Steve Sailer points me to some excellent essays in the Atlantic on Amy Chua, Tiger Moms, elite college obsession, and the not so hidden group competition just below the surface of our smoothly functioning meritocracy. Before we get to the essays, here's something from the comment thread of Steve's post:
"It's not so much upper class whites that are aghast at Chua. Most upper class whites send their kids to the State Universities and don't have that much academic inclination anyway. Trust me, as someone that lives in an upper middle class white area, I can tell you that their kids don't think Ivy. Not unless the kid plays lacrosse or does crew.
Chua's detractors aren't WASPs - they're mostly Jewish women. Partly it's because Chua's kids are taking Ivy League spots from their kids. Partly it's also because Chua embodies that overbearing Jewish mother that they grew up [with] and refutes the modern liberal Jewish-American parenting style. Jewish mothers are feeling guilty that they're not preparing their kids to battle with the Tiger cubs."
Sandra Tsing-Loh on Amy Chua.
Atlantic: ... But of course, sometimes children—particularly those from cultures in which children are not routinely given names such as “Harvard Wong”—fail in spite of their parents’ diligent efforts. Amid the debate within elite motherdom about Chua’s book, it’s far too easily forgotten that the professional class tends to have a blind spot. Clearly, Yale law professors who write books on economies in developing-world nations do not often ride the bus in America’s cities, for there they might see, as I once did, a Guatemalan maid earnestly working with her son on his math homework and, heartbreakingly, giving him all the wrong answers. (But, my Credit Suisse tablemate would say, he won’t go to Harvard, because she didn’t READ to him! She didn’t READ to him!)
... I do admire Chua’s fortitude, being the sort of lax, self-loathing parent who kicks herself for letting her children be exposed to all the standard Western evils. Just last week, my 8-year-old, Suzy, saw Yogi Bear in 3-D (starring Justin Timberlake as Boo Boo), played a computer game in which she clipped a dog’s toenails, and watched back-to-back reruns of the less-than-elevating Damon Wayans family sitcom, My Wife and Kids. While watching the show and cackling with hilarity, Suzy finished completing her extra-credit report “OWLS by Suzy.” Sample passage:
Some things that I know about owls are that they have large eyes, a large head, and that they are carnivores. Owls come in all different colors, shapes, sizes and they all have a different name. For example the Barn owl, the Elf owl, the Great Horned owl, and the Snowy owl, they all come from the same family, THE OWLS! Okay, that is pretty much all I know about OWLS.
Just having finished Chua’s book, I stared at the page, wondering, She’s only 8, but still, isn’t this … terrible? Why are our kids so cheerfully lazy? Then again, how much should I care?
Because as much as I cavil about Chua’s fears of generational decline, I admit that my own murky hopes for my kids are even more open to question. Truth be told, I am not sure what I want for them. Harangued by my own Tiger Dad, I grew up believing in crack math skills and followed—at least initially—a stereotypical Chinese path of acing my tests; getting into the world’s most prestigious science university, Caltech (early admission, no less); majoring in the hardest, most rarefied subject, physics … And then what? Almost 50 years old now, some 30 years after graduation, I look at my Caltech classmates and conclude that math whizzes do not take over the world. The true geniuses—the artists of the scientific world—may be unlocking the mysteries of the universe, but the run-of-the-mill really smart overachievers like me? They’re likely to end up in high-class drone work, perfecting new types of crossword-puzzle-oriented screen savers or perhaps (really) tweaking the computer system that controls the flow in beer guns at Applebee’s. ...
Caitlin Flanagan, the author of the essay excerpted below, was once a college counselor at Harvard-Westlake, an elite private school in Southern California.
Atlantic: ... The good mothers went to Brown, and they read The Drama of the Gifted Child, and they feel things very deeply, and they love their children in a way that is both complicated and primal, and they will make any sacrifice for them. They know that it takes a lot of time to nurture and guide a child—and also that time is fleeting, and that the bliss of having your kids at home is painfully short-lived—and so most of them have cut back on their professional aspirations in significant ways. The good mothers have certain ideas about how success in life is achieved, and these ideas have been sizzled into their brains by popularizers such as Joseph Campbell and Oprah Winfrey, and they boil down to this: everyone has at least one natural talent (the good mothers call it a “passion”), and creativity, effortless success, and beaucoup dinero flow not from banging your head against the closed door of, say, organic chemistry if you’re not that excited by it, but from dwelling deeply and ecstatically inside the thing that gives you the most pleasure. But you shouldn’t necessarily—or under any circumstances, actually—follow your bliss in a way that keeps you out of Yale. Because Yale is important, too! So important. The good mothers believe that their children should be able to follow their passions all the way to New Haven, Connecticut, and this obdurate belief of theirs is the reason so many of them (Obama voters, Rosa Parks diorama co-creators, gay-rights supporters, champions, in every conceivable way, of racial diversity and tolerance) are suddenly ready to demand restoration of the Chinese Exclusion Act. Because Amy Chua has revealed, in so many blunt and horrifying words, why the good mothers are getting spanked, and why it’s only going to get worse. ...
AND ALL OF this brings us to the reason the good mothers are so furious at Amy Chua; not, really, because she has been harsh to her children. If anything, these revelations have given the good mothers something to feel better about; they would never treat their sweet children like that. Rather, they are angry because her harshness is going to rob their own children of something they fiercely want for them. They want the situation to change in their favor, but in fact the trend is against them. One of the reasons that Western, white parents of today remember an easier admissions environment at the top schools is that in their era, the schools held a dismissive attitude toward Asian students. When the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights investigated the Harvard admissions office in the late 1980s and early ’90s, it found evidence, if not of quotas, then at least of condescension toward the group. “Typical of other Asian applications,” said a handwritten note on one file; “classic VN [Vietnamese] bootstrap case,” said another. Chastened, the schools made a determined effort to read the files of Asian applicants as thoughtfully as they read those of white students. I would wager that the majority of the Asian American kids who apply to elite colleges are not marked for any kind of preferential treatment, and are therefore disproportionately represented in the group of applicants who are going to be judged purely on academic merit. Their ability to dominate in this category means that the Asian threat, as perceived by cheesed-off white professional-class parents, is in fact higher than their worst suspicions.
Chua has accepted, in a way that the good mothers will not, that most children today can’t have it both ways: they can’t have a fun, low-stress childhood and also an Ivy League education. She understood early on—as the good mothers are about to learn, when the heartbreaking e-mails and letters from the top colleges go out this month—that life is a series of choices, each with its own rewards and consequences. In a sense, that is the most unpalatable message of her book, the one that has caused all the anguish: it’s an unwelcome reminder (how can we keep forgetting this?) that the world really doesn’t lie before us like a land of dreams. At best—at the very best—it can only offer us choices between two good things, and as we grasp at one, we lose the other forever.
Flanagan is a bit too optimistic about the treatment that Asian applicants now receive from elite admissions offices. Why you should be suspicious of what the elite schools are up to, despite official statements (from an earlier post):
OCR = Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights, which conducted an investigation of anti-Asian bias in Harvard admissions around 1990.
The Chosen, p.510: ... Asian Americans had the highest SATs of all [among groups admitted to Harvard]: 1450 out of a possible 1600. In 1991 the Asian-American/white admission ratio [ratio of percentages of applicants from each group admitted] stood at 84 percent -- a sharp downturn from 98 percent in 1990, when the scrutiny from OCR was at its peak. Though [this ratio] never dropped again to the 64 percent level of 1986, it never returned to its 1990 zenith. Despite Asian Americans' growing proportion of the national population, their enrollment also peaked in 1990 at 20 percent, where it more or less remained until 1994. ... by 2001 it had dropped below 15 percent.
So the "subjective but fair" measures used in admissions resulted in a record high admit rate for Asians during the year Harvard was under investigation by the federal government. But mysteriously the admit rate (relative to that of white applicants) went down significantly after the investigation ended, and the overall Asian enrollment has not increased despite the increasing US population fraction of Asians.
My take on Amy Chua here.