Text

Physicist, Startup Founder, Blogger, Dad

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Tigers, cubs, and elite clubs



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.



27 comments:

Jorge_Videla said...

"they can’t have a fun, low-stress childhood and also an Ivy League education"

But they can in every other country on earth (except Canada) where ability is the measure and pushiness unhelpful.

Guy said...

I had a pretty fun, low stress childhood. It only started becoming intensive once I got to 10th-12th grades. I attended an Ivy-League level university on full-tuition scholarship (middle class, so financial need was factored in). My parents were very hands off in raising me; I was the fourth child, and they simply let me explore. I played instruments, sports, and I taught myself web design. Once I got to 10-12 grades though, academics became my uber-focus--especially as material really ramped up.

I think the time allowed for exploration really helped shape me.

Pauline said...

OT but the Obama attack on genomics is now well underway!

http://www.nationalreview.com/corner/261708/protecting-public-itself-john-derbyshire

Watch this FDA official lie brazenly before Congress to support a ban on personal genomics:

http://youtube.com/watch?v=YI-m2Cucdoo

David said...

Niniane Wang told me that her mom worked with her until she was about 7 [mostly growing up poor in Desolate Western State U. grad dorms], then she was mostly hands off. I'm interested in knowing where the middle is. There is a place for random algorithms in a kids development I think. [And really, who is being 'lazy' if they are simply applying the formula uniformly?]

Yan Shen said...

The Flanagan article was interesting. I'll add another insight which I've stated here before. Asian Americans are relentlessly self-critical, in a way that other American ethnic groups aren't. Ask an Asian American why he or she is lagging behind someone and you're likely to hear the person suggest that perhaps he or she didn't work hard enough or that maybe he or she simply isn't smart enough. There really is a sense of self-critical humility present amongst Asian Americans that's lacking amongst other American ethnic groups. Americans by and large, whether black, Hispanic or white seem to have embraced a mindset of machismo, where self-esteem is the single most important thing in life and everyone has to be The Man and if someone else is more successful than you or above you in some respect then that's a huge slight against your sense of self-worth and your desire of being The Man and therefore you have to denigrate the more successful person and somehow try to bring him or her down. Amy Chua was definitely on to something when she critiqued the Western obsession with feel-good self-esteem. The unfortunate corollary to an obsession with self-esteem is the presence of persistent and petty sniping against others whom you feel pose an affront to your dignity, simply by virtue of being more successful in life.

Thus, you'll rarely if ever hear an Asian American denigrate someone else as being part of a privileged class or a grind-out, etc. The ugly racial sniping that seems to be par for the course amongst most Americans is by and large absent amongst Asian Americans. It's hard to imagine the Asian American equivalent of say hundreds of whites whining in the blogosphere about Asians being grinds or blacks and Hispanics whining incessantly about white privilege. Asian Americans focus on their own business and take care of their own affairs. It's that simple.

That being said, the ugly discrimination against Asian Americans at elite colleges is a disgrace, and it honestly makes me ashamed of being an American. This is a country that prides itself above all on a sense of racial unity, a belief that the content of a person's character matters far more than their race or gender or creed. I immigrated to this country from China at the age of 6 and though America certainly has its virtues, some of which remain unmatched anywhere in the world, it's also incredibly disconcerting to see how often Americans fall short of living up to the lofty standards that have been immortalized by the rhetoric of our historical and cultural heritage. Steve's previous post on Asian Americans and AA revealed the ugliness simmering beneath the facade of supposed racial tranquility. Even white Americans, who normally would be vehement critics of AA when it comes to blacks and Hispanics taking spots away from them, all of a sudden seem to swallow their principles whole when the issue then shifts to the discrimination of Asian Americans at elite campuses. Men of principle are truly hard to find these days.

Of course, anti-Asian bigotry at elite colleges is only a symptom of a much larger disease. Asian Americans are mostly invisible when it comes to America's racial discourse. How many times have you seen an article discussing the racial dynamics of America and include only a discussion of blacks, whites and Hispanics? The only way for the ugliness against Asian Americans to end is for Asian Americans to speak out and defend their rights. Engaging in identity politics is never an optimal path for a multiracial society to embark upon. But given the persistent anti-Asian bigotry in this nation, Asian Americans have no choice but to speak out and defend themselves.

Abcd said...

"The ugly racial sniping that seems to be par for the course amongst most Americans is by and large absent amongst Asian Americans. It's hard to imagine the Asian American equivalent of say hundreds of whites whining in the blogosphere about Asians being grinds or blacks and Hispanics whining incessantly about white privilege. Asian Americans focus on their own business and take care of their own affairs. It's that simple."

I'm not sure about that. The discourse over at the Asia Finest forums (which is supposedly mainstream and has Asian-American participants) is as crass and bigoted as anything I've seen on the paleo-conservative parts of the blogosphere. You'll find heavy doses of antisemitism and tons of people whining about Asian women winding up with White men.

Serenus Zeitblom said...

Sandra Tsing-Loh really hit the nail on the head:

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. ...

*exactly*! When I read Amy Chua's stuff, my first thought was: professor of law [a subject very close to the bottom of the totem pole, above only business school] at Yale [most over-rated school in the known universe]. She hasn't exactly changed the course of intellectual history; all she has done is find a well-paid sinecure. Likewise her kids: we are told endlessly that one of them performed at Carnegie hall..... like thousands of other kids who sank without a trace. In short, the problem with Chua is not that her standards are too high, it is that they are way too *low*!

MEMPS20 said...

You have conspicously ignored talking about the update of Dale and Kruger's study that suggests elite colleges dont have such a spectacular ROI

Jorge_Videla said...

"...and though America certainly has its virtues, some of which remain unmatched anywhere in the world..."

Really? I can't think of one.

What about Indian-Americans? They out-achieve even NE Asians. What are the similarites and differences between them and "Asian-Americans" ("Asian" means Indian in the UK), between NE Asians of varying nationalities.

I think maybe Yan Shen is confusing Asian American with Chinese American.

Abcd said...

"They out-achieve even NE Asians."

Which metrics are you basing this conclusion on? For most academic ones, I think N.E. Asians outperform all other groups (except, the Jews).

Guy said...

Part of the problem is that IQ discussions can attract some of this most unsavory character--people who, in real life, would be considered to have some sort of personality imbalance. Take Half Sigma: he literally took pictures of black people enjoying themselves in a park and BBQing, and used it as an opportunity to bash black people in crude terms.

Seriously, that's a brand of crazy and a type of neurosis. You (Half Sigma) are not normal--and, frankly, a good lot of the IQ commenters are not. Sure, to a degree, they understand IQ and are able to make some logical conclusions, but their rationality is skin deep--it's used insofar as to bolster their latent prejudices.

Steve Sailer is overall more rational, but he clearly plants seeds trying to foment controversy and, in turn, comments and traffic.

No question, America does have virtues unmatched in parts of the world. We elected a black guy who is--objectively speaking--a much brighter and better candidate than his predecessor (GW). Does that mean blacks, on average, have the same IQ as whites? Nope. But taken individually, is Obama brighter than GW and McCain? Obviously. (Granted, raw IQ is not the only way to choose a president.)

Guy said...

Let me amend my statements:
attract some of the most unsavory characters*
a much brighter candidate* (not necessarily "better")

LondonYoung said...

Caltech's motto is "The Truth Shall Make You Free".

Severn said...

The ugly racial sniping that seems to be par for the course amongst most Americans is by and large absent amongst Asian Americans.

So let me guess - it's your mission in life to singlehandedly do the all the ugly racial sniping that other Asians do not do?

Jorge_Videla said...

"I think N.E. Asians"

What you think is wrong.

Jorge_Videla said...

The inability of Steve and Yan Shen to distinguish between Chinese Americans and Indian Americans, Japanese Americans, Filipino Americans, Malay Americans, Indonesian Americans, etc. show them to be

TYPICAL Chinese racists who cannot think.

Jorge_Videla said...

Yan Shen speaks Chinese? was born in China yet repines over the treatment of Chinese in (the multi-ethnic and therefore necessarily a shit hole) US. Hmmm.

If I had citizenship in the country of my surname, Switzerland, I would move in an instant, yet Yan Shen lingers in the US. Why?

Jorge_Videla said...

Discrimination against some ethnic minorities or in favor of other ethnic minorities is ONLY a problem in a multi-ethnic society and the putative need for it exaggerated by that multi-ethnic society also being multi-cultural.

Steve has yet to ask THE question. Should there be any such society? Is there a MORAL solution to a perverted state of affairs in the New World and in the US in particular of many ethnicities and many cultures?

The answer: there is no solution, such societies in time will necessarily lag the ethnically and culturally homogeneous societies of Japan, Korea, Norway, etc.

Jorge_Videla said...

"...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..."

The author ignores the OBVIOUS question. Is what it takes to succeed what it SHOULD take or are those traits which make success most likely when outcomes ARE contingent those traits which SHOULD make success most likely? There is an enormous assumption that whatever works in late 20th and 21st century America is what SHOULD work and what has ALWAYS worked. There, in short, and assumption that this is a just world, the best of all possible worlds, etc.

LondonYoung said...

JV - why do you think the U.S. is the superpower and Argentina is not even one of the Next 11?

Jorge_Videla said...

I don't understand your question.

Jorge_Videla said...

I think you're asking why is Argentina so much poorer than the US?

Argentina is far from what would be expected given its resources and its ethnic composition. Argentines do have a significant indigenous admixture (averaging about 15%) which increases from rich to poor. Living standards were once close to those in the US though.

From the end of the Revolution to the present the US has had a stable government. The Civil War might be an exception, but government in the North continued as it had. In contrast Argentina, like the rest of Latin America, has had coup after coup. The most politically stable country of Latin America has been Mexico.

With a stable government Argentina should surpass the US in living standards within the next 100 years, as should China. Despite its being stable the US government doesn't work. It is a stable but non-functioning government.

A problem that Argentina and all of Latin America has and has had is inequality. There may be a phase change at a certain level of inequality which is harmful to economic growth. The instability of Latin American politics can be attributed entirely to this inequality. If those in charge go to far those who are really in charge throw them out.

The US is an example of an entire country which was born on third base but thinks it's hit a triple. Or as Chomsky has said given its resources material and human and its political stability and geographic safety it should be at least 10 x richer than it is.

Jorge_Videla said...

should have said "too far". pay no attention to JV, he is a moron.

LondonYoung said...

Very helpful. Why do you think the U.S. has had a more stable government than Argentina? I also would like your thoughts on whether U.S. will continue stable and whether Argentina will continue unstable.

I certainly agree that the average American was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple. But Argentinians in 1929 were sitting on third base too with the fourth highest per capita GDP in the world. Then they got "caught off base".

Jorge_Videla said...

Very helpful

I'm not an Argentine. I am Mr. Cholmondeley, Nicolai Yezhov, Jan Smuts, anon, Hendrik Verwoerd, etc. I'm just an American speculating.

Continuing my speculations...

Why do you think the U.S. has had a more stable government than Argentina? I also would like your thoughts on whether U.S. will continue stable and whether Argentina will continue unstable.

Latin American governments are more stable than they've been at any time since the wars of independence. The end of the Cold War is one reason. Someone like Allende would never get anywhere in the US. There never was a real Communist menace in the US. In Latin America "the expropriation of surplus value" in silver mines, banana plantations, etc. is a very real thing not just a theory or a misunderstanding of economics. Another reason for recent stability is globalization. Embargoes and capital flight really HURT. Now more than ever. This economic interdependence means both an erosion of sovereignty and stability. One is bad, the other good. Globalization will continue and therefore I expect stability to continue.

But Argentinians in 1929 were sitting on third base too with the fourth highest per capita GDP in the world. Then they got "caught off base".

It's a mystery to me.

A tiny white minority owns everything and has all the power in most Latin American countries, though according to Amie Chua they will insist that even they are mixed, that everyone is mixed. Democracy in such countries is impossible, but stability and pretend-democracy is possible.

Jorge_Videla said...

Eike Batista explained Argentina's underachievement with one word, "populism". "Argentina is a Rolls Royce driven by an Egyptian chauffeur." Perhaps, but such populism hasn't affected the GINI unless Batista had Namibia's GINI as his target.

Of course frequent coups may have no effect on everyday government and therefore have no economic effect. Spectacular as they are they are stories for the NYT not the WSJ.

Spain, Portugal, France, Italy, Germany have not had the stability of the US and UK either.

LondonYoung said...

All good stuff, but nothing here to really point to why the U.S. has outperformed Argentina unless the idea is that the U.S. is less "populist". And that, I think we both feel, might not really fit.

But, I'll say this. If populism is what cause Argentina to fall out of Tier 1 nation status, then I fear for the U.S. since I think it is turning ever more "populist" in that same sense.

On a separate note, why Portugal is richer than India seem anomalous to me.
For the U.S., I think you are too harsh, but I have nothing to say for us that de Tocqueville didn't say.

Blog Archive

Labels