Cultural relativism and academic advising

Exploring the disconnect between the experiences of immigrant parents in education and the environment their children will experience

Here’s some mail I’ve been meaning to reply to, from a U.S. reader. It’s edited down somewhat for length:

My son is in his senior year of high school and he has applied to quite a few universities/colleges. In his school years, he has demonstrated his interest and strength in fine arts and he has received three acceptance letters [for study in this area]. Meanwhile, he also applied to some non-fine art majors including business, environmental sciences, and psychology and already received a few acceptance letters from [other reputable schools]. Now he is struggling to make his final decision on whether to go with his relatively stronger interest and strength in fine arts or with a non-fine art major for a realistic job market (better and more secured salary compensation) taking fine arts as his hobby. Since our college choices were chosen quite blindly when we were young in our motherland, China, we really can not help a lot for his decision. I really appreciate it if you could provide us with more tips or guidance for consideration.

Now here’s a common situation. Immigrants often prioritize education very highly (for somewhat obvious reasons) but at the same time may not have a very good idea of what’s going on in North America. I credit the father in this case for realizing as much and for seeking advice about how things work here rather than simply pushing his own experiences as an example to follow. I believe there are very significant differences between educational culture in China and educational culture in North America. But I must also acknowledge that there’s nothing “wrong” with the lessons and assumptions associated with the parents’ experiences in China. Their experiences are different, and may not apply to North American culture, but that doesn’t make them wrong. We all have our biases, and so I’d like to examine my own.

I am very firm about my advice to students that they should follow their interests and their aptitudes. I advise students to take time off school if they aren’t ready. I absolutely advise students to take “less practical” degrees if that is where their inclinations lead them, rather than compromise on something that seems safer. And I fully believe that the best job security available is to be really good and to genuinely care about the field you are in. There will always be jobs for people who are good at what they do. Hence, the “safe” thing to do, in my opinion, really is to stick with what you care about.

Coming from a campus where there are a lot of first and second generation immigrants (I’m second generation myself) I’ve found that a lot of students get family pressure in the opposite direction. They are pushed towards medicine and science and business (regardless of inclination) under the assumption that that’s the way to succeed. Exactly as the father in today’s letter suggests. You care about art? That’s nice. It will be a good hobby for you in your future career. Now get a real degree.

All of this came very clear to me, one day, when I was called out for my own assumptions about education. My ideas were called Western-centric or something like that. And the truth is – they are. No sense denying it. When I advise students to follow their passions and their interests I give that advice not because it’s some universal truth but rather because it works, here, in our cultural context. And I’ll illustrate from my own experiences.

I started university when I was 27 years old. That’s not typical. I studied English as an undergrad. Again, hardly the approved route to success. And yet in my university environment I wasn’t judged for my age. People were interested in my past experiences. It didn’t even prevent me from getting involved with student politics. Similarly, my background in English hasn’t prevented me from transitioning into business environments. I lecture now in the Department of Management at the very school where I did a completely different degree. And all of this works because in North America, for whatever reason, we respect and reward individuality. Our cultural norms are oriented towards it. And because so many opportunities are created by other people, perceptions about the choices you’ve made are very important.

So imagine the opposite scenario. Imagine an entire cultural context (which is the case some places) in which individuality is not so highly regarded and it’s considered more important to do the right thing rather than to follow your own path. My South and East Asian friends, especially, have described the difference as it relates to education. In that context an older student, like me, isn’t so much interesting as faintly pathetic. People would want to know what went “wrong” with my life that I was still in school at that age. Maybe I’d attract some sympathy and the desire to help, but my choice wouldn’t attract opportunities for me as it has here. And career and life paths really are more rigidly defined by early choices. People seeking to jump between environments like I have wouldn’t be met with encouragement but rather with skepticism. And that’s just the way it is.

It would be tempting to pass judgment on which sort of cultural assumption is “right” or “better” but in this case I think cultural relativism is entirely justified. It doesn’t matter. In fact the question is meaningless. Everyone who seeks advice about how to approach his or her education is implicitly doing so in order to achieve some outcome. Students want to be successful, to get good jobs and lead happy lives and to attract the approval of their peers and families. Priories differ and so the appropriate advice isn’t always the same (if you want the full range of this, read my book) but I think it’s all covered by a desire to “be successful.” We don’t all mean the same things when we say that, but we mean something along the same lines. And definitions of success are culturally dependant.

So I’m sure by now you can guess at the advice I gave. Of course I advised the son to follow his interests, to do what he really wants to do, and I threw in all that great stuff about how there will always be jobs for people who really love what they do and are good at it. But I also have to acknowledge that’s all based on a North American context. It’s not necessarily better than the assumptions that might prevail back in China – it’s just more appropriate to the environment where the student in this case will attend school and live and work for presumably the rest of his life. And again, huge kudos to the parent in this case for putting his finger on exactly the factor that makes the question so important.

Questions are welcome at [email protected]. Even the ones I don’t post will still receive answers, and where I do use them here I’ll remove identifying information.