Education on the Edge

A conversation with sociologist Pawan Dhingra
June 4, 2020

My daughter was two months into virtual first grade when I read sociologist Pawan Dhingra’s Hyper Education: Why Good Schools, Good Grades, and Good Behavior Are Not Enough (NYU Press, 2020). This meant that my partner and I, like the majority of American parents, were two months into our first experience of homeschooling. The coronavirus pandemic has laid bare tremendous inequalities in every sector of the United States, including in the sphere of education. Daily, we are reminded of the privileges we bring to the homeschooling table: our child goes to one of the best schools in our city and reads above grade level; we have access to supplemental technologies that help with online learning; and, most importantly, we’re both academics, raised in the United States, and products of the elite higher education system.

Hyper Education is about elementary and middle school students involved in the pursuit of what Dhingra calls “enrichment education,” from competitions like the Scripps National Spelling Bee to learning centers like Kumon and private educational programs like Khan Academy. These are not institutions intended to support students who are lagging behind; rather, hyper education refers to a complex of opportunities designed for those who are already excelling. In this way, Dhingra’s book is about privilege: about the advantages of middle-class American parents like me and my husband who know how to navigate the school system, seek out opportunities for our children, and negotiate fraught societal expectations and double standards from a position of embodied experience. Children like ours do not need enrichment in order to keep up with their peers; rather, they are “already performing at or above their grade or age level and are enrolled in well-resourced schools.” Why, then, do their parents seek out academic enrichments beyond school?

Dhingra offers revealing answers to this question, which he derives from seven years of research with educators, parents, and students. Most significant is this paradox: hyper education drives inequity in schools (it propels some students to greater skill levels while leaving others behind), but it is also fundamentally a response to existing inequity in schools and educational systems more broadly. These are spaces of white privilege and white normativity, which Dhingra defines as “the notion that white students’ interests, approach to education, and levels of attainment are normal and should be the standard by which others are held.” Compared to Asian Americans and other ethnic minorities, white Americans hold disproportionate social and cultural capital; they are heirs to assets, networks, and the proverbial old boys’ clubs. Immigrants try to match such capital by cultivating their own human capital as a “tool of resistance” and an alternative means of upward mobility.

Dhingra’s informants are primarily, but not exclusively, Asian American families. Through their experiences, hyper education emerges as “an Asian American style of concerted cultivation, one that resists assimilation into the mobility strategies of their American peers, which they fear will not serve them as they do others.” The operative word here is “style”: Asian Americans are engaged in practices of self-cultivation that are widely shared across American communities. And yet they are often caricatured by school administrators and teachers, other parents, and the mainstream media as “tiger” mothers and fathers driving robotic children into unnatural pursuits, like extracurricular math.

I had the opportunity to talk to Dhingra about these and other arguments in his new book. What follows is an edited version of the conversation we carried out over email in late May.


RTS: Pawan, congrats on a timely, provocative, and deeply necessary book about American education. I want to start by asking you about the nuanced ways in which you contextualize Asian American hyper education. On the one hand, you explain that it can serve as a form of mainstreaming: Asian Americans want their pursuits to look familiar; thus, chess becomes a “sport” and the spelling bee serves as an opportunity for the immigrant’s child to cement her status as a card-carrying, trophy-wielding American. On the other hand, hyper education is a method of “antiassimilation.” Asian American parents don’t want their children held to a low standard; they don’t want their children to be “American” if that means being content with a grade of “B”, and so on. How is hyper education both a practice of assimilation and a rejection of its imperatives?


PD: I appreciate you highlighting the point that immigrants promoted education as a way for their children to fit into the country by, in effect, not fitting in. By that I mean, parents believe that education is fundamental to their children’s chances for mobility and economic security. As one father said, “You’ve got to survive in this world. Asians and Indians do [academics] because they want to differentiate themselves. There are no options.” Extra education feels like the only reliable gateway to help ensure their children won’t have a life of “nothingness,” as another parent commented, especially as racial minorities. But while parents wanted their children to take advantage of available opportunities in this country, they worried that the surrounding culture (as they saw it) did not emphasize education enough. A father said, “You cannot just trust your kid’s education to someone else. That is exactly what I don’t like about American culture, about not focusing too much on education.” Somewhat ironically, not assimilating into the surrounding culture would help the kids succeed in the country. What’s more, even white American parents echoed these themes. They had even harsher critiques of “American” culture, such as their neighbors, than Asian Americans did. As one father said, “I don’t want [my son] to be an American in the sense that he melts and becomes nothing. I want him to be a contributor.” A mother echoed, “nonimmigrant kids might be spoiled a little bit. … [There is a] work ethic that I do think nonimmigrant families have lost a little.”


RTS: One of the things you do so well is contextualize rhetoric like “work ethic”, in particular through your analysis of hyper education as a product of neoliberalism. Everywhere, we hear espoused neoliberal values of time management, discipline, self-cultivation, not to mention the discourses of innovation, disruption, and competition. Our culture valorizes private solutions to public problems. In America today, children are trained early to develop themselves as human capital; parents demand from schools a clear return on investment. How has neoliberalism transformed our understandings of what it means to be a child or a parent?


PD: Neoliberalism is often times discussed as an economic or political philosophy, but it is also a set of cultural values that influence how we parent and pursue education. As I write, “To be prepared for the future work world, kids must be made competitive at a young age, for competition is both inevitable and productive.” Under neoliberalism, it is important for children to experience the long work hours, sacrifice, and delayed gratification of adulthood so as to be able to take advantage of opportunities later. Yet, what parents do not understand is that teachers believe children in extra education actually learn less and lose a love of learning compared to those who did not do it. So, while parents hoped to give their children the skills for adulthood, the exact opposite could be the case.


RTS: You write that many of the parents you talked to seek “a competitive edge” for their children; they are driven by the idea that “standing out among peers [is] essential in life,” specifically “to secure economic, family, and personal opportunities.” Could you talk about how both the “American” privileging of creativity, freedom, and self-expression in the classroom, and the supposedly “Asian” focus on memorization, discipline, and deference to the authority of teachers, stem from assumptions about what delivers “a competitive edge”?


PD: Many families have come to see education as a competitive venue at a young age. What groups value in this competition can differ, as you say. What struck me, however, is that while Asian Americans emphasized academic learning, often in STEM subjects, they also worried about their children’s creativity and compassion. As one mother said to me at a spelling bee, “When we drag kids to these things, I believe we are losing the creativity part. We are losing artists, composers, musicians, authors. We are not training them; we’re drilling them.” A father confessed, “Maybe we are confused [about our priorities], and we are making our children more confused.” Conversely, a growing number of white, U.S.-born families believe that their children need more education in order to be adequately educated. They worry that Americans put too much emphasis on “fun” activities and not enough on those that instill deference and discipline. So, while there are these general differences between groups, we are seeing more confluence and mixed emotions than we normally assume.


RTS: I appreciate that note on confluence given the too-easy “American” versus “Asian” binary I used in my last question! Throughout the book, you problematize this binary as you track between ideas of people and people themselves. You write both about how Asian immigrants view “Americans” and how white Americans view their Asian counterparts. For example, you describe how Asian American students are subject to the stereotypes of the model minority and the forever foreigner. In a revealing moment, you talk about the white American romanticization of the hard-working immigrant who pulls herself up by her bootstraps. You write, “Immigrants are more a foil than a literal group [white parents] identify with.” Just who does the average American think immigrants are, and Asian American immigrants in particular?


PD: One white father said, “I identify with an immigrant mentality. I just take comfort that there are other parents who have similar kinds of values. I identify with that strongly.” We know there is a great degree of backlash against Asian Americans, but there is much respect. However, that respect is based on stereotypical views of them and ignores the large number of Asian Americans who struggle in school. The stereotypes of Asian Americans also paint them as overbearing tiger mothers. So, what Americans are really saying when they say they identify with Asian Americans is that they see themselves as hard working like the so-called model minority, but they are well-balanced and humane people, unlike Asian Americans.


RTS: You mention the ongoing legal suit in which a group called Students for Fair Admissions wages that Harvard discriminates against Asian Americans, by, for example, holding them to a higher academic standard than whites and docking their “personality scores”. The lawsuit essentially charges that what you identify as “stereotype promise”—in which Asian Americans are de facto expected to be “high achievers”—is widely operative in Harvard’s admissions procedures. Can you say more about why this is such a vexed case for the Asian American community?


PD: While most Asian Americans approve of affirmative action, it is not a clear-cut issue. Support varies depending on how affirmative action is framed. The issue gets at the heart of the Asian immigrant dilemma. Asian Americans realize that they are minorities in a white-dominated country, and as such they do not have equal opportunities. Even if stereotyped positively, they are still stereotyped. But, they also want as easy a pathway for their children as possible. Some worry that affirmative action creates hurdles for them by prioritizing other minorities. What they need to worry about more is the effect of legacy admissions on their children’s chances for education. Also, college admissions officers told me how they view Asian American applicants, which entails certain stereotypes that Asian American parents should be aware of and work against. Affirmative action is not the problem.


RTS: One last question, about hyper education as a family affair. You write that over a quarter of competitive spellers you talked to had a stay-at-home-mother. In the era of COVID-19, a lot of us are stay-at-home/work-from-home parents now. We’re charged in new ways with ensuring not only the academic growth of our children, but also their physical health. I wonder if you could reflect on the relationship between what you term in the book “academic and moral safety” and physical safety. How might the pursuit of academic enrichment relate to what many of us are experiencing in this moment as the dueling imperatives of guarding our children’s health and enabling their schooling?


PD: Parents emphasized their children’s education out of a concern for their fiscal and moral safety. One mother said when I asked her why she had her elementary-aged children in an extra math class, “My grandparents worked really hard. They’re Holocaust survivors. My parents worked really hard. I want to maintain that for my kids.” She drew a line between surviving the Holocaust and an after-school math class, for all of it demonstrated a commitment to hard work and self-sufficiency. In addition to creating “moral” children, parents believed an emphasis on education would protect their children in other ways, such as from gun violence, teenage pregnancy, and other concerns. We have to understand the multiple reasons parents care about extra education and not reduce it just to college preparedness. Yet, children’ emotional safety was not always at the forefront of parents’ minds, which teachers and others worried about. As one educator said, “We watch peer after peer elect to remove their children from the [public school] system because of concerns that [it] may ultimately undermine their children’s emotional well-being.” Parents need to find the sweet spot between providing their children a sense of future-oriented safety with immediate emotional well-being.


Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan

Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is Assistant Professor of English and Vice Chair of the graduate interdisciplinary program in Social, Cultural, and Critical Theory at the University of Arizona. She works at the intersections of South Asian Anglophone and Asian/American literatures and cultural production, and is currently completing a manuscript on the diasporic registration of the New India discourse. Srinivasan is also an award-winning journalist and former magazine editor with bylines in over three dozen scholarly and public venues.