A conversation about the education arms race
By Pawan Dhingra |
Pawan Dhingra is a Professor of American Studies and Contributing Faculty in Anthropology/Sociology at Amherst College. He is Former Curator and Senior Advisor to the historic Smithsonian Institution’s Beyond Bollywood project. He has written on various aspects of the South Asian American experience, including award-winning books, op-eds, award-winning articles, and more. He also appears in the Netflix documentary on Indian American spelling bee kids, Spelling the Dream.
What idea is at the heart of your book and what new way would you like people to think about it?When I was a curator at the Smithsonian for its Beyond Bollywood exhibition, I spoke with Desi children excelling in spelling bees. Such families seem extreme to many others, including to other South Asian Americans. But in speaking with them, I understood that parents just wanted a good education for the children so that they would be able to do well later. These are the same motivations of parents who enroll their children in after-school centers like Kumon, Mathnasium, etc., which are some of the fastest growing companies in the country. Yet, something as straight forward as wanting a good education for one’s child has become a national topic, of supposed “tiger parents” and stressed-out youth. Teachers criticize it. Towns get divided over it. Educational inequality grows as a result. I set out to understand what motivates a preoccupation with education, what accounts for the pushback against it, and how do the children feel about all this. There is a new normal starting in education, of children getting more and more academics outside of school, and I wanted to get to the heart of it.
Is there anything in your personal life that inspired you to care about this topic?My starting point as a parent is to nurture my children in a way that advances greater respect and fair treatment towards others. That’s not always easy to do. As a parent of children in elementary school when I did the bulk of the writing, I can understand wanting to give them more opportunities, including academic ones. But at the same time, I want to push back on privilege and think about what kind of parenting facilitates the kind of connections I want my kids to have. The challenge is finding ways to allow for both, which was very clear to me when working on this.
What did you learn while researching or writing that surprised you?When I asked one father why he thought other parents did not also enroll their children in after-school academics, he cupped his hand as if holding a glass and said, “Because they are busy doing this,” and proceeded to pretend he was drinking an alcoholic beverage. Parents believed that studying does something for children “on moral grounds,” as a mother said. Another mother said, when explaining why her daughter was in an after-school math class, “My grandparents were Holocaust survivors. My parents worked really hard. I want to maintain that for my kids.” She traced a line between surviving the Holocaust and after-school math. Extracurricular education reflects not just academic achievement but being the right kind of person. And yet, educators criticized this practice. A principal told me that parents who enroll their children in after-school math classes are uncaring and ungrounded. This disconnect tells me that there is much more we need to understand.
For someone who might not be interested in this book’s specific topic, why should they still read this and what do you hope they will get out of it?Most families do not engage in after-school education for their children. Yet, the trend impacts all kinds of families and even those without children. As some kids exceed the expectations of school, others families feel forced to do so in order to keep up. An education arms race engulfs all kinds of families, with stress and anxiety increasing. In addition, the turn to the private sphere, such as corporate learning center and corporate-sponsored competitions, furthers the privatization of education. If you care about how the public aspects of life are increasingly being privatized in this neoliberal moment and how childhood is increasingly becoming high pressured, then the book has relevance.
What resonance do you think your book has for parts of the South Asian diaspora?The dominance of South Asian Americans in the Scripps National Spelling Bee is well known. News articles explain how parents teach their kids and the like. But less known is why they care about winning and about education more generally. That is at the heart of so many families’ child-rearing efforts. In addition, the book brings out youths’ voices to explain how South Asian American youth experience school and how they create a sense of belonging despite being stigmatized. The prejudices of – not just against – the families also are revealed.
How have you changed as an author since your first book?This is my third monograph and my fourth book overall. Writing does not get easier. It is still anxiety inducing, exhausting, and humbling. But, the joy of thinking through the work and writing something others can engage with is worthwhile. I’ve learned to write in a more informal, engaging yet still thorough way. The voices of the people carry the book, which is how it should be.
If there is some social or cultural or political change that could come about from people reading your book, however large or small, what would you like that to be?What kind of childhood we can imagine for children depends on what kind of education system we create and on how race guides contemporary capitalism. These issues are at the heart of the book. If we want childhood to be a more relaxed and less stressful time than it is today, we have to dismantle how racial and other social inequalities give families few other options than to try to outcompete others for scarce resources, which then leads them towards a kind of parenting that pushes competition over compassion.
Pawan Dhingra is a Professor of American Studies and Contributing Faculty in Anthropology/Sociology at Amherst College.