Finding fault with the 'Tiger Mom'.
Larry Summers recently found himself on the same panel at the Davos summit as author Amy Chua, she of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother controversy. (We authors should all wish for such controversy - the U.S. born-and-raised author has shot to sales superstardom.)
Summers, former U.S. treasury secretary, Harvard president and Obama economic advisor, now a Harvard prof (did we mention his cameo in hit Facebook drama, The Social Network?), knows a thing or two about teaching methods, which are somewhat at odds with the super-strict Chua.
Summers told Chua:
It is not entirely clear that your veneration of traditional academic achievement is exactly well placed. Which two freshmen at Harvard have arguably been most transformative of the world in the last 25 years? You can make a reasonable case for Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, neither of whom graduated. People on average live a quarter of their lives as children. That’s a lot. It’s important that they be as happy as possible during those 18 years. That counts too.
Chua, as has been widely reported, counsels parents to withhold from their kids participation in school sports, sleepovers, playdates and other trivial pursuits in order to focus exclusively on academic proficiency.
The NYT's David Brooks has taken his own whack at Chua, arguing that single-minded focus on marks at the expense of the socializing function of school is severely misguided.
Practicing a piece of music for four hours requires focused attention, but it is nowhere near as cognitively demanding as a sleepover with 14-year-old girls. Managing status rivalries, negotiating group dynamics, understanding social norms, navigating the distinction between self and group — these and other social tests impose cognitive demands that blow away any intense tutoring session or a class at Yale.
Yet mastering these arduous skills is at the very essence of achievement. Most people work in groups. We do this because groups are much more efficient at solving problems than individuals...
Participating in a well-functioning group is really hard. It requires the ability to trust people outside your kinship circle, read intonations and moods, understand how the psychological pieces each person brings to the room can and cannot fit together.
This skill set is not taught formally, but it is imparted through arduous experiences. These are exactly the kinds of difficult experiences Chua shelters her children from by making them rush home to hit the homework table.
Chua would do better to see the classroom as a cognitive break from the truly arduous tests of childhood. Where do they learn how to manage people? Where do they learn to construct and manipulate metaphors? Where do they learn to perceive details of a scene the way a hunter reads a landscape? Where do they learn how to detect their own shortcomings? Where do they learn how to put themselves in others’ minds and anticipate others’ reactions?
Points taken. I always think of Port Huron, Mich. as the town where Thomas Edison spent only a few months in school before striking out on his own at 16.
Chua strikes fear into some parents because of their understandable misgivings about their kids' over-indulgence in computer games (though the science is unresolved on whether the games are actually a socializing ritual, and teach problem-solving skills), and worry about declining U.S. educational outcomes relative to other nations. As I've blogged before, the U.S. now ranks 17th, 30th and 31st in literacy, science and math, respectively. The angst-meter mightn't register so high if Chua was of Austrian heritage rather than Chinese, a people now seen as posing a threat to America's hegemony.
Bottom line: Obviously we need both inspiration to creativity in the classroom and more attention to the basic skills in literacy, numeracy and science that once comprised all too much of the curriculum before the backlash to that cramped vision dating from the Sixties.
Photos: Chua and Summers, AP; Brooks, NYT handout.