Ph.D. Octopus

Politics, media, music, capitalism, scholarship, and ephemera since 2010

Thoughts on Amy Chua

with 5 comments

by Weiner

Everybody and their mother has been commenting on Amy Chua and her recent Wall Street Journal article “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior.” David Brooks tried his hand at it, but came off sounding silly. Columnists and bloggers have been putting in their two cents. Chua has tried to clarify the point of her article, which is excerpted from her book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.

I just finished the book, and have a few quick thoughts about this:

1) The book is different than the article in the sense that you do see a narrative, and something resembling character development in Chua and especially her younger daughter Lulu. Still, Chua comes off as pretty nutty, but at least moderately self-aware.

2) As Matt Yglesias notes, “many less extreme parents subscribe to some version of this ‘video games bad, classical music good’ view of the world.” Chua takes this to an absurd and possibly cruel extreme, but her basic values are not abnormal among the well educated middle class in the United States.

3) I think that Tenured Radical is right that the real question we should pose here is whether this academically-oriented classical-music emphasizing middle-class parenting is a good thing, or should be applied universally to all children. She laments the fate of “kids who are academically unremarkable but are pushed to excel in conventional ways when they might be happier devoting themselves to sports, art, dance, cooking or hedge fund management.” She goes on to note:

the part that really fascinates me is that Chua’s desire for rote forms of perfection are being derided in a society that is, in fact, devoted to increasingly unimaginative ideas about what counts as intellectual life.  My generation and the several that have followed have mostly gutted anything that counts for progressive education.  As if that was not enough, we have even taken what used to be fairly standard and unremarkable forms of critical pedagogy and gutted those in favor of a national standardized testing agenda.  Languages, classics, art and music have been stripped from secondary curricula.  Students no longer read for fun; they read to satisfy the AP requirement.  We talk, talk, talk about excellence — but we can’t say what it means, beyond winning admission to a “selective” school.  Although Chua isn’t a person I would choose to be my mother (is there a world where you get to choose your mother?) what she describes actually reflects our current winner-take-all philosophy of what education should look like at its best.

Chua has a particularly narrow vision of success, insisting that her daughters can only play the violin or piano, cannot be in the school play, and should not really care about their social life. Obviously, other instruments are worthwhile; so are activities like drama, art, sports, and creative writing. Making friends is valuable too. So is having fun.

4) Insofar as that academically-oriented form of parenting is accepted, there is no question that Asians, broadly speaking, have mastered it. As Chua appropriately admits, there are plenty of Asians and Chinese people who employ “Western” parenting techniques, and plenty of non-Chinese who use the same methods she does (though probably not to that insane extreme), but statistics show that Asian-Americans, especially those of Chinese, Korean, and east Indian origin, do better scholastically. Politically correct people who disagree are living in denial. The secret is not genetic, it’s work ethic. These kids work harder in school. Culture and history matter. When Jewish, Italian, Polish and other immigrants came to the United States 100+ years ago, they left under conditions that had some differences and similarities, but they also came with different cultures, and thus had different academic and economic outcomes in America. The same is true of the post-1960s immigrants from Asia and elsewhere, and of the second and third generations from a variety of lands. Rather than deny this, we should try to explain it.

Of all the commentary on this piece, perhaps the best comes from my the publication I used to write for, The Harvard Crimson. Sophomore Nataliya Nedzhvetskaya argues for a middle road, for “authoritative” rather than “authoritarian” parenting. She notes:

Sorry, Amy Chua, but “Chinese mothers” are not superior. Instead, parents who promote the value of education without sacrificing their children’s autonomy are. It would be ideal to combine the best of both worlds and stress academics while giving them room for growth. It would be best to make them understand that there are more important things in life than impersonating Kim Kardashian, but let them watch enough TV to know who Kim Kardashian is. Not only will they turn out to be smart, competent human beings, but they’ll be independent, socially adept, and self-motivated.

Maybe I’m a sucker for a Kim Kardashian reference, but that balance captures my ideal perfectly. Soon, I’ll have another post about Amy Chua, looking at “The Jewish Angle” (but of course). But since I don’t have an Amy Chua breathing down my neck, it’s not ready yet.


Written by David Weinfeld

January 21, 2011 at 08:48

5 Responses

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  1. It puzzles me that selective schools being blamed for Chua-style parenting in this public debate, when recently we criticized the American-style admissions system for discriminating against Asians in another public debate. I believe the system generally creates the right incentives and rewards students with creative extracurricular achievements.

    Also. much of what I’ve read on China (e.g. Gifford’s China road


    January 21, 2011 at 11:00

  2. (Cont., oops) China Road or anything by James Fallows have interviewed Chinese officials eager to create more of an entrepreneurial culture in China. The increased emphasis on standardized testing and decreased emphasis on independent critical thinking in US K-12 education is backwards.


    January 21, 2011 at 11:13

  3. Nataliya Nedzhvetskaya is right in saying, “It would be
    ideal to combine the best of both worlds and stress academics while
    giving them room for growth.” Growing up, I had few friends and
    lots of enemies (even Chinese kids who were jealous that I had
    better grades). There was a lot of back stabbing amount the Chinese
    kids. My own brother even sabotaged my chance of getting into the
    top junior high school in my area (long story but true!). If I
    didn’t break out of that way of life, I would have been one of the
    many people who were “let go” from Verizon because they didn’t have
    the sense to leave and seek employment when there was a better
    opening elsewhere. One of my mother’s friend’s son was the victim
    of the “rift” by Verizon. He wasn’t a “free thinker” and was a
    boring work stiff (with a wife his mother set him up with). I would
    say, so far, I have a happier life than he does. He’s bound by the
    rules set by his mother and I’m not!


    February 1, 2011 at 00:52

  4. […] leads me to a belated follow-up to my previous post on America’s most infamous mother, Amy Chua (pictured left), and the discussion in her book […]

  5. […] Columbia med student housing common room to watch the Linsanity. And it’s exciting. Heck even Tiger Mom Amy Chua tweeted that her and her family are “huge” Jeremy Lin fans, and linked to this […]

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