Raising Better College Students

Two great takes on the Amy Chua article on the superiority of Chinese moms.  I will begin by saying that I went to an Ivy League school and would love to see my kids go there as well.  But the be-all end-all drive to get into such a school, combined with 6% admissions rates, seems to be a recipe for a lot of unhappiness.  Especially since the vast, vast  (did I say vast?) majority of the most successful people I have met in my life went to non-name-branded schools.

The first take is from the Last Psychiatrist:

I'll explain what's wrong with her thinking by asking you one simple question, and when I ask it you will know the answer immediately.  Then, if you are a parent, in the very next instant  your mind will rebel against this answer, it will defend itself against it-- "well, no, it's not so simple--" but I want to you to ignore this counterattack and focus on how readily, reflexively, instinctively you knew the answer to my question.  Are you ready to test your soul?  Here's the question: what is the point of all this? Making the kids play violin, of being an A student, all the discipline, all of this?  Why is she working her kids so hard?  You know the answer: college.

She is raising future college students.

Oh, I know that these things will make them better people in the long run, but silently agree that her singular purpose is to get the kids into college.  Afterwards she'll want other things for them, sure, but for 18 years she has exactly one goal for them: early decision.

The second take is from TJIC:

Professor Amy Chua is part of two broken credentialist mindsets: the Chinese Confucian admissions-to-the-imperial bureacracy memset, and the American academic admissions-to-the-Ivy-League memeset. (But perhaps I repeat myself).

Heck, she’s risen to a top spot in the American conformist system – she’s a PhD and a professor at a top university. Of course she buys into the implied social hierarchy.

I climbed much of the way up that particular hierarchy, and then decided towards the end of the process to bag on a PhD. Why? Because I looked around and realized that PhDs, even professors at Ivy League schools, weren’t really accomplishing much, and weren’t really happy.

I do interviews for Princeton as part of the admissions process.  I am not sure that the admissions office would agree with my approach, but I spend time in the interviews trying to figure out if a high achieving student has succeeded by grimly jumping through hoops under his or her parents' lash, or if they have real passion and interest in the things they do.  I tend not to be impressed by the former.

Seriously, are we really celebrating the creation of a whole generation of our brightest kids who get all their motivation externally?  What happens when the motivation prosthetic they have been using goes away?

Postscript: From the first article

That's why it's in the WSJ.  The Journal has no place for, "How a Fender Strat Changed My Life."  It wants piano and violin, it wants Chua's college-resume worldview.

Oh how I wish my parents had forced me to play electric guitar rather than piano.


  1. DrTorch:

    Chua's article certainly invoked much discussion. I think was a great prompt to ask some good, hard questions.

    That said, the point that both the Last Psych and TJIC make, that this is all one big affirmation of the US collegiate credentialist culture, seems true to me. A point I made in discussing Chua's assessment of what's "best" for her children.

    However, to address this point, "Seriously, are we really celebrating the creation of a whole generation of our brightest kids who get all their motivation externally? What happens when the motivation prosthetic they have been using goes away?" don't forget this point made by Chua (and what I think is the most important piece of this entire essay)

    "What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you're good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences. This often requires fortitude on the part of the parents because the child will resist; things are always hardest at the beginning, which is where Western parents tend to give up. But if done properly, the Chinese strategy produces a virtuous circle. Tenacious practice, practice, practice is crucial for excellence; rote repetition is underrated in America. Once a child starts to excel at something—whether it's math, piano, pitching or ballet—he or she gets praise, admiration and satisfaction. This builds confidence and makes the once not-fun activity fun."

    Of course I made my 7 year old cry at wrestling practice the day before I read this last week, so what do I know?

  2. Orion:

    Read this article the other day; fascinating. The question is: How many, or what impact, do the generations of Chinese and Asian students have coming out of the Ivy League schools? Do they start businesses? There is certainly a strong entrepreneurial culture in Asian immigrants-the first generation anyway.

    In my very limited exposure I see very little entrepreneurial drive in 2nd gens. Case in point-my wife and her two siblings, Asian immigrants. Dad and Mom have owned several businesses and have moved all over the country and world. Three kids, all went to excellent schools and all professionals, and none aim to start their own firm in their professions. In fact, when I suggested it to one, after a major life change, I was greeted with a bit of derision. I suggested she find some interior design clients and do the job from home with a computer. It wouldn't cost much to set up a simple website and once she had one good client she could rely on word of mouth. She has the right "taste" to make this work pretty well and it would have allowed her to be with her young child. That just wouldn't do at all. In essence she refused to be an architect without an office, secretary, support staff, etc. Hey, if you don't want to go on your own, fine. To each their own. But to not want to be a designer because you don't have someone to answer the phone or a prestigious address? I suspect this line of thinking is common among the children of 2nd and 3rd gen immigrants. It may be that the 1st generation is not really that proud of the businesses they have built, it was just a necessity to make a living and provide a top education.

  3. Maddog:

    Thank God for Amy Chua. No, really. To show you why, I will use my wife as an example. She is all American, a stellar student but never pushed or forced like Chua or her children.

    As a result wife is capable, broad, intelligent and flexible. She can take high detail tasks and perform them. She can manage people so she can take high detail tasks and delegate them and make sure they are accomplished. She can take conceptual problems and solve them or delegate them and she can conceptually create new ideas, theories and systems and implement them. She is completely capable from concept to actualization.

    Under her is an Asian woman who when to school with wife and who was academically a stellar student who was treated by her parents the way Chua treats her children. She is highly capable but has trouble with independent thinking, delegating and high level conceptual thinking.

    The difference seems to be the fact that one was independent to a fault whilst the other a conformist to a fault. Independence is expansive, conformism restrictive. Wife accepts challenges and moves through or around problems fluidly with a confidence brought by independence. The other woman must constantly learn how to adjust to new problems since she no longer has someone to lead her through these challenges. Conformism leads to excellence in specific areas but does not seem to create a system for extending excellence to other disparate areas. This is the forte of independence.

    We need high quality managers at the mid and upper levels to execute the high level plans and conceptual ideas people like my wife create. It is a waste to use such highly capable people in these roles.

    We need a large number of people like Chua and her children to fill these roles in the future.

  4. Dr. T:

    In regards to interviews:

    My way to predict future success is to find out how the student approaches subjects matters and learning. The commonest approach (which, unfortunately, is encouraged throughout our schools) is that of the hurdler: Each course, section, topic, etc. is a hurdle to be leaped over and then forgotten. The best (but rarest) approach is that of the pyramid builder: Each course, section, topic, etc. becomes incorporated into the student's knowledge base, allowing him to attain higher levels of understanding.

    Among the medical students I taught, at least 80% were hurdlers. I taught to the pyramid builders, tested learning (not memorization), and got the second-lowest evaluation scores. However, the parts of the national medical boards that I covered were the only ones in which our students, as a whole, scored above average. That was due to the high scores of the pyramid builders.

  5. Mesa Econoguy:

    The Fender was not a useful tool on my Ivy League apps.

  6. Caroline:

    My initial response to the article was, "Where is the creative individual nurtured in the process?" You thankfully answered my question better by highlighting the point that this is an 'early decision' game and becoming successful in conformist cultures. My mother was a piano teacher for 30 years to many of these types of children. She was impressed by their abilities and enjoyed having hard-working students, but I distinctly recall her frequent comments that so many of them played their pianos like typewriters.

    Speaking of piano, if you learned it well, you should be able to transfer your abilities to nearly any other acoustical instrument.

  7. Uncle Bill:

    Huh. You wouldn't have liked me. I was one of those people who "succeeded by grimly jumping through hoops," but I did it because grew up in a dirt-poor family, and I lived in constant fear of growing up to live the same way. I wound up with a PhD from one of the better engineering schools, and had a pretty decent career, before retiring two years ago. I'm not brilliant, and although I got a certain amount of satisfaction from my work, I never had a passion for it. But I was one of the best damn engineers in my company, because I worked hard, did things other folks couldn't be bothered to do, made sure to keep my skills up-to-date, and contributed to my companies success.