Monday, January 10, 2011

Chinese Rote Repetition vs. American Self-Esteem

From the WSJ article "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior" by Yale law professor Amy Chua:

"A lot of people wonder how Chinese parents raise such stereotypically successful kids. They wonder what these parents do to produce so many math whizzes and music prodigies, what it's like inside the family, and whether they could do it too. Well, I can tell them, because I've done it. Here are some things my daughters, Sophia and Louisa, were never allowed to do:

• 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.

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. This in turn makes it easier for the parent to get the child to work even more.

Western parents are extremely anxious about their children's self-esteem. They worry about how their children will feel if they fail at something, and they constantly try to reassure their children about how good they are notwithstanding a mediocre performance on a test or at a recital. In other words, Western parents are concerned about their children's psyches. Chinese parents aren't. They assume strength, not fragility, and as a result they behave very differently."

78 Comments:

At 1/10/2011 8:20 AM, Blogger Prof J said...

Yikes.

I'll trade some of that future success for the happy childhood I did have.

 
At 1/10/2011 8:35 AM, Blogger Jet Beagle said...

Prof J,

I don't believe a student raised as Amy Chua described would necessarily have an unhappy childhood. But I do wonder whether that student would be able to collaborate well as an adult. Most who participated in team sports or band likely gained an appreciation for the value of teamwork in achieving goals.

 
At 1/10/2011 9:09 AM, Blogger Walt G. said...

Isn't it statistically impossible for every student in a class to be #1?

Better watch the all "A" criterion, too. That could be called grade inflation by some people.

I can see where strategies such as these would create successful students and adults. Way too many people, children and adults who act like children, just drift along with no short or long-term plans that include concrete goals and then wonder why they can't get ahead in life. Most of these people will tell you they are unlucky or life is not fair if you ask them why they end up with less than they think they should have at a given point in their lives (less = happiness, money . . .).

 
At 1/10/2011 9:58 AM, Blogger sethstorm said...

It simply proves that China has no creativity whatsoever, and that they'll just simply copy whatever the rest of the world creates.

 
At 1/10/2011 10:08 AM, Blogger VangelV said...

Perhaps the article is a bit self serving. But it raises some excellent points, one of which should be explained a bit further.

The part about getting an A in everything is a problem for me because it is likely to hamper exceptional success. If we look around we find that the most successful people were not straight A students. In fact, they may have been very poor in most subjects.

So what was it that made these people successful? It was the one subject that they were head and shoulders above others. In the real world a student who had an A in every subject is very likely to work for the B average student who had an A+++ in the one subject that matters for the job that is being performed.

For a perfect example in a very competitive field go and take a look at the NBA. There we have many players who are good shooters, good rebounders and good ball handlers that are out of the league in a few years after making a modest amount of money. But if we look at the team we find a player who can't shoot and can't handle the ball very well. Yet, that player has been around for ten years and has made a huge amount of money because he has one great skill that is of great value to a team. A Reggie Evans hangs around for eight years and makes $5 million a year not because he is good at dribbling or shooting but because he can rebound. Period. End of story.

The same is true in the real world. There we have a lot of top performers who are actual morons in most matters. But they get their positions and their money because they are exceptionally good at the one skill that their job requires. The fact that their colleagues got As in English or History in school while they only managed a C is not important because they are not paid for their knowledge of English or History.

The real trick to success is to have a great skill that is in demand and hard to replace.

 
At 1/10/2011 10:10 AM, Blogger geoih said...

I wonder how she potty trained her poor little prisoners?

 
At 1/10/2011 10:24 AM, Blogger VangelV said...

I wonder how she potty trained her poor little prisoners?

I doubt that there was a problem. Most Chinese kids are trained just around the time they have reached their first birthday. And I doubt that anyone who cares so much about her kids to spend as much time with them can be said to be holding them prisoner.

 
At 1/10/2011 10:31 AM, Blogger Walt G. said...

goeih,

If you went to China, you would have to be potty trained, too. They use squat toilets. You probably would not want to take a newspaper with you :)

 
At 1/10/2011 10:36 AM, Blogger sethstorm said...


The real trick to success is to have a great skill that is in demand and hard to replace.

Or a law that works in their long-term favor.

 
At 1/10/2011 10:50 AM, Blogger morganovich said...

walt-

"Isn't it statistically impossible for every student in a class to be #1? "

that depends on class size.

in a class of one, it's a certainty...

 
At 1/10/2011 10:50 AM, Blogger VangelV said...

Or a law that works in their long-term favor.

You can't count on something like that because you will not be able to be very successful unless you have the skills no matter what law is in place. Doctors rae protected from competition by the AMA yet most of them find it very hard to make huge amounts of money unless they are at the top of their game and exceptional at doing something that is of great value.

 
At 1/10/2011 10:55 AM, Blogger David Janssen said...

Don't Chinese kids have an insanely high suicide rate? Likely due to the pressure from their parents.

 
At 1/10/2011 11:00 AM, Blogger Hydra said...

In a chinese restaurant I frequent, the owners have created a little room, made out of stacks of cartons of soft drinks.

Their daughter is barricaded in there every day after school, studying and practicing her violin.

 
At 1/10/2011 11:12 AM, Blogger Bill Reeves said...

Gee, so why is Ms. Chu in the US? I mean China is filled with Chinese Moms? China must be the wonder of the world with all of its dedicated moms raising brilliant kids. Why there must be millions of desperate Americans trying to sneak in to the "Golden Mountain". Wait, that's what the Chinese call America.

Lawyers don't know much about cognitive science and the screening impact of immigration on the cognitive capabilities of immigrants, do they? Of course not, Ivy League lawyers specialize in smug.

Here's another, more scientific perspective: http://often-wrong-never-in-doubt.blogspot.com/2011/01/china-is-full-of-chinese-moms.html

 
At 1/10/2011 11:17 AM, Blogger Buddy R Pacifico said...

"Isn't it statistically impossible for every student in a class to be #1?"

It would be possible if they did not grade on a curve, would it not? The curve is what got me through the university(U.S.).

BTW, Walt, do I get a trophy for at least trying to answer your question even if not correctly?

 
At 1/10/2011 11:28 AM, Blogger Walt G. said...

Buddy R Pacifico,

I can see how all could get "A"s, but I think all being #1 is impossible by any logical definition if there are >1 involved.

A of people call me number one. That is what the one finger means, right?

 
At 1/10/2011 11:31 AM, Blogger VangelV said...

Don't Chinese kids have an insanely high suicide rate? Likely due to the pressure from their parents.

I believe that the national suicide rates for Asian Americans is not very different than it is for whites, Hispanics, or blacks. One of the papers that I looked at a year or so ago was indicating that the suicide rate among American born Asians was much higher than immigrants, who tended to be more stable even though pressures were higher.

And when you factor alcohol and drug related deaths I believe that Asian American students come out as more stable.

 
At 1/10/2011 11:33 AM, Blogger VangelV said...

In a chinese restaurant I frequent, the owners have created a little room, made out of stacks of cartons of soft drinks.

Their daughter is barricaded in there every day after school, studying and practicing her violin.


Running a business is tough. It makes more sense to have your kids around where you can keep an eye on them rather than leaving them alone after school.

 
At 1/10/2011 11:42 AM, Blogger Buddy R Pacifico said...

Walt, I'll bet the Chinese system is tough and it's hard to be #1. The authorities want to know who has the will and smarts to excel.

I am feeling a little less esteem because you did not come up with a trophy for me.

 
At 1/10/2011 11:44 AM, Blogger VangelV said...

Gee, so why is Ms. Chu in the US? I mean China is filled with Chinese Moms? China must be the wonder of the world with all of its dedicated moms raising brilliant kids. Why there must be millions of desperate Americans trying to sneak in to the "Golden Mountain". Wait, that's what the Chinese call America.

She is in the US because her parents came to the US from Mao's China. That made a lot of sense for anyone who understands China's history.

Lawyers don't know much about cognitive science and the screening impact of immigration on the cognitive capabilities of immigrants, do they? Of course not, Ivy League lawyers specialize in smug.

They are more likely to look at the empirical data rather than try to pretend that the theory explains what the 'experts' think it does.

The way I see it she is facing two choices. The first is that academic and employment success is primarily based on genetic factors, which would mean that even if her efforts did not do as much goods as she thought, she would probably not do much harm. The second is that natural talent is overrated and that practice will overcome most barriers that a child faces. If that is the case the mom is helping her kids become much better than they otherwise would have been.

 
At 1/10/2011 12:02 PM, Blogger Darren said...

Speaking as an Asian-American, I'd like to add a few caveats. This is only representative of a small segment of the demographic, Asians are only more successful at the margins, if at all, and this effects becomes amplified because of a self-selecting population of immigrants who tend to be smarter and work harder. If the US bordered China instead of Mexico (making it easier for those less successful to enter the country), you wouldn't see the same gap between Asian and White achievement. I doubt your average Chinese person is fundamentally different from your average American.

However, Professor Chua is right in that there does tend to be more of a focus on academic success (fun fact: the Chinese word for smart is a colloquialism for popular) but I think that's just a function of living in a country of 1.3 billion people and the inevitable competition. And this effect will be greatly diluted after a few generations. There's nothing terribly special about Asians that make us smarter than Whites, it's just a slightly different culture that focuses on excelling at different things. Both cultures have something to learn from the other.

 
At 1/10/2011 12:04 PM, Blogger PeakTrader said...

A College Education Without Job Prospects
November 30, 2006

The job market for Indian college graduates is split sharply in two. With a robust handshake, a placeless accent and a confident walk, you can get a $300-a-month job with Citibank or Microsoft. With a limp handshake and a thick accent, you might peddle credit cards door to door for $2 a day.

But the chance to learn such skills is still a prerogative reserved, for the most part, for the modern equivalent of India’s upper castes — the few thousand students who graduate each year from academies like the Indian Institutes of Management and the Indian Institutes of Technology. Their alumni, mostly engineers, walk the hallways of Wall Street and Silicon Valley and are stewards for some of the largest companies.

In the shadow of those marquee institutions, most of the 11 million students in India’s 18,000 colleges and universities receive starkly inferior training, heavy on obedience and light on useful job skills.

But as graduates complain about a lack of jobs, companies across India see a lack of skilled applicants. The contradiction is explained, experts say, by the poor quality of undergraduate education.

Teaching emphasizes silent note-taking and discipline at the expense of analysis and debate.

“Out! Out! Close the door! Close the door!” a management professor barked at a student who entered his classroom at Hinduja two minutes late. Soon after his departure, the door cracked open again, and the student asked if he could at least take his bag.

The reply: “Out! Out! Who said you could stand here?” A second student, caught whispering, was asked to stand up and cease taking notes.

“When we are raising our children,” said Sam Pitroda, a Chicago-based entrepreneur who is chairman of the Knowledge Commission and was an adviser to Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in the 1980s, “we constantly tell them: ‘Don’t do this, don’t do that. Stand here, stand there.’ It creates a feeling that if there is a boundary, you don’t cross it. You create boxes around people when we need people thinking outside the box.”

 
At 1/10/2011 12:16 PM, Blogger VangelV said...

...I doubt your average Chinese person is fundamentally different from your average American.

You may be right. Having spent a lot of time in the Chinese countryside and with Chinese businessmen I can buy that theory. A lot of my Jewish friends make the same arguments about their own people. While they are impressed at the accomplishments of Jews in Europe and the US they become depressed when they see the vast number of idiots in Israel.

However, Professor Chua is right in that there does tend to be more of a focus on academic success (fun fact: the Chinese word for smart is a colloquialism for popular) but I think that's just a function of living in a country of 1.3 billion people and the inevitable competition.

I was shocked to find that the majority of people who ran the production shops at XAC, one of China's most important aircraft companies, were women. A further shock was the number of women working as dril, lathe, mill, stretch form and brake operators when compared to what we have in North American companies. When I asked how they got their jobs they said that they had to compete in practical and written tests. The person who scored the best got the job.

The same process determines who gets into the universities and gets the prestigious high end jobs in many companies and institutions. When merit counts people tend to respond to the incentives.

 
At 1/10/2011 12:30 PM, Blogger Bill Reeves said...

@Vangel V. Good points. Some additional thoughts:
1. Of course China had Mao (and a whole bunch of other prior autocratic emperor types) - Chinese have been fleeing to Golden Mountain (and most of Asia) as long as we've had a west coast to flee to. The question is why if Chinese moms are so much better at raising children did the modern world not arise there? Of course not all Chinese moms are like this - the ones here are selected.
2. I'm not sure the behaviors outlined in Ms. Chu's piece are necessarily benign. Certainly the arrogant attitude that attributes her kid's success to her heavy handed parenting is one I wouldn't want to develop in my kids.
3. I don't think that lawyers are particularly empirical - I think they work with law and precedent and seek to marshal evidence that supports their case and exclude that which doesn't. Very Confucian, really.
4. The US remains the creative engine of the world and that creativity has been led by people who disproportionately defied their parents wishes. Asian nations do conformity well - they import their innovation from us 'slackers'.

Good thread.

 
At 1/10/2011 12:56 PM, Blogger juandos said...

Hmmm, it seems to me that many of have missed the point...

I think Ms. Chu is telling us about how teaching children the upsides of dicipline, hard work, and the desire to compete turns children into successful adults...

 
At 1/10/2011 1:01 PM, Blogger Bill Reeves said...

I agree with Darren's post. I am not Asian but I grew up in Singapore and I believe that the average Singaporean Chinese (not Malay) did marginally better than the similarly situated American academically. But I believe that is largely an artifact of the Singaporean (and in general the Asian) system of 'winner take all' and elite weaning in their schools.

American kids are given far more independence and 'entreprenurial' behaviors are far more rewarded. The result is a different social milieu, one that is very open and offers lots of 'second chances'. But also one in which a small number of very focused, disproportionately Asian scholastics can do very well. But if you had a whole nation of affluent, academic conformists you'd end up with....Japan.

I of course am generalizing about all of the groups in this discussion - people are individuals and their behavior defies categorization.

 
At 1/10/2011 1:09 PM, Blogger AIG said...

This is the same argument as heard in the 60s and 70s in the US. Little Johny was out playing football and going to the movies, while Little Boris was studying Astrophysics and playing the violin. Of course the reality, as in China, was that Little Boris represented the upper class, and in the end Little Johny become more competitive and well rounded than Boris.

Having experienced a milder form of such upbringing in Eastern Europe myself (only A were allowed of me, and sports were considered a waste of time), I can say that it imparts no particular advantages that couldn't have been gained otherwise. On the contrary, my experience with Chinese students who fit the above description has been that they show a distinct inability to operate in society, an inability to be creative and innovative, to think outside the box. US students of an equivalent caliber (say engineering or science students) will exhibit far greater abilities in the above fields, all the while also participating in team sports and a social life, without having to lock themselves in their rooms for 10 hours a day.

Having been to China many times and worked with engineers there, my impression is that they still lag considerably in producing engineers that compare favorably to US ones, despite the fact that they may be better at math. And one should not expect otherwise; this sort of upbringing strategy is good at creating people who can quickly copy and adopt technologies and knowledge, but not create it. (and the same was true for Little Boris)

PS: And the kids are likely to grow up resenting both the parents and their professions, if they are forced so much.

 
At 1/10/2011 1:16 PM, Blogger morganovich said...

it seems to me that this is less about inevitable competition than attitude toward competition.

the chinese are just happier to compete, win or lose, and be ranked accordingly.

i see so many US schools now so worried about everybody's feelings and self esteem that they just will not allow competition for fear of damaging the kids.

this attempt to protect self esteem actually has precisely the opposite effect: why would anyone have any self esteem if they have never accomplished anything?

these kids wind up sheltered and coddled and totally unprepared for the very real competition they are going to face as adults.

 
At 1/10/2011 1:17 PM, Blogger Walt G. said...

juandos,

I think you are correct about Ms Chu’s message. I would explicitly add the mental ability to delay gratification and clearly written goals for the short-term and long-term future to your list of the attributes of highly successful people.

People who don’t know where they want to be often end up where they don’t want to be. I used to give that advice out for free, but now I get paid for it. Just like I planned.

 
At 1/10/2011 2:17 PM, Blogger PeakTrader said...

AIG, yes, many Asians are prepared to become excellent CPA accountants, but terrible musicians.

 
At 1/10/2011 2:27 PM, Blogger Benjamin said...

Economists hate to be reminded of it, but culture may play a larger role in determining a nation's economic success than the economic systems we like to blab about.

I contend that a socialist Sweden, in the frozen north, will have a higher living standard than a capitalist Nigeria, in tropical growing lands. Even if Nigeria has oil.

Why? Culture.

Honesty, a work ethic, a non-corrupt government. These things count.

China appears to have a great culture for economic advancement. In fact, they are controlled by the Communist Party, which owns the majority of voting shares in all publicly traded Chinese companies. Resources, macroeconomically speaking, are not necessarily allocated by the prcie system.

But, being Chinses, they will probably advance anyway.

BTW, studies have found that Head Start and other programs are just money sops for teachers' groups etc. The early training wears off after just a few years.

When I was young, it was optional to go to Kindergarden. Now they rant about Head Start.

I think we are driving children and parents crazy, and taking away childhoods to boot.

 
At 1/10/2011 3:31 PM, Blogger Rich B said...

According to wikipedia, "Amy Chua's parents were academics and members of the entrepreneurial Chinese ethnic minority in the Philippines before emigrating to the United States". They did not come from Mao's China, probably came to the US (er, Golden Mountain) for opportunity.

 
At 1/10/2011 3:43 PM, Blogger VangelV said...

...The question is why if Chinese moms are so much better at raising children did the modern world not arise there? Of course not all Chinese moms are like this - the ones here are selected.

It makes no difference how smart people are if power and decision making is concentrated in the hands of central planners. A group of average intelligence individuals that are free to make their own decisions and respond to signals provided by the unhampered market will do much better than a group that is managed by the smartest people on the planet who dictate to the market.

The only thing exceptional about the West was our decentralized power structure and our economic liberty. China never had much of that in its recent past so it was no surprise that it did so poorly in comparison. But now we have the West being more heavily regulated and less free while China is moving in the other direction. That is why some of the gap has closed. If the central planners in China go away it will surpass us but I doubt that is about to happen soon so expect China to struggle just as we will.

 
At 1/10/2011 3:56 PM, Blogger VangelV said...

I'm not sure the behaviors outlined in Ms. Chu's piece are necessarily benign. Certainly the arrogant attitude that attributes her kid's success to her heavy handed parenting is one I wouldn't want to develop in my kids.

Frankly, what matters is the achievement of the children. If they are well adjusted high performers her parenting worked. The kids should certainly be tougher than the typical peer, who was not exposed to as much pressure while growing up.

I don't think that lawyers are particularly empirical - I think they work with law and precedent and seek to marshal evidence that supports their case and exclude that which doesn't. Very Confucian, really.

I think that her looking around and paying attention to reality is a better approach than the empty theorizing of the cognitive science people. There is little doubt that people who work harder and practice more tend to learn more than their equally talented peers. If skills matter then that approach leads to more succes.

The US remains the creative engine of the world and that creativity has been led by people who disproportionately defied their parents wishes. Asian nations do conformity well - they import their innovation from us 'slackers'.

As I have stated in a number of posts, it isn't creativity of Americans but the American system of decentralization that is the driver. I suspect that in a decentralized system kids that have sound skill sets and good work habits will do better than kids who do not have the same skill sets or habits. Where I differ with her is the dilution of talent by trying to be the best at a wide range of subjects in a world that rewards greater specialization.

 
At 1/10/2011 3:59 PM, Blogger VangelV said...

I think Ms. Chu is telling us about how teaching children the upsides of dicipline, hard work, and the desire to compete turns children into successful adults...

I agree. It is clear that the kids learned early on that good habits and discipline will improve their chances of success.

 
At 1/10/2011 4:05 PM, Blogger VangelV said...

I agree with Darren's post. I am not Asian but I grew up in Singapore and I believe that the average Singaporean Chinese (not Malay) did marginally better than the similarly situated American academically. But I believe that is largely an artifact of the Singaporean (and in general the Asian) system of 'winner take all' and elite weaning in their schools.

I am sorry but the empirical data shows otherwise. Kids in Singapore outperform their American peers in Mathematics and Sciences.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trends_in_International_Mathematics_and_Science_Study

 
At 1/10/2011 4:24 PM, Blogger morganovich said...

the evidence is pretty overwhelming that the most influential variable in educational attainment is parental involvement and expectations. parents who demand that their kids do well in school tend to get kids that do well in school and those who do not do not.

i think we spend far too much time trying to spot the flaw in our educational system when the real issue is at home.

kids will live up or down to expectations.

 
At 1/10/2011 4:54 PM, OpenID Sprewell said...

Heh, my brother just sent me this link today, wondering if the whole essay was a joke. :) While Chua's defenders seem to think discipline is great, what they don't get is that discipline is only one component of future success. If you force your kids to go through the "Chinese Mother" routine, they may turn out to be very disciplined, if they don't rebel against it, but they will be lacking in all the other components, like the ability to interact with and read people, the ability to reason for themselves, etc. The ability to play an instrument is like the ability to shoe a horse: it has no utility yet these dummies force their kids to learn "discipline" with that particular useless skill.

Further, the problem with these overbearing parents is they're too fucking stupid to realize that most of what is taught in school these days is fairly useless. I knew one Asian mom who used to download arithmetic problems for her 10-year old to do at home, in addition to his schoolwork. While it was good that she was willing to spend the extra time to help/make him do it, that doesn't matter because she wasn't smart enough to realize that he would never use that skill as an adult, as he will inevitably have software or calculators do it for him. The reason why it's better your kids don't get straight A's in school is essentially Hayekian: the central planners who currently create the curriculum are too stupid to know what is actually worthwhile. Of course, the opposite extreme of letting your kids do whatever they want and praising them no matter what isn't much better, but one doesn't remedy a stupid extreme by swinging to another stupid extreme like Chua.

 
At 1/10/2011 5:06 PM, Blogger VangelV said...

this attempt to protect self esteem actually has precisely the opposite effect: why would anyone have any self esteem if they have never accomplished anything?

these kids wind up sheltered and coddled and totally unprepared for the very real competition they are going to face as adults.


This is what I am seeing. Many kids have never been exposed to criticism and are totally unprepared for a competitive world in which customers, coworkers, and bosses are very demanding and failure is common. The kid who had to work his/her butt off studying and has lost many competitions in life is used to failure because the As and the musical proficiency did not come without some hardship along the way. But a lifetime of overcoming difficulty makes these kids stay focused and disciplined, which is not what happens when kids have never been told that mediocrity is not good enough and that no trophies are awarded in life for just playing the game.

Of course, some kids who only study and choose not to interact with their peers can become functionally useful but social misfits. They tend to get middling jobs that require intelligence but few people skills and never tend to get anywhere.

But this is all generalizing. The point is that she chose to raise her kids a certain way and that the kids managed to do very well so far. They did great in school and seem to be high performers. That is not too bad.

 
At 1/10/2011 5:08 PM, Blogger AIG said...

Sweden is hardly "rich" as the result of its socialist culture, nor is Nigeria poor because of its "capitalist" system. Culture certainly plays a role in defining the level of centralization and individual decision making within a society.

This is precisely what China lacks, and why no amount of math aptitude is going to lead to better results than their mathematically-challenged US counterparts. Malay, Philipino, Singaporean, Hong Kong Chinese tend to do better than their mainland counterparts not because of math and science skills, but because of business smarts created in competitive decentralized cultures.

China is not going to overtake the US because of CCP efficiency or because a tiny percentage of its population has the resources to mold their kids through massive amounts of investment into tutors and time (while the majority have only access to basic education which in no means compares to US basic education). China may overtake the US, because it is setting itself for a cultural change.

Having experienced this sort of upbringing myself in Eastern Europe, I can say it is not the way to go. Little Boris didn't do much with his studies in Astrophysics or the violin. Nor did it matter that the 5-6 Chinese engineers answering to me were much better than me at math.

For Americans this may seem "new", and I'll agree that in recent time the focus of professional educators in the US is going in the wrong direction, and parental involvement is decreasing. This is not the same as saying that the Chinese model is preferable.

 
At 1/10/2011 5:14 PM, Blogger VangelV said...

If you force your kids to go through the "Chinese Mother" routine, they may turn out to be very disciplined, if they don't rebel against it, but they will be lacking in all the other components, like the ability to interact with and read people, the ability to reason for themselves, etc.

That does not have to be the case. Discipline and hard work does not have to mean anti-social behaviour or the inability to interact with people. We are not talking about mildly autistic kids who are really good at one thing but can't deal with people here. We are talking about normal kids who are disciplined and learned to work hard.

The ability to play an instrument is like the ability to shoe a horse: it has no utility yet these dummies force their kids to learn "discipline" with that particular useless skill.

This may or many not be true. While being married to a professional musician has made me see just how hard it is to make a living from music, there is nothing wrong with becoming a good musician and learning to enjoy music. The discipline and ability to work hard help in other aspects of life.

 
At 1/10/2011 5:19 PM, Blogger Bill Reeves said...

@VangeIV

There are over 1,000 empirical (refereed, double blind, statistically valid) studies on identical and fraternal twins raised separately that demonstrate that parenting style has a very modest (at best) impact on cognitive abilities and personality. See: Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate for a good summary.

Freakinomics also has a nice summary of what the the broadest national study of educational attainment ever done has to say. To summarize: WHO your parents are matters, not what they do (assuming middle class minimums). There really isn't much debate on this.

Re: Singapore: My experience said that Singaporean Chinese performed marginally better than similarly situated Americans in the early 70s. I stand by that assessment. I also pointed out that the differences are likely due to different systems (as well as different racial composition). Educational systems with 'winner take all' testing yield better results than ours. If your performance on an academic test in the 6th or 9th grade is going to determine your future career, of course you are going to cram for it.

Re: America's Decentralized culture: It is far more than simply decentralization that causes the differences between China or Japan and the US. Our cultural 'package' is different, yielding different outcomes on a whole range of items. But again, if Chinese moms and kids are so much better, then why isn't China?

 
At 1/10/2011 5:23 PM, Blogger Darren said...

It's a big assumption to assume that just because the Chinese focus of rote memorization now that a) it'll remain that way and b) that's incompatible with economic success.

a) There's a trend towards hiring Western-educated expats to head major start-ups. My dad is one of them. If 90% of the work is done by 10% of the people then only 10% need to be truly "smart" It's true, my dad will say that the Master's degrees given out are largely worthless. But the sheer volume of graduates and the ones from the best universities more than make up for it. Add to the fact that the Chinese government isn't restrained by politics and will probably be able to digest feedback and change its policy faster than we think.

b) How many of us really have jobs that require some extraordinary level of creativity anyways? Don't the majority of jobs involve some repetitive activity anyways? And here's another thing to wonder, if productivity increases in a logarithmic fashion, with basic education creating the largest gains in productivity, wouldn't basic math, language, and computer skills be the most useful, even if not directly applicable to everyone?

I do think that rote memorization tends to produce graduates who are mostly mechanical but I'm not sure its impact is overblown. After all, how many liberal arts degrees end up being a $200,000 waste of money and time?

 
At 1/10/2011 5:25 PM, Blogger Darren said...

"There are over 1,000 empirical (refereed, double blind, statistically valid) studies on identical and fraternal twins raised separately that demonstrate that parenting style has a very modest (at best) impact on cognitive abilities and personality."

Speaking from personal experience, I find this convincing. My parents were very hands-off with me, I'm an A student. My parents are very hands-on with my sister, shes a B- student.

I just don't think we have a very good idea of what constitutes "good" parenting, much less how to implement it.

 
At 1/10/2011 6:11 PM, Blogger Benjamin said...

Bill Reeves-

I agree with your statement about identical twins...and yet, something else must be at play rather than just genes. It must be culture.

Why do I say that?

Well, if you believe what you read, thousands of Romans used to go to the Coliseum to watch other human beings get slaughtered, and they roared approval.

The Europeans who came to the US used keep slaves, and offhandedly killed Native Americans.

Native Americans used to torture each other to death, and many whites they captured.

Japanese soldiers raped and killed their way across China.

Our genes have not changed that much.

Culture must be very important to a nation, and its economic progress.

 
At 1/10/2011 7:36 PM, Blogger Bill Reeves said...

In 1433 or so the Ming Dynasty banned overseas trade and exploration. To that point the Chinese were the greatest explorers and the richest most sophisticated society in the world. The ban largely succeeded because of the conformist nature of Chinese society. Japan successfully did the same thing about two centuries later. It is unimaginable that a European king would have wanted to much less succeeded in banning commerce with the outside world. So today the world speaks English, not Mandarin. Ms. Chua's heavy handed and controlling child rearing practices are part and parcel of the cultural conformism that stopped China from dominating the globe.

And now we are presented with the example of a small cohort of high functioning East Asians flourishing in a society that if they had been the founding majority would never have been created for them to flourish in.

So today one of their descendants lectures us about how her ancestral cultural practices are 'superior'. Rather obtuse don't you think?

 
At 1/10/2011 7:42 PM, Blogger morganovich said...

"Discipline and hard work does not have to mean anti-social behaviour or the inability to interact with people. We are not talking about mildly autistic kids who are really good at one thing but can't deal with people here. We are talking about normal kids who are disciplined and learned to work hard."

i agree with this completely. having discipline doesn't make you an automaton, it gives you more ability to bring intelligence and creativity to bear.

we prefer to hire people who have been serious athletes. in fact, every principal at my fund has been a top national or even world class athlete at some point. it's not that we care if they are big or fast, what we care about is that they competed hard and won building up confidence, work ethic, and emotional balance. if you had the personal drive to row in the national champion 8 boat, you have the drive to accomplish many things.

 
At 1/10/2011 7:58 PM, OpenID Sprewell said...

Vange and morganovich, you two need to learn how to read. Nobody said discipline precluded being social or original, in fact my whole point was that discipline was one component in the mix. And no, we weren't talking about "normal kids," I was talking about one particular high-discipline "Chinese Mother" approach, where kids aren't even allowed to watch TV or have sleepovers. I seriously doubt either of you raise your kids that way. As for hiring serious athletes for their drive, that strikes me as a suboptimal strategy, as most athletes tend to be fairly thick. This is because all that time in the pool renders them fairly ignorant or because most sports tend to attract such dullards in the first place. If you mean that you only hire people who are very intellectually accomplished who also happen to have some sports background, then it's the combination that really matters and at that point you're talking about such a select group that I would question its relevance to the general education issues we're talking about in this thread.

 
At 1/10/2011 8:28 PM, Blogger Bill Reeves said...

Benjamin: Thanks for the post and I agree. All of the twin studies were done WITHIN a culture, usually North American/English Speaking. Clearly if one twin had been raised by the Kalahari bush people and another by Hong Kong Chinese there would be huge differences due to CULTURE. But within a culture child rearing practices account for at best modest long term variation (and I would argue even that).

 
At 1/11/2011 2:53 AM, OpenID Sprewell said...

Heh, I wondered what others were saying about this crazy woman's essay and I have to say I was laughing out loud at the comments at this law blog. :) I'm glad most blogs aren't quite the free-for-all that one is, but some of those comments are pretty funny. :D

 
At 1/11/2011 9:54 AM, Blogger VangelV said...

Sweden is hardly "rich" as the result of its socialist culture, nor is Nigeria poor because of its "capitalist" system. Culture certainly plays a role in defining the level of centralization and individual decision making within a society.

Sweden has had no net job creation from the private sector over the past 60 years. It is not exactly a 'rich' country. That said, its industries pay very low corporate tax rates and are not subsidized so they have to work within a very competitive environment. That makes them very capable of competing on the global stage. The problem for working Swedes is that the welfare state that they 'enjoy' is paid out of their taxes. That is one reason why expat Swedes are the people to go if you want to understand how low tax jurisdictions work.

 
At 1/11/2011 10:02 AM, Blogger VangelV said...

There are over 1,000 empirical (refereed, double blind, statistically valid) studies on identical and fraternal twins raised separately that demonstrate that parenting style has a very modest (at best) impact on cognitive abilities and personality. See: Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate for a good summary.

Sorry but I see no studies that have looked closely enough at the Asian adoptions to reach any conclusions that might be considered valid. If you have any specific citations I would be glad to look at them.

Freakinomics also has a nice summary of what the the broadest national study of educational attainment ever done has to say. To summarize: WHO your parents are matters, not what they do (assuming middle class minimums). There really isn't much debate on this.

Again, I have not seen any conclusive evidence. Smart parents who work hard tend to have smart kids to work hard. Is it the genes or the working hard part that is important?

Then there are other factors. For example, it could be that the benefit associated from working harder and being exposed to more opportunity to learn is offset if the parents are too demanding and the child is not capable of meeting the expectations. If that is the case, the 'Chinese Mom Method' could be very valid but not work in many cases because it is executed poorly.

Re: Singapore: My experience said that Singaporean Chinese performed marginally better than similarly situated Americans in the early 70s. I stand by that assessment. I also pointed out that the differences are likely due to different systems (as well as different racial composition). Educational systems with 'winner take all' testing yield better results than ours. If your performance on an academic test in the 6th or 9th grade is going to determine your future career, of course you are going to cram for it.

The facts are clear. Today the kids in Singapore do much better than American counterparts. The reason is probably a simple one. The education system has been set up and encouraged by 'Chinese Mom Method' proponent Lee Kuan Yew.

 
At 1/11/2011 10:16 AM, Blogger VangelV said...

Re: America's Decentralized culture: It is far more than simply decentralization that causes the differences between China or Japan and the US. Our cultural 'package' is different, yielding different outcomes on a whole range of items. But again, if Chinese moms and kids are so much better, then why isn't China?

Your 'cultural package' was definitely shaped by decentralization. The US became great because government got out of the way and let individuals pursue their own interests and make their own decisions. The advances did not come from some super-educated elite but from millions of individuals doing what they thought best. Eventually, some person who is average in most respects but very disciplined and exceptional at one thing comes up with a discovery that makes him/her rich and the rest of us much better off. The current system of education is a barrier to that process because it suffers from the Procrustean (credit goes to N. Taleb for this insight) desire to fit everyone into a standard box because the people who run it cannot handle the distribution of needs among the student population and society in general.

Anyone who has been paying attention will realize that the reason why the Chinese, Indian, and other cultures where education is very important, have failed to do as well as the US was because of this approach. So why the hell is the US adopting it and abandoning what it made it so great when the other cultures seemed to have figured out part of it and are removing the restrictions that held them back?

 
At 1/11/2011 10:26 AM, Blogger VangelV said...

n 1433 or so the Ming Dynasty banned overseas trade and exploration. To that point the Chinese were the greatest explorers and the richest most sophisticated society in the world. The ban largely succeeded because of the conformist nature of Chinese society. Japan successfully did the same thing about two centuries later. It is unimaginable that a European king would have wanted to much less succeeded in banning commerce with the outside world.

But Europe had no king that unified it. It was a collection of small self governed areas that competed against each other. A stupid order in one area would have led to the merchants and other wealth creators moving elsewhere. That was not an option where the Emperor ruled all the known areas inside the fronteer.

But look at Europeans and Americans today and you see conformists who accept authority that their fathers would have rejected. They have given up on fighting for freedom and most accept what they have without question. Part of that acceptance comes from a state run education system that pushes for conformity of thought.

So today one of their descendants lectures us about how her ancestral cultural practices are 'superior'. Rather obtuse don't you think?

Not at all. They are superior. The problem that she does not see is that they need a system of liberty to show it. Because of the absence of liberty her ancestral land has under-performed.

 
At 1/11/2011 10:36 AM, Blogger VangelV said...

And no, we weren't talking about "normal kids," I was talking about one particular high-discipline "Chinese Mother" approach, where kids aren't even allowed to watch TV or have sleepovers. I seriously doubt either of you raise your kids that way.

My wife teaches the gu zheng, a 21 string instrument that is the ancestor of the zither family. As you can imagine, most of her students are Chinese girls. I really like most of her students. Almost all of them are well adjusted, very smart, and near the top of their class. Most of them do not go to sleepovers and do not watch TV during the school week. Most of them are in the advanced classes in their schools. And they are all driven, not because of their parents pressure but because they were taught how to work hard and achieve and like it.

Will these kids have problems in the future? Possibly. Some may be so driven that they cannot meet their own expectations. Some will find it hard to find husbands who are as accomplished, smart, and driven as they are. But I see no social misfits or loners. At the annual recital they are very polite and very sociable. They fit in with other kids but have no trouble in the company of adults where they can take part in conversations and debates that most kids would have trouble following.

I don't know what kind of exposure you have had to kids like the ones described in the article but mine have been extremely positive. I only wish that my kids were as disciplined and focused.

 
At 1/11/2011 11:59 AM, Blogger juandos said...

sprewell said: "I was talking about one particular high-discipline "Chinese Mother" approach, where kids aren't even allowed to watch TV or have sleepovers. I seriously doubt either of you raise your kids that way"...

Hmmm, I grew up in the fifites and the sixties

I didn't know anyone who were allowed sleep-overs in S. Texas at anytime and everyone I went to school with had parents very much like mine...

NO television on school nights unless it was the national nightly news...

Somewhere along the way between then and now parents lost their 'adult' way and it seems to me tried to become friends with their children instead of parents...

 
At 1/11/2011 2:23 PM, Blogger VangelV said...

As for hiring serious athletes for their drive, that strikes me as a suboptimal strategy, as most athletes tend to be fairly thick. This is because all that time in the pool renders them fairly ignorant or because most sports tend to attract such dullards in the first place. If you mean that you only hire people who are very intellectually accomplished who also happen to have some sports background, then it's the combination that really matters and at that point you're talking about such a select group that I would question its relevance to the general education issues we're talking about in this thread.

There are many very sharp athletes. It makes sense to hire them rather than non-athletes of the same intellect because of the discipline angle. If you were disciplined enough to get up at dawn every day to run, spend the time in the gym and watched your diet for weeks and weeks just to improve your time by a tenth of a second the employer is confident that you will put in the extra few hours of work that are required to get a job done and that you will do your best to be very competitive when required.

 
At 1/11/2011 5:05 PM, Blogger Doug said...

I'm just glad there are parents that still discipline their children, hold them accountable, and push them to do their very best. I am not Asian, but feel like we are not the typical Caucasian family with the expectations we have for our children. I expect them to play sports to learn to compete. I expect them to get good grade because they have the ability. I expected them to be accountable because we teach responsibility.

We have too many parents that make excuses for their children and coddle them to the point they will never be independent.

 
At 1/11/2011 8:52 PM, Blogger StVIS said...

"There are many very sharp athletes. It makes sense to hire them rather than non-athletes of the same intellect because of the discipline angle."

True to some degree but the "dumb jock" meme holds water too. Over 70% of NFL players experience financial difficulty or bankruptcy three years into retirement; I think the figure is over 60% of former NBA players who are five years or more into retirement.

I recall a very smart college football players during the '90s. He graduated school with high draft prospects, but he opted for medical school instead with the aim to become a brain surgeon.

 
At 1/11/2011 9:39 PM, Blogger VangelV said...

True to some degree but the "dumb jock" meme holds water too. Over 70% of NFL players experience financial difficulty or bankruptcy three years into retirement; I think the figure is over 60% of former NBA players who are five years or more into retirement.

It is true that most professional athletes can have problem with money because they got too much too quickly. But if you look at these players you will find that few actually took real courses and graduated. Those are not the kind of people that our friend's company would hire unless there was a specific PR purpose. It is more likely to hire the rugby player with the 3.95 GPA who also plays piano and is a math wizard. Or the Rhodes Scholar who managed to finish his degree in three years even though he was still playing at the highest level of competition. Or the Harvard hockey player who paid his own way with some financial aid and still managed to graduate with decent marks.

I recall a very smart college football players during the '90s. He graduated school with high draft prospects, but he opted for medical school instead with the aim to become a brain surgeon.

If he were capable of being the first pick in the draft he made a bad choice because he could opt out for med school later. But he probably made the right choice because the odds of being in the NFL are astronomical no matter how good he was in college. Did Andrew Luck make the right choice? Frankly, I think that he should have taken the cash now and worked to finish his degree later.

 
At 1/11/2011 10:26 PM, OpenID Sprewell said...

Vange, I suspect the main reason you like those Chinese kids is because they're docile, which is what most parents selfishly want from other peoples' kids, "seen and not heard." ;) Let me illustrate what these kids with overbearing parents turn into, with an example from my own college days. I had a freshman engineering exam where the professor, an entrepreneurial sort who's now the founder/CTO of a successful tech company, put in a question that depended on the same basic engineering principles we learnt in class, only it was used in a way that we hadn't encountered before, an application outside the ones we had done in class or homework. I saw this, thought it was clever that the prof was giving us something different, and got it right. I later overheard another kid in class- a very bright kid who had aced his classes at all levels, including at a very competitive science/math HS in a major metropolis- telling the prof after class that he had to give him full credit for that problem, presumably even though he got it wrong, since it wasn't an application we had gone over previously. Now this kid graduated 3 years later with the top GPA in our class for one of the toughest engineering majors at one of the top 5 schools, went on to a top 3 grad school, and is now director of research at a successful venture-funded science startup, so maybe he just had a brainfart at a young age for all we know, but I don't think that's it.

I diagnose it as what I see with many of these kids who ace their classes at all levels: they are merely regurgitating what they read, rather than gaining any real understanding and forming a real mental model of the material in their head. In fact, if they had any real understanding, they wouldn't bother with the material, because most of what is taught is crap: ideas that the innovators think up (they're usually derided in their own time and the ideas are only accepted after they've empirically proven to be useful), which the second-raters preserve whole, without knowing what's good and what isn't and adding some useless stuff themselves, and then handed over to the third-raters to teach. Anyone who excels in these school curricula is driven but not that smart. One smart investor once blogged that he looks for grad school dropouts in companies he invests in, as they've proven their native ability by getting to grad school but now realize it's a waste of time and go on to something better, like becoming entrepreneurs. :)

 
At 1/11/2011 10:31 PM, OpenID Sprewell said...

The fundamental issue is that discipline is one component in the recipe for success but it is only one component and when you stress discipline too much, like the Chinese mothers, you actually sacrifice other, more important components. It's the same with athletes. You only have so much time in the day and if you're spending a lot of it trying to get to a world-class level athletically, you just don't have time to compete with the brainiacs poring over their books/internet. If you hire people because of their drive for sports, you're basically saying you're too dumb to tell which of the brainiacs you interviewed had the most drive for the mental stuff, so you're going to hire people who obviously had the drive for sports, which can be easier to measure, and hope they can translate that athletic drive to more intellectual pursuits. Which is fine as long as you as a recruiter admit that's why you're doing it, because you are humble enough to admit that you're too dumb to tell who's smart so you're going to use other, weaker measures to at least hire someone with some proven drive, but please don't assert that that's a great indicator, because I guarantee it isn't. :)

 
At 1/11/2011 11:10 PM, Blogger VangelV said...

Vange, I suspect the main reason you like those Chinese kids is because they're docile, which is what most parents selfishly want from other peoples' kids, "seen and not heard." ;)

You don't know many Chinese kids, do you. While they may pay attention they are demanding, push back hard and are hardly docile.

 
At 1/11/2011 11:14 PM, Blogger VangelV said...

The fundamental issue is that discipline is one component in the recipe for success but it is only one component and when you stress discipline too much, like the Chinese mothers, you actually sacrifice other, more important components. It's the same with athletes. You only have so much time in the day and if you're spending a lot of it trying to get to a world-class level athletically, you just don't have time to compete with the brainiacs poring over their books/internet.

In the real world people who are good at many things but exceptional at nothing do not get paid as much as those that are mediocre at many things but the best at one thing.

I still like by Charles Oakley, Reggie Evans examples. What you have are two basketball players who can't create their own shot, can't shoot, can't score, and can't handle the ball. Yet they lasted a long time and got paid a lot of money. Why? The could go after the ball and rebound. They were exceptional at one skill among many needed for a team to succeed but that one skill was more than enough to have them paid at a much higher level than most of their peers.

 
At 1/12/2011 12:08 AM, OpenID Sprewell said...

Vange, glad to hear you agree with me that "well-rounded" athlete-scholars don't do that well. However, I disagree that jacks of all trades usually don't do as well: they usually do the best actually, as long as those disparate skills are actually relevant to their chosen profession, unlike useless athletic skills. So for example, Bill Gates is not the greatest technologist- his 90's book The Road Ahead is considered a joke these days- and I doubt he'd be that great an economist, especially considering how he apparently backs the income tax hikes in Washington state. However, he was the one guy who combined tech and economic/business knowledge the best in the software field, though perhaps also with a cutthroat drive and willingness to edge into legal grey areas to get what he wants. ;) Regardless, the billionaires are the exceptions, so it's tough to draw any conclusions for the general populace from them, but I do think it's a big mistake that we force kids to get a "well-rounded" education in school/college these days, no matter how good we may think it may be for them, because there are many kids who just have their own specific interests and that's it. How many potentially great engineers have we lost by forcing them to take English classes? They'd be much better off with an ala carte approach, which will soon be offered online, rather than the make-work, full employment curriculum the teachers' unions have pushed on kids today.

As for your bball example, Oak was actually a double-digit NBA scorer for most of his career, so he wasn't quite as one-dimensional as you make him out to be. In fact, that's why he got double the minutes on the floor through the first 10 years of his career as Reggie Evans did, because you just can't keep guys who can only rebound on the floor for long in the extremely competitive NBA. So while I agree with your broader point that it's better to help normal kids find their one special aptitude, your NBA example doesn't actually make that point very well, because you can't generalize very well to normal people from such a select group as the NBA.

 
At 1/12/2011 8:12 PM, Blogger aorod said...

Asians like music, math and science. There is only one correct note, one correct answer to a math problem, and one correct result for an experiment. There is no subjective judgment involved. It is much easier for immigrants to find success in a strange country in these areas. This is very important to immigrants with an inferiority complex and the need to feel superior. Their discipline is more like dictatorship, which is what they are familiar with. They have few composers, few conceptualists and few imaginers in the Asian way of life. Tradition is a moral force. Modern Asian literature is filled with rebellion and the desire to escape the Asian morass. It has taken them thousands of years to even imagine a concept like democracy, which developed in the West 2,500 years ago.

 
At 1/12/2011 11:08 PM, Blogger VangelV said...

This is very important to immigrants with an inferiority complex and the need to feel superior.

Amy Chua is a law professor at Yale. I doubt that she suffers from an inferiority complex.

They have few composers, few conceptualists and few imaginers in the Asian way of life.

That is not true. There are many composers and many 'conceptualists' trying to figure out ways to get ahead.

Modern Asian literature is filled with rebellion and the desire to escape the Asian morass.

Modern American literature is also filled with rebellion and the desire to escape the American morass.

 
At 1/13/2011 4:50 AM, OpenID Sprewell said...

Vange, glad to hear you agree with me that "well-rounded" athlete-scholars don't do that well. However, I disagree that jacks of all trades usually don't do as well: they usually do the best actually, as long as those disparate skills are actually relevant to their chosen profession, unlike useless athletic skills. So for example, Bill Gates is not the greatest technologist- his 90's book The Road Ahead is considered a joke these days- and I doubt he'd be that great an economist, especially considering how he apparently backs the income tax hikes in Washington state. However, he was the one guy who combined tech and economic/business knowledge the best in the software field, though perhaps also with a cutthroat drive and willingness to edge into legal grey areas to get what he wants. ;) Regardless, the billionaires are the exceptions, so it's tough to draw any conclusions for the general populace from them, but I do think it's a big mistake that we force kids to get a "well-rounded" education in school/college these days, no matter how good we may think it may be for them, because there are many kids who just have their own specific interests and that's it. How many potentially great engineers have we lost by forcing them to take English classes? They'd be much better off with an ala carte approach, which will soon be offered online, rather than the make-work, full employment curriculum the teachers' unions have pushed on kids today.

As for your bball example, Oak was actually a double-digit NBA scorer for most of his career, so he wasn't quite as one-dimensional as you make him out to be. In fact, that's why he got double the minutes on the floor through the first 10 years of his career as Reggie Evans did, because you just can't keep guys who can only rebound on the floor for long in the extremely competitive NBA. So while I agree with your broader point that it's better to help normal kids find their one special aptitude, your NBA example doesn't actually make that point very well, because you can't generalize very well to normal people from such a select group as the NBA.

 
At 1/13/2011 4:50 AM, OpenID Sprewell said...

Vange, glad to hear you agree with me that "well-rounded" athlete-scholars don't do that well. However, I disagree that jacks of all trades usually don't do as well: they usually do the best actually, as long as those disparate skills are actually relevant to their chosen profession, unlike useless athletic skills. So for example, Bill Gates is not the greatest technologist- his 90's book The Road Ahead is considered a joke these days- and I doubt he'd be that great an economist, especially considering how he apparently backs the income tax hikes in Washington state. However, he was the one guy who combined tech and economic/business knowledge the best in the software field, though perhaps also with a cutthroat drive and willingness to edge into legal grey areas to get what he wants. ;) Regardless, the billionaires are the exceptions, so it's tough to draw any conclusions for the general populace from them, but I do think it's a big mistake that we force kids to get a "well-rounded" education in school/college these days, no matter how good we may think it may be for them, because there are many kids who just have their own specific interests and that's it. How many potentially great engineers have we lost by forcing them to take English classes? They'd be much better off with an ala carte approach, which will soon be offered online, rather than the make-work, full employment curriculum the teachers' unions have pushed on kids today.

 
At 1/13/2011 4:50 AM, OpenID Sprewell said...

As for your bball example, Oak was actually a double-digit NBA scorer for most of his career, so he wasn't quite as one-dimensional as you make him out to be. In fact, that's why he got double the minutes on the floor through the first 10 years of his career as Reggie Evans did, because you just can't keep guys who can only rebound on the floor for long in the extremely competitive NBA. So while I agree with your broader point that it's better to help normal kids find their one special aptitude, your NBA example doesn't actually make that point very well, because you can't generalize very well to normal people from such a select group as the NBA.

 
At 1/13/2011 5:42 PM, Blogger mjb said...

Doesn't this descend into child abuse if the number of "Chinese students" (according to her definition) in a given class is greater than 1?

 
At 1/13/2011 7:17 PM, Blogger James said...

Vivek Wadhwa has a surprising rebuttal in an article titled “U.S. Schools are Still Ahead – Way Ahead” at

http://www.businessweek.com/technology/content/jan2011/tc20110112_006501.htm

I say surprising because he is famous for advocating the outsourcing of tech jobs (the jobs we were supposed to keep in a free trade world) to India and the insourcing of Indian STEM workers to the USA. He observes these things about American students:

The independence and social skills American children develop give them a huge advantage when they join the workforce.

They [Americans] learn to experiment, challenge norms, and take risks.

They [Americans] can think for themselves, and they can innovate.


Of engineers in China and his native India his research says:

The quality of these engineers, however, is so poor that most are not fit to work as engineers; their system of rote learning handicaps those who do get jobs, so it takes two to three years for them to achieve the same productivity as fresh American graduates.

Having worked with Indian programmers I would take issue with him about Indians achieving the same productivity as Americans in two to three years. It takes a lot longer than that if it is achieved at all.

A more detailed version of what Wadhaw is saying is a 2001 article by David Berliner titled “Our Schools vs. Theirs: Averages That Hide The True Extremes” at

http://nepc.colorado.edu/files/cerai-01-02.htm

I like this article because Berliner looks behind the headline numbers and comes to a very different conclusion.

Examples:

But only one nation, Singapore, scored above Colorado, Connecticut, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oregon, Utah, Vermont, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

Average scores mislead completely in a country as heterogeneous as ours. We have many excellent public schools, and many that are not nearly as good. Those who want to undermine our public schools often condemn the whole system rather than face the inequities within it.

Public educational systems are denying quality education to some American citizens, and these are usually poor children, often minorities. Public schools still succeed amazingly well for children in neighborhoods where livable wages are earned, decent housing and health care are available, and crime and drug abuse are not everyday problems.

 
At 1/13/2011 8:59 PM, Blogger VangelV said...

Average scores mislead completely in a country as heterogeneous as ours. We have many excellent public schools, and many that are not nearly as good. Those who want to undermine our public schools often condemn the whole system rather than face the inequities within it.

That is because the system is broken. The US spends a great deal more than most other nations and does not get nearly enough in return for that expenditure. Other countries have systems where the kids' parents have more of a say in the quality of education and funding that goes with the child, not the school. As such, the bad schools are forced to change or close. That does not happen in the US where the unions tend to run the show in many areas, particularly those that are densely populated and have a wide variety of students.

Public educational systems are denying quality education to some American citizens, and these are usually poor children, often minorities. Public schools still succeed amazingly well for children in neighborhoods where livable wages are earned, decent housing and health care are available, and crime and drug abuse are not everyday problems.

I like his optimism but I do not see the evidence for this. The universities are still getting kids from supposedly good schools who have trouble communicating, have poor math skills, and can't think very clearly. I believe that the statistics that I saw showed that home schooled kids scored better than 79% of kids from the public schools in reading and 73% better in math.

 
At 1/14/2011 1:53 PM, Blogger VangelV said...

Vange, glad to hear you agree with me that "well-rounded" athlete-scholars don't do that well.

Either I was not being clear or you don't read carefully enough. Probably the latter.

However, I disagree that jacks of all trades usually don't do as well: they usually do the best actually, as long as those disparate skills are actually relevant to their chosen profession, unlike useless athletic skills.

I disagree. Most successful people are exceptional at one thing and that is how they make money. James Cameron may be a total idiot but he is a great filmmaker. Michael Jackson may not have been good at many things but he did not have to be because he got paid to be great at music and performing.

So for example, Bill Gates is not the greatest technologist- his 90's book The Road Ahead is considered a joke these days- and I doubt he'd be that great an economist, especially considering how he apparently backs the income tax hikes in Washington state.

Bill Gates did not make his money because he was a great programmer. He made his money because he was focused on the business side of the PC sector and figured out a way to get paid for it. He does not know much about economics but neither does Buffett or other very rich people. All they have to know is their skill set and apply it effectively.

 
At 1/14/2011 5:01 PM, OpenID Sprewell said...

Vange, you said "people who are good at many things but exceptional at nothing do not get paid as much" so I agreed with you that "well-rounded" athlete-scholars, who perfectly fit that description (it's hilarious how you keep accusing others of mistakes, yet you're the only one making those same mistakes :D ), don't do that well. But that's because they did well at school and sports, two areas that mostly don't translate to the real world. And I agree with you that for normal people, it's better that they specialize in something like welding or computer programming, rather than wasting time forcing them to take English or Political Science classes to "round" themselves out. However, you're dead wrong when you extend this basic insight to the select group of the NBA or the billionaires club, as those people are usually there because they have multiple useful skills.

While there are a few millionaires who only do one thing, say a singer like Mariah Carey who can hit high notes that nobody else can, the Richie Rich club is dominated by people who do many things well, as such combos are rare and very valuable. James Cameron is not a great filmmaker: he's an action writer-director who is very adept at tech and special-effects driven films that will sell well, a very rare combo. Look at his imdb profile and all the disparate categories, like writing or editing, that he has credits in, he is most certainly a jack of all trades within the filmmaking profession. Similarly, Michael Jackson got paid a ton not because he was the best singer, but because he wrote his own songs, was a very good dancer, and could sing well, a rare combination of valuable skills. It is hilarious how your own examples constantly contradict your own thesis, :) exhibiting how your understanding of these issues is fairly superficial.

 
At 1/14/2011 5:01 PM, OpenID Sprewell said...

I agree that Bill Gates didn't make his money because he was a great programmer, but what you seem to miss is that he wouldn't have made his billions if he hadn't been a great programmer. It is the combination of his programming skills and business ability that made him so good, either skill alone and he might be just another anonymous businessman. Look at his partner Ballmer and how Microsoft is going down under his watch: even though I will attest that Ballmer is a very smart guy, I speculate that it's his lack of tech ability that hamstrings him. It is clear that you are completely out of your depth on these issues, as your own "examples" consistently contradict the point you're trying to make, :) so I'll leave this laughably one-sided debate here.

 
At 1/14/2011 7:07 PM, Blogger VangelV said...

As for your bball example, Oak was actually a double-digit NBA scorer for most of his career

, so he wasn't quite as one-dimensional as you make him out to be. In fact, that's why he got double the minutes on the floor through the first 10 years of his career as Reggie Evans did

, because you just can't keep guys who can only rebound on the floor for long in the extremely competitive NBA. So while I agree with your broader point that it's better to help normal kids find their one special aptitude, your NBA example doesn't actually make that point very well, because you can't generalize very well to normal people from such a select group as the NBA.


Actually, the NBA is a perfect example of what I am talking about because people with one skill tend to get paid very well and last a long time while well rounded players who are not exceptional at any one particular skills do not last very long. Oakley agreed because he has been telling kids the same thing for years. I remember him talking about how scoring was an afterthought most of the time and how half his points were scored off offensive rebounds or by picking up a loose ball near the basket.

We see the same thing in baseball, football, hockey, or any sport you want to look at. The players who are exceptional at one thing tend to last for much longer than the average and get paid a lot more than the average even when they are below average at many of the skills valued in the sport.

The same is true in law, medicine, engineering, sales, programming, acting, etc.

 
At 1/14/2011 10:29 PM, Blogger VangelV said...

I agree that Bill Gates didn't make his money because he was a great programmer, but what you seem to miss is that he wouldn't have made his billions if he hadn't been a great programmer.

Not true. Gates made his money by purchasing the MS-DOS from another company and by the shrewd deal he made with IBM, whose management did not understand the business model well. Once Microsoft became the leader and had an established customer base it was protected from competition and the rest was history. The Apple people had a much better operating system but they screwed up and MSFT became much bigger than it would have otherwise been.

 

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