Does Stuyvesant have a "toxic culture"? Tom Allon, who attended the school a while back and is now running for mayor, thinks so. His critique of the school, one he's not at all alone in making, strikes me as borderline bigotry, if not as definitively crossing any line. There's a well-known form of racism that involves stereotyping Asian/Asian-American students as robots, personality-free automatons, capable of obedience but not creativity, etc. Allon veers dangerously close. Specifically, I'm not sure what to make of this:
For generations of New York immigrants, Stuyvesant has been the holy grail, the first rung on the ladder of success and prosperity. But the eagerness to enter its hallowed halls has become so fierce that special tutoring centers have sprung up in the last three decades to rigorously prepare students for its entrance exam. Most of these are in Queens, particularly in the heavily populated Asian section near Main St. in Flushing. To my knowledge, I was the first Stuyvesant teacher to work at one of these in 1986. The Elite Academy hired me to teach 26 Korean third-graders every weekend to prepare for the English section of the exam. Yes, third-graders. Five years before the test. That summer, my Stuyvesant colleague Frank McCourt took over my class. For 30 hours a week, he drilled these driven 9-year-olds in their focused effort to gain admission. Five years later, when they were in the eighth grade, 25 of our 26 students passed the exam. Frank and I used to amuse ourselves by wondering whatever happened to that 26th kid. Stuyvesant has now become a school populated by very good test takers.I mean, how horrible, a school made up of students who test well!
In all seriousness, my problem with all the critiques of Stuyvesant's admissions process is that they always seem to miss what the stakes are of who gets to attend. It probably if anything hurts your chances to go to a good college if you apply from a place like Stuyvesant, as opposed to if you're someone who tests well enough to get in but applies from just about anywhere else. (Yes, there are lots of APs, at Stuyvesant but with caps on who can take how many, not to mention unwritten - or written? - caps on how many kids from the school various elite colleges will admit). This is less true, of course, if your alternative was an especially violent high school, but if it was just a non-famous one? Not sure.
Stuyvesant is "elite," except not really. The city's actual rich and influential families don't even have their kids take the test for what is, after all, a public school. (Allon notes that the school won't admit you because you come from a famous family. But he doesn't add that if you do, you almost certainly aren't applying in the first place.) Yes, kids who did well on an exam at 13 often-but-not-always do well later on, but correlation, causation... As in, I'm not sure what the school really does for the kids who attend. I'm not sure what role it has in yanking anyone into a different class, say, as can happen for scholarship kids at private schools, who will make whichever connections, take private jets to the Hamptons, things of that nature. Being around a handful of driven kids may help keep some on the straight-and-narrow, but for plenty it does no such thing. For a good number, being at a place where you learn at 15 just how mediocre of a mind you are - even if you'd have been one of the smart kids elsewhere - encourages a why-bother attitude.
The conversation about Stuyvesant implies that getting in is winning this amazing prize, when the prize might be 90% that you now know you test well (or can, with preparation), 10% things that take place in the building itself. Yes, it's a famous name, as high schools go, but past a certain age (20?), no one cares where you went to high school, and putting anything about your high school years on your resume will be held against you. Whereas if you go to a famous college, this might well interest employers 30 years down the line. The stakes of the discussion are quite different, then, depending on whether the place is or is not a ticket to anything particular later in life.
Anyway, back to Allon. While, like I said, I'm not sure the stakes of who gets in are as high as popularly imagined, but I'm certainly more sympathetic to diversity concerns when they're framed as 'not enough blacks and Hispanics' or 'not enough poor kids' than when it's 'OMG sooo many Asians'. Allon suggests the school admit all middle-school valedictorians, in order to increase of-color diversity. Fair enough. But he also wants an essay component on the entrance exam, and not in order to suss out who's how underprivileged. He wants the best writers to get in, which, if we're talking "essays" by 13-year-olds, would basically mean more native-born, UMC kids, the ones whose parents read to them and made them read from utero on. Not kids who've been screwed over by the public-school system. Iffy, all of this.
It's certainly ironic that Allon expresses nostalgia for a time when Stuyvesant was a place for the 'good' immigrants, the ones who weren't from school-obsessed families. Back in the good old days, the strivers who attended - Jews, not Asians - were totally stereotyped as... not robots, exactly, but too studious, insufficiently well-rounded, you get the idea, you've read about how 'well-rounded' as a concept basically emerged in order to make it so Harvard or whatever wasn't made up entirely of Jewish kids. Pardon my French, but plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.