If Amy Chua represents the ‘Chinese’ view of education, the rest of the world has nothing to worry about – but it’s not that simple

February 3, 2011 at 9:31 am 6 comments

(image from WWF website)

by Alec Patton

Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother has become very big news in America, and odds are good that it’s about to become big news in the UK (it being the general order of things for American cultural phenomena to transfix Britain in its turn).

The main thrust of the book is that Amy Chua, who is Chinese-American, has defined the ‘Chinese Mother’ as a parenting archetype to which others should aspire. You can get the gist of Chinese motherhood as defined by Chua from the list of things her daughters were never allowed to do, which opens her Wall Street Journal essay, ‘Why Chinese Mothers are Superior‘:

• attend a sleepover
• have a playdate
• be in a school play
• complain about not being in a school play
• watch TV or play computer games
• choose their own extracurricular activities
• get any grade less than an A
• not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama
• play any instrument other than the piano or violin
• not play the piano or violin.

The response to this has been horror mixed with anxiety that Chua may be on to something – (those Shanghai PISA scores are awfully high, after all).

Leaving aside the aggravation Chua has created for all her fellow Chinese-American women (who must now get asked routinely whether, as a matter of ethnic policy, they call their children ‘garbage’ when they can’t play a piece of music flawlessly), I think the scale of response to her book is interesting.

It is, as Elizabeth Kolbert observes in the New Yorker, as much about geopolitics as about parenting (Kolbert points out that it’s unlikely that a book by an ‘Austrian über-mom’ would have caused such a stir). Thus, the subtext is ‘The US never be able to compete with China as long as we keep letting our kids be in school plays’.

So, does this hold water? I decided to see what Professor Yong Zhao, who knows quite a bit about education in both China and America, had to say about Chua’s book. Sure enough, he’s written an excellent blog post crafted as an ‘open letter’ to Chua, in which he makes the following point:

I am sure you are aware that what you were doing to your children is simply serving as a taskmaster whose only job is to ensure that they do what the authority or the “successful” sector of the society values. In other words, you externalize the value of individual human beings as what others think important. You do not have an independent view of human value so you just rent the view of the society. When you force your children to get As in school, without necessarily even know what lies behind the As, you are no different from carrying out an order of an agency without ever questioning why.

This, as Zhao has pointed out before, is a great strategy for driving up test scores, but less effective for developing entrepreneurs and citizens with a sense of responsibility for the direction of their lives, their communities, their nation, and the wider world. It is for this reason that, as Yong Zhao writes in the excellent Catching Up or Leading the Way,

What China wants is what America is eager to throw away – an education that respects individual talents, supports divergent thinking, tolerates deviation, and encourages creativity; a system in which the government does not dictate what students learn or how teachers teach; and culture that does not rank or judge the success of a school, a teacher or a child based on only test scores in a few subjects determined by the government.

According to Elizabeth Kolbert’s review, Tiger Mother gives a strong sense that Chua is a typical product of an approach to education that never questions ‘why’. For example, here is what Chua writes about her time at Harvard Law School:

I didn’t care about the rights of criminals the way others did, and I froze whenever a professor called on me. I also wasn’t naturally skeptical and questioning; I just wanted to write down everything the professor said and memorize it.*

OK, so far, so unsurprising: author who advocates parenting (and, by extension, education) that focuses on narrow, conventional success criteria and punishes independent thought, appears to be incapable of sustained critical analysis (or, as this passage implies, empathy with criminals). But that’s not the full story, because when she’s not being a ‘Chinese Mother’, Amy Chua is a law professor at Yale whose books include Day of Empire: How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Power: And Why they Fall (praised by none other than Yong Zhao when it was written) and World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability (Tony Gidden’s ‘Top Political Read of the Year’ for 2003 in the Guardian).

I’m going to have to end this post by admitting I’m at a loss – I find it absolutely bizarre that these three books are all by the same person, and I’d love to know what the philosophical thread is that ties them together.


*I’m inescapably struck by the contrast with Harvard Law’s favourite fictional graduate, Elle Woods, in Legally Blonde, but boy do I digress…

Entry filed under: Education & Children's Services.

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6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Alan  |  February 3, 2011 at 9:50 am

    Call me a cynic, but I don’t think it’s hard to discern the motivation between Amy Chua’s difference in tone in Battle Hymn ….


    Ruffle a few feathers, put a few noses out of joint. Sit back and watch the cash role in (ethnic hatred optional).

  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Innovation_Unit, Alec Patton. Alec Patton said: If Amy Chua represents the 'Chinese' view of education, the rest of the world has nothing to worry about – but it's n… http://wp.me/pwY1p-Dj […]

  • 3. Matt K  |  February 3, 2011 at 12:55 pm

    I appreciate that you blogged about this book without ever expressing the slightest intention to read it. No, I don’t mean that ironically.

    I’m glad to read some of the substantive pushback against Chua’s master-slave model of parenting, but I almost wonder whether it’s worth people’s time to wrestle with such a provocateur. The most interesting (but in some ways least surprising) lesson to draw is that even accomplished, right-thinking intellectuals are not immune from bizarre bouts of self-aggrandizement, especially when they also haul in buckets of cash.

  • 4. alecpatton  |  February 3, 2011 at 1:36 pm

    Matt, you’re right, I hadn’t thought very thoroughly about the public/private distinction.

    It gets even more complicated if you think about it in terms of
    George Lakoff’s view that people ‘frame’ national politics in terms of styles of parenting (granted, Lakoff’s view is a heuristic, not an absolute definition). But it’s interesting that a writer who has focused on the problems of hegemony and advocated for more open, flexible forms of world leadership (as far as I can tell from the titles, not having actually READ her previous work) would take such a different view on parenting.

  • 5. Yong Zhao  |  February 3, 2011 at 2:20 pm

    Thanks, Alec, for this post. Here is another very interesting, much more direct criticism on Amy Chua’s book. Thought and your readers may be interested in reading:

  • 6. russian tiger mother  |  February 3, 2011 at 7:36 pm

    I think the key to the “mystery” here is that Ms. Chua’s memoir has been misinterpreted. She writers with humour and although she does seem like an overbearing parent initially, she also grows as a parent and a human being. The truth is much of the book that is being taken so seriously was written in jest.

    Additionally, I don’t see why the argument has to be “academic” vs. “creative”. Why do we have to choose one over the other when bringing up our children?
    I think its very possible to bring up children who are both.



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