Our man in New York sends word that Chinese parenting styles are causing a stir. The Wall Street Journal extracted a new book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, by Amy Chua, a high-profile professor at Yale University’s law school, extolling mother enforced rote learning to establish the mastery of academics and musical instruments that lets their children “see what they’re capable of, and [arms] them with skills, work habits and inner confidence that no one can ever take away”.
Chu’s straight-A, piano and violin playing daughters stand testament to the accomplishments such tough love can hot house, though one flourished and one rebelled in the face of such strict parenting. (For a more acerbic take, try Amy Chua: Model Chinese Parent or Insufferable Elitist?).
The timing of Chu or her publishers is deft. Her WSJ article has hit a nerve (with a reported advance for the book of $500,000 her publishers will be delighted by the buzz for the book she has provoked; our man wonders if she hasn’t overegged her parenting pudding to that end). American parents — and employers — increasingly fret that their country’s system of secondary education is failing students, causing them to fall further and further behind their counterparts in other countries, an anxiety supported by America’s descending positions in international achievement rankings for maths, science and reading. All of which touches a bigger sensitive spot about America’s changing place in the world order. A return to the hard work, self-denial and discipline that Chua prescribes seems, to some at least, a return to elysian American values that would cure what ails the U.S. education system.
Yet at the same time, parents in China are questioning the approach Chua advocates, fearing it won’t produce the children needed for the 21st century, those that are creative, independent and armed with the ability for continuous self-learning rather than stuffed with facts. This Bystander recalls a similar debate over education in Japan three decades ago. There a subsequent generation of policymakers schooled in rote learning was unable to find the creativity to solve the exceptional problems that confronted the country in the 1990s and let its economy drift into its long stagnation.