Saturday, July 16, 2011

Why Tiger Moms are Great, but Not Great for Democracy


"Tiger, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night, 
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?"

-William Blake

I suppose this post seems a bit dated, as the “Tiger Mom” meme has already put its girdle around the earth, planting itself safely and securely into the subconsciousness of suburban moms throughout the developed world. And what a meme it was, a strand of RNA perfectly fashioned to colonize the increasingly timorous Western DNA in a way that China's economic and military miracles could never achieve. It spoke directly to our most important demographic—our exhausted soccer moms: “While Chinese and American moms are both breaking their backs raising their kids, the Chinese are raising their children better than you are, and that is why we're seeing this tectonic shift of wealth, power, and influence to the East.”

I suppose I didn't write anything about the Tiger Meme when it first hit the news in part because I thought it would do some good. I haven't yet figured out what type of Shaolin Animal School parenting tactics my mother used on me, but it certainly wasn't not of the tiger-variety, and so I may suffer from a mild case of Stockholm Syndrome. More than that, after spending two years teaching English to American kids whose mothers were decidedly not Tiger Moms, I've welcomed a bit of fear if it meant a few more of my students would take Shakespeare to heart, or Blake, as this post hopes you have.

But my biggest “I suppose I didn't write” was probably the way we defended our mothers: “Sure Chinese kids beat the pants off our kids in math and science (while their moms are beating the pants off of them), but our kids are more creative, free-thinking, and [hopefully] happy.” Most spent their time trying to convince themselves that our system will win this battle just like we won the Cold War.  The responses were defensive and cliché (often displaying a woefully inadequate understanding of Chinese culture), belying the argument that “we” are better, more cosmopolitan, freer thinkers. Worst of all, they seemed to set up a dangerous proposition: we will know which child-rearing style is right by watching whose economic and political power proves ascendant.

And yet, they served their purpose: the fear was met and neutralized, if not eliminated. And so the latest case of our Orientangst came and went, or rather, eased uneasily back below the surface of our subconsciousness like the specter of the U-Boat after the Great War – we don't how to deal with them, but at least we won't have to worry about them for another twenty years.

Unfortunately for me (and now you, dear reader), it's been nary a year and I'm already thinking about it again, forced to face East-West educational difference by virtue of the fact that I'm friends with lots of (more or less) tiger-ish Chinese Moms and Dads, but mostly because of a poem by William Blake that ended up in my inbox.

First, the poem. I'm on Garrison Keillor's Writer's Almanac mailing list, which means I get a poem (and more) a day sent to my inbox. It's a sort of welcomed spam. Today I received Blake's “The Schoolboy.” Part of Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience, it is a short, good read. For fun, as you're reading, please try to guess if it was a Song of Innocence or a Song of Experience.  There's no time here to talk too much about what those terms mean, but it's probably fair to say that they deal with questions of good/evil, romanticism/rationalism, idealism/realism and the proper balance of such things one is to keep in his or her own life.


The Schoolboy

by William Blake


I love to rise in a summer morn,
When the birds sing on every tree;
The distant huntsman winds his horn,
And the skylark sings with me:
Oh, what sweet company!

But to go to school in a summer morn, —
O it drives all joy away;
Under a cruel eye outworn,
The little ones spend the day
In sighing and dismay.

Ah then at times I drooping sit,
And spend many an anxious hour;
Nor in my book can I take delight,
Nor sit in learning's bower,
Worn through with the dreary shower.

How can the bird that is born for joy
Sit in a cage and sing?
How can a child, when fears annoy,
But droop his tender wing,
And forget his youthful spring?

O father and mother, if buds are nipped,
And blossoms blown away;
And if the tender plants are stripped
Of their joy in the springing day,
By sorrow and care's dismay, —

How shall the summer arise in joy,
Or the summer fruits appear?
Or how shall we gather what griefs destroy,
Or bless the mellowing year,
When the blasts of winter appear?


So, which one is it, Innocence or Experience? Well, it's both, so the good/bad news is that either you can't get the question wrong (saith the “American” mom) or you can't get the question right (quoth the better mom). “The Schoolboy” was one of the few poems Blake first published as Innocence and later changed to Experience, and the jury's still out on what that move meant. What it means for us, though, is that if you thought Blake was 100% on “our” side in the debate about what to do with our children, you've got another think coming.  In the meantime, I'll tell you what thoughts came to mind when I read the poem -- hopefully it will help shed some light on the debate.


Thoughts from Stanza Two

“But to go to school in a summer morn, —
O it drives all joy away;
Under a cruel eye outworn,
The little ones spend the day
In sighing and dismay.”

  • The Crying Hour. In homage to the “Twilight Bark” of 101 Dalmatians, last year in my apartment complex, I coined the phrase the “Crying Hour.” After supper, if one paid attention to the noises that rose above the din of everyday street life, one would invariably hear at least one argument between a parent and an unlucky child—no doubt over homework. This drama was played out with eerie regularity, and contained no shortage of spanking, scolding, and crying.  If they weren't sighing and in dismay, I certainly was. 
  • Loads of Homework. The children of my Chinese friends have four to six hours of homework a day, starting from first grade.  Most of this is spent memorizing and re-writing Chinese characters. The number of Chinese kids who become near-sighted during this time far outpaces their Western peers (something I didn't believe until I saw the study).  Reading for fun? It's hard to find among the post-preschool-aged kid.
  • Teachers telling parents to spank their kids. A friend of mine had her daughter's teacher call her and tell her, “The reason your [third grade] kid's grades are falling is because you're the only parent who doesn't spank her kid...and, oh yeah, it's also probably because you're a single parent.” To be fair, teachers are under incredible stress here as well.  OK, everyone's under a lot of stress, but perhaps more importantly, the education system is "outworn" -- society's undergone massive changes, but the system still expects children who grow up in a world of computer games, cartoons, and relative prosperity to behave like their parents who had none of that.
  • Childhood isn't just difficult, it's faced alone. I was watching “To Kill a Mockingbird” with a friend. Early in the movie, Dill sleeps over at Jem and Scout's house. My friend turned to me and asked “What is Dill doing there? Why doesn't he go home?” It was then that I discovered that there's no such thing as a sleepover in Shanghai. In fact, this friend's daughter had about two hours of playtime each week –on Sunday afternoon—and she spent almost all of it alone, rollerblading back and forth within the complex's small Japanese garden. Amy Chua may not have allowed her kids to sleepover at kids houses, but Chinese parents don't know what a sleepover is.  

Thoughts on Stanza Three

"Ah then at times I drooping sit,
And spend many an anxious hour;
Nor in my book can I take delight,
Nor sit in learning's bower,
Worn through with the dreary shower."

  • What happens between pre-school and middle school? My first year in China I got roped in to teaching a pre-school English class. It destroyed any notion I may have had that Chinese kids were just innately less curious, outgoing, or active than their Western brethren. They were loud, funny, and playful – like any other group of 3-5 year-olds. But something happens to kids when they enter first grade, and its exactly what Blake says, they become both anxious and "drooping"  -- over time, the stress and anxiety of it all leaves many simply ambivalent towards learning. 
  • Parental Anxiety.  Pre-school director to friend of mine after he failed to enroll his kid in the district's top pre-school: “You want your kids to go to a key university? You're already too late -- all the good pre-school spots have already been filled.”  In each district of Shanghai, there are one, maybe two good “key” middle schools, and then usually one “key” high school. Parents are told from first-grade on that if their child isn't in the top 25% of his/her elementary school class (and therefore can't make it into a decent middle school), they might as well give up on making it into a decent college. Everybody (parents, teachers, and kids) believes this, and in my experience, the only people who are brave enough to tell the system to kiss off are those rich enough to send their children abroad. 
  • No parents can “wear through with the dreary shower” better than Chinese parents. I've survived countless family dinner tables here in which the entire meal was filled with three generations of Chinese women jiang daoli ("speaking reason") to their children. I've also become quite familiar with the passive, obsequious glaze that comes over the eyes of these kids. Where do Chinese pre-school children lose their curiosity? Here, at the dinner-table. Here their rough edges are made smooth, the shower is indeed dreary. In fact, the more time I spend here, the more I realize that “childhood” for many Chinese kids is (and always has been?) an 20-year-long lecture. While it seems to be the dinner table where the stereotypical Asian passivity is created, I've also come to respect this obsequious glaze: it's the only type of rebellion the system permits – you're not going to be able to fight the authority, so you might as well tune everything out. You rebel by not putting yourself into your work, but you do that when no one is looking.  Some kids are even able to create a private space for "joy" in their lives behind that facade, when no one is looking.  Childhood Innocence is far more formidable than we give it credit for, and doesn't leave without a fight, but it's not easy to retain it over here.  

Thoughts on Stanza Four

"How can the bird that is born for joy
Sit in a cage and sing?
How can a child, when fears annoy,
But droop his tender wing,
And forget his youthful spring?"

  • It's not about the “right” education for economic success. I think Blake's rhetoric is probably the best, truest expression of an anti-Tiger-mom sentiment. It's a far better counter than most of the responses I've seen in the months since the Tiger Mom struck: insecure, half-hearted attempts to assuage our fear of being out-parented in a realpolitik sense, “Don't worry, our kids are going to invent stuff, and your kids are going to make it.” Rather, Blake (as a Romantic) is tapping into something deeper, that there's something precious about childhood and innocence in itself, regardless of the economic or strategic side effects. We are born for joy.  But not just any joy.  I'd like to suggest that just as Jefferson wanted the "happiness" in "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" to read "public happiness," Blake here is talking about a more substantial type of joy, one that is just as concerned with education as its Confucian counterpart. 
  • Not a difference in kind, but of degree. One thing that was covered—albeit with less emphasis—in the US press was the fact that many Chinese parents agree with this (and Blake, and "us"). The “Tiger Mom” wasn't representing all Chinese mothers in China as much as a certain type of mother who believes both in its necessity and its rectitude. Many Chinese mothers, rightly or wrongly, believe that their system stifles creativity and steals childhood away from their children -- they're as insecure about the ascendancy of our system as we are of theirs. Many of them hate “the crying hour” as much as their children do. Some are even prone to agree with Blake on normative terms, childhood “should” be unfettered and uncaged, although this may not be a “traditional Chinese belief.”  In fact, I believe these are the parents we need to think about recruiting to our schools -- if our schools become increasingly indistinguishable from Chinese schools in their emphasis on math and science and little else, what is going to be the draw of our system: that we're better at beating the joy out of our kids? I don't feel like fighting for that crown.
  • But once you've talked long enough, once the tea in the teapot has lost most of its flavor, once you've gone over the differences in the systems and possible avenues for reform, most Chinese parents, even those most inclined to preserving Innocence, will shake their heads and spit out mei banfa ("there's no way out”), their capitulation to Experience, and perhaps also to the the pragmatism that has stood China in good stead throughout its history. I believe that were Blake to have been Chinese, his Songs of Experience would have been riddled with mei banfas. But then again, if Blake were Chinese, there's a good chance the Songs of Innocence may have been expurgated long ago by some grandmother's well-meaning attempt to jiang daoli.

Tiger Moms and Democracy

"O father and mother, if buds are nipped,
And blossoms blown away;
And if the tender plants are stripped
Of their joy in the springing day,
By sorrow and care's dismay, —

How shall the summer arise in joy,
Or the summer fruits appear?
Or how shall we gather what griefs destroy,
Or bless the mellowing year,
When the blasts of winter appear?"

"I didn't care about the rights of criminals the way others did...I also wasn't naturally skeptical and questioning. I just wanted to write down everything the professor said and memorize it."

--Amy Chua, “The Tiger Mom,” on her time at Harvard Law School 

Here Amy Chua votes for Experience (worrying about one's own class rank) over Innocence (worrying about someone else's fate in the criminal justice system). In my mind, this was the most under-reported Tiger Mom quote, and I worry that the lack of emphasis on this critical phrase exposes how far we have strayed from our democratic ideals. Please excuse this hopelessly simplistic postulate: Autocracy requires just a few people to weigh questions of right and wrong and a whole tribe of people to carry out whatever that decision may be; Democracy requires top to bottom participation (and therefore contemplation) – if that doesn't happen, the system is set up to be hijacked by the wealthy and powerful.  If an autocracy is led by leaders worth their salt (and that's the real trick) they are most likely going to be more efficient than a democracy -- something Plato considered "the best of the worst forms of government." But efficiency and economic gain don't translate to Blake's "joy," or a pursuit of justice, which is what Aristotle hoped we would all do, together, in a democracy.  It scares me that a) a student who “doesn't care about the rights of criminals...[and] wasn't naturally skeptical and questioning” made it into Harvard Law School, and b) that she's now teaching at Yale Law School. No doubt she had great grades and test scores, but the whole point of law in a democratic state is to concern yourself and your knowledge with questions of justice, to be skeptical and question the status quo.

Ugh, some of the greatest atrocities in human history have been committed by very smart people who weren't concerned with those things. As a parenting method that privileges Experience over Innocence, Amy Chua's philosophy of education isn't right for the United States -- our students need to learn how to participate in civil society, how to interact in public space, and how to determine moral questions when in that space.  This doesn't (and can't) start after law school, and requires development of the self in ways that an Experience-heavy education can't provide: our system requires childhood joy to fuel the next wave of political ideals. Chua's mentality is far better suited for the Ming and Qing Dynasty bureaucratic exams than it is for Harvard law School; hers is the logic of Zhou En Lai not that of Thomas More.

And that's fine, if you want a country led by Zhou En Lais rather than Thomas Mores. It's why I'm so frustrated with our responses to Amy Chua in particular, and to reports of the Chinese economic and political rise in general. Please accept this: as long as it can retain average to above-average leadership, China's economy is going to continue to grow, it should surpass the US in overall GDP and perhaps even in per capita GDP.  The Chinese education system has worked for many thousands of years, it will continue to do so.  Chinese Tiger Moms will produce children capable supporting such a state.

I welcome it. First of all, one-fifth of the world's population deserves a chance to climb out out of poverty. But more importantly, our system works too (or, at least, could work if we stopped measuring educational progress simply in terms of jobs created or tests passed).  Let's stop competing on base economic indicators, and start expecting more from our students: self-determination, civic participation,  joy, Innocence.  If we can finally stop obsessing with being “number one” it will allow us to start thinking about what really matters: building a more perfect, democratic union. The fatal flaw in the “Tiger Mother” mentality isn't economic, psychological or realpolitik – it's simply that it's not a democratic way to raise a child.  That's fine for some places but shouldn't be fine for us.  If the kids of Tiger Moms eventually fill the corridors of power, it won't be because it's a superior way to raise a child, but because we've given up on the idea that a knowledge of Blake's "joy" is essential to building a healthy, functioning democracy.

6 comments:

  1. Bravo for taking a swing at this very big cross-cultural issue. Most commentators have contented themselves with shallow generalities and equally shallow fear-mongering.

    Having taught kids in (Confucian) Japan and (formally) democratic USA I find plenty to agree with on both sides of your argument. But I do have disagreements about the outcomes you imply, and the correlations you imply.

    My doctoral studies focused on experimental educational systems and I saw some public schools so good that most teachers and parents refused to believe they existed. The kids they produced were exemplary both personally and academically.

    But I also met products of the Confucian approach that you describe, and they were equally outstanding. And I saw a strong correlation between how consistently parents forced their children to study and how successful those children were, just as Tiger Mom was by her parents.

    In the Confucian world there IS no childhood after age 5, and there is no individualism as we know it: there is profound responsibility to (extended) family, to society, and to the Nation. I am writing this in Buddhist Thailand but the underlying culture here Is Confucian and a few feet from me, on a Saturday afternoon, sit children poring over their books--with not a parent in sight. All of them revere their parents and literally strive to do what their parents direct them to do.

    This picture may seem grim and repressive to us Westerners raised, as we were in times and places of abundance which we attributed to democracy and individualistic Capitalism. But as we now embark on a period of resource scarcity my guess is that our Confucian cousins will out-innovate and outlast us. The signs of this transition are already abundantly clear.

    The verdict on these two approaches will never be finally rendered, I hope. But to date it appears that the Confucian is once again pulling ahead

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  2. Thanks Godfree, I'd be very interested in seeing your study, more transnational education surveys need to be done.

    "Pulling ahead" in what terms? It seems that every time I try to get out of doing the China-US comparison in material or state power terms, "they pull me back in." I'm trying to suggest that we take Athens as a model for development, not because it will "outlast anyone" but simply because I see it as a good, something perhaps akin to Blake's "joy."

    Please note that I take no issue with raising educational standards or five-year-olds reading, what I take issue with is tunnel-vision, rote-based education for purely materialistic ends. There are better ways to get "return on the investment," but they take sophisticated parenting, teaching, and education methods. It's easier to force a child to do four or five hours of math facts and English flashcards a day than to create a complex, rich environment that inspires more synaptic firing, teaching the basic facts while simultaneously equipping students for higher-level thought (thoughts of justice) and a lifetime of curiosity, skills critical for a healthy democracy.

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  3. Agreed, and I think you're seeing support for that point of view amongst progressive parents in Shanghai. They are getting some traction with the educational authorities there, too, to everyone's credit.

    What is so hard for us born-yesterday Westerners to grasp is the weight and momentum of the traditional Chinese approach to education. Imagine having 2,000 years of astonishing accomplishment (see Needham's history of Chinese technology, among many others) looming over every parental decision!

    My personal efforts at educational reform suggest that parenting rivals agriculture for conservatism, regardless of culture or nationality...

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  4. I agree with you on the conservative nature of parenting, I noticed it in myself when I was teaching. I also like the parallel of us being "born-yesterday" and thus failing to understand a two-thousand-year-old phenomenon.

    Plenty for each side to learn from the other, and that's already happening, although I'm a bit incredulous about dramatic changes happening in Shanghai education or elsewhere. The changes are happening, if at all, in large part because the city's watching a large section of its wealthy population sending their kids abroad, or simply immigrating altogether. Again, if we build a decent democracy with robust education, they (the Chinese elite) will come, and are already coming.

    I'm less worried about our grade school test scores than I am worried about us failing to learn as much from East Asian societies as they've learned from us.

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  5. Thanks for putting your thoughts into words.

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  6. Shanghai ranks #1 in the world, HK #2 in PISA scores. China itself is in the top 10. I'm not so surprised. I saw an English class with 12-year-olds in western Gansu. A poor village. The kids' pronunciation, cadence, and expressiveness was awesomely good. Better than many of our inner-city schools in that regard.

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