Off the Cuff: Pawan Dhingra, Professor at Tufts University


Pawan Dhingra, Professor of Sociology and American Studies at Tufts University.

Melissa Harris, Editor-in-Chief

Professor Pawan Dhingra is a professor of Sociology and American Studies at Tufts University, specializing in Asian American studies, immigrant adaptation, race and ethnic relations and social and cultural inequalities. From 2011 to 2012, Dhingra served at the Smithsonian Institution as museum curator for the Indian American Heritage Project and was involved with its exhibition, Beyond Bollywood, which was featured at Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. He is the author of two award-winning books, Life Behind the Lobby: Indian American Motel Owners and the American Dream and Managing Multicultural Lives: Asian American Professionals and the Challenge of Multiple Identities. Dhingra also serves as president of the Board of the South Asian American Digital Archive, as well as chair of the Asia and Asian American section of the American Sociological Association. Dhingra, a former Oberlin professor, returned to campus yesterday to give a talk, “Achieving More than Grades: Race, Morality and the Pursuit of Education”.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Based on your studies, could you explain how race and culture play into the dynamics of education in America?

Race and cultural playing into education — people write books and libraries about that topic, so it’s a very large question. But speaking specifically about my own work, I’m looking at the pursuit of extracurricular education. Why are some people pursuing education as a hobby? And the roles of race and culture — we see some groups doing this more than others. There are a lot of Asian and Asian immigrant families doing this, disproportionate to their numbers, so one thing we’re trying to understand is why that is.

Do you think the supplemental education that many families — especially Asian American ones — push for affects the mental well-being of students? Are there other consequences?

I think the pursuit or push for supplemental education affects the mental well-being as much as the push to do anything supplemental, in the way it affects the well-being of any kid. If I push a child to do strong athletics, that can affect their well-being as much as pushing the child to do supplemental education, so I don’t think supplemental education has any more effect on their mental well-being than any kinds of other activities that you do.

I think what matters is to what degree is a child feeling either supported in their pursuits or burdened by their pursuits. That, to me, is the more relevant question in the psychology, rather than what they’re doing. There’s a lot of heterogeneity or variability between families and how they communicate the parents’ preferences to the kids and whether the kids feel encouraged or forced. I don’t think it’s true that Asian families are “forcing” kids to do things against the kids’ will, so it’s more of a caricature. But I do think it’s not uncommon for families of any kind to say to kids, “We really want you to pursue something in this realm of options,” whether it be academic or athletic or arts or something, and within that realm, choose something that you want to do. But … you need to do something within that realm — so I think parents are mindful of the fact that they don’t want their kids to feel burdened psychologically, and there’s kind of a give and take between kids and parents. Of course, parents make mistakes and do make their kids feel obligated and burdened and forced, and the kids can have psychological challenges as a result, but parents are still mindful of this and often try their best to avoid it.

Do you think that it would be better for students to engage in non-academic extracurricular activities, like sports and arts?

I think it depends on what the student likes. A lot of students who do advanced spelling bees enjoy it. That’s what they would rather do than play baseball. Other kids do drama. I was talking to one girl. She was in middle school, and she said that doing spelling bees helped her feel more confident … and therefore helped her with her drama, so there’s not really an either-or. For some kids, it’s not an either-or, and doing one helps them with the other, and for others, they just have a certain preference for something. But I think in general, what you do want to see … is experimentation and a well-roundedness to make sure that kids are getting the most exposure to different possibilities. You don’t want kids to specialize at a young age, but even outside of academics, we’re seeing in sports today that there’s an especially high emphasis on specialization at very young ages. That’s not healthy either, so it’s more about well-roundedness and trying different things that matter, rather than whether it’s academic or non-academic.

How did this kind of strenuous culture around education and specialization develop?

Many of the families that are doing strenuous education are immigrants, so we have to ask what’s going on in their homeland that makes strenuous academics relevant or necessary. In the homeland, there often is a strong or stronger emphasis on educational excellence, on advanced testing, on being the cream of the crop and competitiveness around academics that is not always as present here in the U.S. That’s part of it.

Another part of it is, going back to the original question of race and culture, if Asian Americans believe that they have to score higher on the SAT to get into Oberlin College, or some other top university, compared to a non-Asian American — which some activist groups are arguing is true and there are lawsuits going on around this — then it’s in response, and those external conditions that I make my kids study more math or more vocabulary, so that they can get higher test scores and get into more advanced classes. It’s an unfair set of expectations. … There’s lots of reasons — cultural, racial and other things that pertain to why extra academics seems like a good t.

Do you see these dynamics around education manifesting differently from K-12 education versus higher education?

Yes and no. I think that the higher levels has a lot of talk about what universities you go to — the status of it, the competitiveness of it — but also what you major in when you’re there, what you’re taking advantage of, why are STEM fields more prioritized than the humanities, the social sciences or the arts? The same sense of awareness of competition and need to excel permeates.

And then there’s stability. You’re looking for financial stability. That’s the ultimate goal, and it starts at a young age and carries through college, and it affects what you major in and all these other things. It’s a continuum to me, not that distinct.

What about in the years beyond education?

The goal, again, is financial stability. We’re talking about immigrant families that don’t have any networks in this country, who do not have wealth — even if they have middle class incomes — so financial stability cannot be taken for granted. For many families, you’re looking to pursue safe routes that you know are relatively stable, and that impacts what you major in, what kind of jobs you pursue. It impacts whether or not you go to graduate right away or not — things that pertain to that.

Do you think any of these attitudes around education will change, given the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education? Will structural or governmental changes impact families’ approaches towards education?

By now, a lot of motivations for the families I’ve been talking about — for why they do extracurricular education — has to do with college entrance. If the Department of Education deals with that, which is not [DeVos’] radar, it seems — if college admissions expectations change, so will what people do in high school, middle school and elementary school. That’s a political question, and who knows the answer? And also Betsy DeVos’ emphasis on school choice and vouchers, it’s really unclear what impact that will have with what she’s trying to do. … It’s too early to tell.

What are you hoping Oberlin students take away from your talk?

A better understanding of how families’ pursuits of education is not always just based on wanting their kids to be more educated. It’s influenced by other concerns, such as what does it mean to be a good person, and what does it mean to be a good family? There’s kind of a moral issue at stake that education pertains to. It’s not simply test scores or grades.