The Great Academic/Sports Double Standard

Estimated Reading Time: 4 minutes

And why Pawan Dhingra has it wrong about extracurricular learning.

Starting in elementary school and continuing through high school, aspiring athletes are encouraged by parents, coaches, and society at large to spend considerable hours training and practicing outside of the school day and off-campus, oftentimes at the additional cost of private leagues and coaches. And those who make it to the big time are praised, honored, and even treated as heroes for their hard work.

Now, Pawan Dhingra has published a book, “Hyper Education,” that questions the fairness of parents not only encouraging their kids to spend extra time on academics but also paying for extracurricular study programs and tutors. His focus is on East Indians, but this Italian took his questioning personally.

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One reason for taking it personally is that Dhingra uses Kumon as an example of an extracurricular academic program that is employed by parents to give their kids an advantage. My wife and I had enrolled our son in Kumon math from kindergarten to eighth grade.

We credit Kumon for our son earning undergraduate and graduate degrees in engineering and going on to work as an engineer for a Fortune 50 company—in spite of him having parents of average intelligence with no natural talent for math.

Kumon math is offered by Kumon Learning Centers in the U.S. and around the world. It’s a self-paced Japanese instructional method based on practice, practice, practice. In that sense, it’s like a Little Leaguer going to the batting cage after school and on weekends to become a better hitter, or a basketball player shooting hoops at the neighborhood park for hours on end.

Every day, 365 days a year, our son completed a Kuman math worksheet, which we would score and then require him to correct any mistakes. That totaled 2,920 worksheets over the eight years—and a lot of whining from him and a lot of threats from me.

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Once a week, I accompanied him to a Kumon “class,” where he completed a lesson at the class, turned in his worksheets for the week, and was given a packet of new worksheets by the instructor for the coming week. If he was ready to advance to more challenging math, the instructor would give him a quick lesson.

His instructor was a stern, no-nonsense Japanese American. True to form, our extroverted son would start talking to the other kids sitting next to him. From my seat in the back of the room, I’d hear the instructor bellow, “CANTONI, MIND YOUR OWN BUSINESS!” It brought back memories of the nuns yelling at me in parochial school.

Dhingra makes the unfounded claim in his book that if public school teachers didn’t have to teach to the test, such extracurricular programs would be unnecessary. He also claims that public schools “provide deeper, more thoughtful, well-researched means of teaching math, writing, and other subjects than are offered in learning centers.”

He either doesn’t recognize or refuses to admit, that such rote exercises as Kumon math have been pooh-poohed for a long time by so-called pedagogical experts. Nor does he seem to appreciate the benefits of parents working closely with their children and reinforcing the value of extra effort, or the benefits to children of immediate feedback, or the satisfaction that kids feel when they master a lesson and move to the next level.

Do such extracurricular programs give the children of wealthy parents and two-parent families an edge over the children of non-wealthy parents and one-parent families? Probably. But unless children are taken from parents at an early age, there is no way of stopping parents from giving their children every advantage possible, irrespective of their station in life.

To that point, my working-class mom, a high school graduate, and daughter of poor immigrants would use flashcards to drill me in vocabulary and grammar. And no doubt, Jewish kids with religious parents benefit in intellectual growth from preparing for their Bar Mitzah or Bat Mitzah. Should such advantages be banned?

In any event, worksheets similar to Kumon can be purchased inexpensively or printed for free from the internet. Moreover, there is nothing stopping public schools from offering Kumon-like courses.

It’s become de rigueur today for authors, especially so-called minorities, to go off on tangents about race and class. Dhingra is no exception.

He says that non-Asian parents and teachers resent Asian parents for pressuring their children to succeed. That could be true, and it’s certainly true that selective high schools and colleges are now discriminating against Asians in admissions because they have better grades and test scores than other “minorities.” But in my circle, Asians are admired, not resented, for their academic prowess.

Dhingra loses my admiration, however, when he puts a racial chip on his shoulder. He claims that some Asian parents engage in hyper-learning because their children don’t have as much social or cultural capital as white kids. He even quotes an East Indian motel owner: “I’m never going to make the secret handshake.”

Give me a break! Does Dhingra believe that the scores of ethnic whites who immigrated to America without a pot to pee in—such as my grandparents—knew the secret handshake among the Anglo-Saxon Protestants in the Skull and Bones society at Yale?

Is he actually so unlearned or indoctrinated that he believes that there are not large numbers of poor and disadvantaged whites?

Is he not aware that the Patel clan of East Indians has a lock on independent motels across the nation, that East Indians are at the top in income in America, and that East Indians are disproportionately represented in the executive ranks of tech companies? Or maybe he has the U.S. confused with the caste system in India.

To go back to my opening paragraph, it doesn’t seem to have crossed Dhingra’s mind that maybe East Indians are more successful because they don’t buy into the American double standard of praising athletes for their extracurricular training but not students for their extracurricular learning.

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