Like many people my age, I didn’t “discover” that I was American until after I left America.
The story is typical, and it begins like this: Kid leaves suburban hometown to travel the world. It’s his “gap year.” Kid backpacks through Peru, learns to dance salsa, and drinks tea atop Andean mountains. He does this for months. Kid concludes at some point, with embarrassment then relief, that he doesn’t really belong there, that this isn’t his home—thus discovering, transitively, that he belongs somewhere, that he has a home. In confronting what he’s not, Kid learns what he is. Kid becomes less of a kid. This story has a title: it’s called “Growing Up.”
Going to Harvard from Peru wasn’t as psychically disorienting as I had expected, because the experience of being at Harvard—like that of any liberal arts college—is similar to the experience of perpetual travel. A friend once earnestly remarked to me that Harvard was the first time in his life when he was the only white guy in the room. I get that. Identity conflict isn’t just about “rights” or “fairness”—the language of law. It proceeds from a deeper, more primitive place—that need we have, revealed by travel, to belong to this world that wasn’t built for us.
Earlier this year, an Indian American student filed a complaint to the U.S. Department of Education alleging that Harvard systematically discriminates against its Asian applicants. To this some said, “Of course!” Others confided that they didn’t really get it at all. “Harvard and Princeton Clearly Discriminate Against Asian Applicants; the Question Is Whether It’s Illegal” Matt Yglesias declared on his blog. One peer, by contrast, asked quizzically, “But aren’t lots of Asians at Harvard?” Reactions were so polarized that one got the familiar sense that we weren’t talking about Asians and Harvard at all.
Consider two facts, both true. Fact #1: the average Asian applicant has to score roughly 140 points higher on her SATs to be admitted to an elite college than her average non-Asian peer. Is that fair? That sounds like discrimination to me. But now, consider fact #2: the average Asian American, born into a group far better represented in college populations than in the general population, has at birth a 200%-300% greater chance of being admitted to an elite college than her same average non-Asian American peer. Is that fair? That sounds far from discrimination to me. To parse these questions, it turns out, you have to go pretty deep.
What is college admissions for? For the people who believe that students with higher SATs should get into better colleges, the answer is easy: college admissions is society’s aptitude test. It’s a machine designed to sort people according to IQ, self-discipline, and social skills. Like a piston in the engine of our meritocracy, college admissions answers the central question of Justice—“Who deserves what?”—by invoking the principle that if we have to pick someone, we might as well pick the best.
But there’s another answer. Those who doubt the Asian discrimination case tend to doubt that it’s possible, or even advisable, to rank our world according to merit. For if an admissions decision can be “unjust,” then an admissions committee—a group of old people—can create Justice. It means that merit can be declared by fiat, and that these declarations could possibly be “fair,” in a world where birth is random and where the rules of what is meritorious reflect the preferences of the powerful. To these doubters, college admissions is better understood as that time when colleges hustle to help themselves. Some colleges need football players, so they recruit football players; some prefer math students, so math students they pick; and the feeder schools, of course, must be kept feeding. We should argue about “what is good,” about what colleges ought to value, but not about “what is right,” as if they owed us anything.
This second view is for the better. If you can reconcile yourself to the arbitrariness of the universe (or in the language of theology, its “giftedness”), then you’re less likely to gloat about your merit and less likely to be dispirited by the declarations of old people who judge us from above. At least for me, that was the lasting effect of travel: to realize that things could have been radically different for no good reason at all.