfield.