Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

The third book on my fall 2012 reading plan, Perspectives on the Edge, was Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother Amy Chua. Yes, my perceptive frequent readers will notice that I haven’t written about the second book. Ideology and Curriculum by Michael Apple holds that position, but it’s a lot more academic. I finished Ms. Chua’s book in roughly two hours; my parents wondered why I was reading so slowly. I don’t tell them that I average 12 pages per hour in academic reading like Dr. Apple’s screed. The ideology report will come later.

Although this review covers educational issues, because this book had popular notice, most importantly a Wall Street Journal excerpt, I’ll include a popular review. It’s a middling book. In some writing, Ms. Chua (law professors do not generally have PhDs) mentioned that she felt the book was mostly tongue-in-cheek. I disagree. There’s not enough humor or softness to make it sound consistently that way, though there are humorous parts. She does acknowledge her faults, like a tendency to exaggerate consequences, which sometimes lead to those humorous parts. In the end, though, I can’t see the general reader gaining value from reading this book. I rate the book a 2, out of 5. Instead, I would suggest the free excerpt and Ms. Chua’s USA Today op-ed in May 2011. These describe her attitude more succinctly. Sophia wrote a reply to the New York Post, but Lulu has not. The younger daughter is under 18, but that doesn’t preclude authorship. Her silence speaks loudly.

What about the book for education? Primarily, I saw the effects of SES and genetics. The Rubenfeld-Chua family has lots of resources, a factor not really acknowledged in the book. The family was able to take frequent international trips. They employed expensive private tutors, including bringing an instructor and her holidays on a multi-day trip. Even finding those high quality instructors requires access that many people don’t have. In the lottery of birth parents, Sophia and Lulu drew winning tickets.

But, before you think I’ve become one of those academics that pretend to preach about equity while zealously maintaining their own superiority, let me talk about genetics. Offspring from a Berkeley professor grandfather and two Ivy League professor parents have lots of good genes. The American Enterprise Institute author summarizes this issue.

They would be really smart if she had put them up for adoption at birth with the squishiest postmodern parents. They would not have turned out exactly the same under their softer tutelage, but they would probably be getting into Harvard and Princeton as well. Similarly, if Amy Chua had adopted two children at birth who turned out to have measured childhood IQs at the 20th percentile, she would have struggled to get them through high school, no matter how fiercely she battled for them.

Having established means and opportunity, it’s good to ponder the author’s motive, asked on page 148 of the hardcover library edition, in the chapter “Blowout in Budapest”.

Here’s a question I often get: “But Amy, let me ask you this. Who are you doing all this pushing for — your daughters” — and here always the cocked head, the knowing tone — “or yourself?” I find this a very Western question to ask (because in Chinese thinking, the child is the extension of the self). But that doesn’t mean it’s not an important one. My answer, I’m pretty sure, is that everything I do is unequivocally 100% for my daughters.

That’s not true. Ms. Chua took a job at Duke Law School while her husband already had a position at Yale Law. The family “made do.” Splitting a household is not 100% for daughters. It was not for economic reasons, since a Yale Law professor makes plenty of money. So it’s for career, but Connecticut has Quinnipiac and UConn law schools. New York City has Cardozo, Fordham, St. John’s, New York Law School, plus others. If she was truly concerned about her daughters, she would have ensured a two parent household. She would have taken less business trips, since every flight represents missed dinner and family time. She might have even not worked! I’m not saying that women should always become full time child raisers. I’m saying that not everything was 100% for her daughters.

Lulu confronts her mother on page 205, “Everything you say you do for me is actually for yourself.” Ms. Chua needs to order and control others. It shows with Sophia and Lulu, Pushkin and Coco, and most obviously with Katrin. Instead of waiting, she bombards her sister in chemotherapy with voice messages. As page 195 states, “Well, now I couldn’t help myself. I was too anxious to care about being annoying.” That’s not Chinese self-control. That’s very self-centered. And very American.

The author’s major personal flaws detract from her message about development, which I find appealing and informative. She argues that children should be assisted to develop skills and capability instead of passions. Adults should assume their children have strength, not fragility. The “Chinese” approach has higher regard for children in the sense of knowing how much they can take. Rote repetition is underrated in America, because “nothing is fun until you’re good at it.” (p. 29) That’s not true, but many things become better once they become more routinized.

The USA Today article notes that the book “is being marketed the opposite way in China, as a story about the importance of giving kids more freedom.” In American media, kids have snappy backtalk and independence. The book reminds us that in the US, “typically, it’s the parents who need to be taught a life lesson — by their children.” (p. 24) There’s disdain for age and experience, that knowledge might be transferable. Instead, American media promotes individual self-discovery. Mathematics education demonstrates this through Radical Constructivism, the theological doctrine that knowledge cannot be conveyed or instilled by perception or communication. The adult’s role, the leader’s position, the parent’s control, has become weaker and weaker. That weakens the system, the community, and child development.

In most cases, representations of individual self-discovery do not promote discipline, focus, and determination, fundamentals that underpin creative thought. In the media, inventions just happen, despite what Thomas Edison claimed, 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration. The emphasis on perspiration is the strong point of the “Chinese” approach. As Ms. Chua writes in the newspaper, “If in their early years we teach our children a strong work ethic, perseverance and the value of delayed gratification, they will be much better positioned to be self-motivated and self-reliant when they become young adults.” We see the effects of hard work in many places, including East Asian good test results and individuals like the Chua family. It is a shame that this positive message is obscured by the tyranny of the author.

About Adam

My quest is a world where calling someone "virtuous like a fairy tale hero" is routine, not fantastic or ironic. My vocation is the teaching and learning of statistics. My dream is a long happy life with a wonderful wife and kids. Who knows if any will become true? More information is at my homepage on the twelvefruits network: http://adam.twelvefruits.com
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