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batavia c1780I’ve long admired the work of work of Tom Pepinsky, so I invite you to have a look at his blog (particularly if you have an interest in Malaysia and Indonesia).

Anyway, his post here prompted me to offer some comments on what the data (available through the link) does and doesn’t show.

What is evident (based on the premise that the data is accurate) is that, among Asian Americans, the Southeast Asian nationalities born between 1965 and 1993 with the highest percentage of post-secondary school education are (in descending order) Filipino/Indonesian/Malaysian (eq.), Thai, Vietnamese, Hmong/Lao (eq.) and Cambodian.

What Pepeinksy’s graph and data doesn’t show, and what it can’t show, is why these states/ethnicities vary the way they do. Is it because Filipino/Indonesian/Malaysian children performed particularly well compared with the baby boomer children they competed with for admission places? Is it because the parents of this generation tended to arrive in the United States with a distinct socio-economic advantages/disadvantages based on their country of origin that is reflected in their educational attainment? Is it because different ethnicities have different attitudes and commitment to study? Are different levels of educational standards experienced by parents in their home countries subject to intergenerational transfer?

Perhaps you could argue that the prevalence of English in the Philippines helps, but that doesn’t explain why a Malaysian (and particularly Indonesian) background is also helpful. Perhaps the comparative standards of democracy over the final 15 years of the period contributed instead?

The list of possible explanations could continue for much longer, and there is no certainty that the variation is attributable to a single cause. I don’t have any answers, and because there is a good chance the work has already been done (and an annoyingly smart reader will post a link making me look silly!) I’m hesitant to offer guesses.

Nevertheless, the activity around considering explanations, testing and then arguing for the most credible among them is where research in Southeast Asian studies gets extremely interesting, often very contentious, sometimes very personal and occasionally even highly political.