Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Further thoughts on Amy Chua's Chinese mothers superiority article in the WSJ

A few more random reactions...

I once had a conversation with an Ethiopian mother at my school's skate party. She was a war / famine refugee, who had been evacuated to Europe & then moved to America. She expressed dissatisfaction with the school, and talked about what it would take to get the child into a better one. I was struck: A few years previous, this woman had been wandering in a lawless desert, eating Purina Famine Chow tossed from the back of Red Cross trucks. Now here she was trying to keep her child from falling into middle-class mediocrity in America. Man...sometimes it takes fresh eyes to see our virtues & faults anew. You've gotta respect people who glom onto this country's blessings, like cornbread sopping up gravy.

In South Korea, the day of the national college entrance exams is so important that:

* It's not uncommon for students to go to school, and then to private study halls in the evenings, studying their eyes out, and, if their parents can afford it, get private tutoring on weekends. (I know one such family that only gets all together at breakfast and 10:00pm during the school year.)
* The power company adds extra staff, to avoid power outages
* The national airline re-routes its flights, to keep from buzzing the schools
* Police provide escorts to students, dashing home & back if they forgot their tickets.

No, they don't emphasize creativity very much. But their shrewd choices of which western traits to copy, and the sheer volume of work they demand of themselves, has lifted them from a war-ravaged dictatorship to the 13th biggest economy in the world in just a few short decades.

Mao and the communist Chinese regime waged war on China's confucian heritage for decades, quite apart from the tens of millions of Chinese they killed. It's a miracle that as much of their culture has survived as it has, testifying to its resilience and deep, ancient roots in the people. I'm glad they ditched the female foot-binding, under Western influence, but the family cohesion is a wonderment, in our modern Western age of open marriage and jiffy divorce.

Oh, and is she right? Well, it's hard to argue with the academic success that the statistics point to. And the much-noted suicide rates among these ramrodded young people might usefully be placed against suicides of aimless, undirected Western youth, drowning their ennui in drink and drugs. But the Western heart revulses at the notion of children being engineered rather than raised. John Stuart Mill was consciously raised to be a prodigy, and he was. But there was only one of him, and anyway he had a mental breakdown at age 20, and later wrote about how stunted and deformed his childhood was. And early 19th Century Britain was no touchy feely encounter group, certainly.

In my childhood, nailed to the Gemara [a section of the Talmud], I led the life of a sage, and it was only later, when I was older, that I began to climb trees.
-- Isaac Babel
The mother loves her child most divinely, not when she surrounds him with comfort and anticipates his wants, but when she resolutely hold him to the highest standards and is content with nothing less than his best.
~ Hamilton Wright Mabie 1846-1916