Lawrence Solomon: The failure of Chinese mothering

(Jan. 15, 2011) Western parents retain the edge in producing creators.

Why Chinese mothers Are superior,” the disconcerting-to-many essay by Yale University’s Amy Chua in The Wall Street Journal last Saturday, feeds fears of China’s rise and the West’s decline. Political correctness in the West, combined with dread that demanding too much of our children will lower their self-esteem, is creating a society of losers, Chua argues. In contrast, the “Chinese Mother” tactics that she employs on her own daughters — a no-holds-barred insistence on excellence exacted through endless hours of practice and enforced by brutally shaming children whenever necessary — creates “stereotypically successful kids [who become] math whizes and music prodigies.”

The statistics seem to bear her out — Asians disproportionately make it to elite schools in the West — they represent 5% of the U.S. population but 20% of the student body at Ivy League schools, for example. No one can but marvel at the uniformly successful students turned out by the “tenacious practice, practice, practice” and “rote repetition” that she considers “crucial for excellence.”

But such statistics don’t tell the whole story. In truth, Chinese Mothers fare poorly in achieving excellence compared with western mothers, even western mothers burdened by political correctness.

China’s excellence was once unrivalled — no people on Earth have displayed more genius than the Chinese, who gave humanity a profuse array of inventions and scholarly accomplishments, starting well before the time of the ancient Greeks and continuing past 1000 AD. The Chinese also developed, in the immediate centuries before 1000 AD, a remarkable education system that was based not on lineage but on merit — the humblest family in the most remote village could see its son join the Emperor’s top advisors if he could prove himself in the Imperial Examination, a gruelling nationwide competition. This system of education, which survives today in modified form, helped create the Chinese Mother culture that Chua now espouses.

The brilliant scholar-bureaucrats that resulted from this centralized education system enabled numerous Chinese dynasties to quash their neighbours and administer their expanding lands. But the brilliant inventions that had been the hallmark of China petered out in the centuries after 1000 AD and then all but disappeared. In the absence of competition from neighbouring cultures, and under an education system that stressed a uniform standard, China became an uncurious country that viewed itself as the perfect Centre of the Universe and outsiders as barbarians from whom they had nothing to learn. Foreign travel became prohibited at penalty of decapitation. The Emperor even destroyed the fleet of the great Chinese admiral and explorer Zheng He, who navigated to Africa and may have preceded Columbus in reaching America.

In the last century, China has won only one Nobel Prize, tying it with nations such as Burma, Ghana, Mauritania and Nigeria. Even China’s one Nobel, a peace prize awarded last year, went to a dissident, imprisoned for his desire for democracy for China. Ethnic Chinese outside mainland China who are exposed to more independent thought do win Nobels — 10 in all over the last century — but even here the numbers do not stand out. Americans, in contrast, have claim to more than 300 Nobel prizes, by far the greatest number by country, and Jews lay claim to at least 180, by far the largest proportion by any ethnic group — the fraction of 1% of the world’s population that is Jewish has received almost one-quarter of the Nobels.

Patents are another measure of innovation. While China has been applying for patents at an increasing rate, it nevertheless logs relatively few in the foreign countries into which it sells its technology. Only two Chinese firms appear in the World Intellectual Property Indicators list of the top 50 companies applying for patents in 2009, and no Chinese academic institutions appear in the top 50. Perhaps the most telling example of China’s failure to innovate in important ways is in the military sector, where China is sparing no effort in its drive to become a world power. This week, China displayed its most advanced accomplishment, a stealth bomber that is a copy of the U.S. design. Despite the overarching importance of military might to the Chinese leadership, and high investments in R&D over decades, China has yet to produce a single piece of military hardware that represents a leapfrog in technology. In contrast, Russia, its former Communist counterpart, has had many military firsts, as has tiny Israel.

Practice and rote learning have their limits. While imposing single-minded discipline on children will dramatically raise test scores and technical proficiency, and for most children may represent the best strategy for accomplishment and satisfaction, it can come at the cost of curbing the creativity necessary for true excellence. Chinese Mothers make great moms, as evidenced by the unusual cohesiveness of the Chinese family: Chinese kids clearly understand whatever berating they absorb as the tough love intended. Chua is justified in saying western parents are doing their underperforming kids no favours in failing to confront them.

But Western parents retain the edge in producing the next generation of creators — those whose breakthroughs will cure cancer or supplant the Internet. Here, too, Chua may be pointing to the right balance in her personal life, by choosing as her husband and father of her children someone who is anything but single-minded. Jed Rubenfeld, an American Jew determined to avoid a career in academia, waffled as a student, starting with philosophy and psychology at Princeton, switching to acting at Julliard, then moving to law at Harvard before accepting an academic position at Yale, where he is now professor and assistant dean of law. Several years ago, Rubenfeld tried fiction for the first time, writing The Interpretation of Murder, a book that sold more than a million copies.

None of this was planned, as he told Entertainment News: “everything that has happened in my life has happened by accident, contrary to my best intentions.”

What must his mother have thought?

Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Energy Probe and Urban Renaissance Institute, and the author of The Deniers.

Financial Post, January 15, 2011

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