The Mythical Chinese Mother: Parenting or Child Abuse?

I was reading Paul Buchheit’s article”>The Two Paths to Success about the article ”>Are Chinese Mothers Superior? and ended up writing a comment so long it mutated into a blog post.

I think Paul makes a great point and kids that find their own way will be infinitely more happy to be in complete control of their destiny while excelling at their chosen calling. These are the ones that have a chance to be the next Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, Larry Page, or Sergey Brin.

Mostly throughout history the creation of geniuses has been left to a series of happy accidents. Taking a systematic approach doesn’t necessarily create more geniuses. We all no that there is an unbreachable gulf between true geniuses and merely brilliant people. This is why environment can only go so far as you approach the limits of nature.

For most of written history, East Asia more or less took a rigid, factory approach to higher education. During the dynastic period of China, civil service exams characterized by memorization of ancient philosophical texts and the ability to compose poems in the classic style were what got you a job of power, riches and prestige for life. Reverence of your teacher was absolute. Countries like Korea and Japan more or less imported this style of education.

It’s no surprise that Asia got a rude wake up call when Western countries arrived on boats strapped with big guns, with superiority in every aspect of technology. You can’t advance knowledge without questioning your predecessors and going beyond your teachers. Once Asian countries realized that they were studying the wrong books, they certainly caught up fast but it’s wasn’t until the 20th century that Asia finally hit their stride, this time with Japan providing an educational model characterized by cram schools and rigorous college entrance exams (and also crazier civil service exams).

The greatest problem about this “Chinese parenting” style is that they’re equating parenting with a Spartan regimen of self-improvement forced on children. Naturally there are going to be children who are maxed out in terms of potential but are never going to realize the dreams and expectations of parents being forced on them. There are going to be children burnt out before they even leave high school. Brilliant people who struggle with psychiatric issues because they were brought up intellectually or artistically brilliant but stunted emotionally.

However, taking a systematic approach to training kids will naturally produce a more well-educated society. However, if you look at Japan, this approach is not bullet-proof and only works to a certain extent.

Japan as Number One

Post-war Japan’s rapid economic rise is just as much a triumph of the educational system. Even today, the population is highly literate and you’ll find much more people reading books on the trains (not just sleeping in public). Many children are raised to equate academic success with happiness and academic performance doesn’t make you an outcast or freak like many typical American schools (of course, the superior private schools suffer to a lesser extent). At one point during Japan’s history, mainly at the height of economic growth, academic competitiveness created a social problem of epic proportions as kids were trapped in a vicious cycle where you had to sacrifice all social and extracurricular activities, go to cram school after school, and memorize esoteric historical dates and facts, in addition to solve differential and integrals equations regardless of if you knew what any of it meant. Also, kids were forced to learn broken English from teachers who couldn’t communicate in English if their life depended on it and conjugate verbs and learn the meaning of various words that would appear on college entrance exams.

There was a noticeable backlash and textbooks were dumbed down but everything pretty much the same. Ironically, it also coincided with Japan’s economic decline. Sadly, it never occurred to the Ministry of Education, that as Japan reached economic maturity they needed to raise the quality of education rather than making the learning material easier as fertility rates dropped and politicians continued to mismanage the economy. Japan was long past the point where success could be measured in literate workforce willing to work long hours doing inefficient and repetitive work just like their student days.

Although the typical Japanese person, even with today’s declined standards, is relatively well-educated on average, Japan is currently suffering from “herbivores”, young people who have no direction or ambition. Of course, it comes as no surprise that several generations of absent fathers “willing to sacrifice their family for the sake of a company that’s tanking along with the rest of economy and all I got was this lousy house loan on a rabbit shack apartment” doesn’t exactly inspire children to rise to the task. The problem is that as the population declines and the economy continues to fall apart (even more under the incompetent new government), Japan is left with an over-supply of educational institutions. The country is rapidly approaching the point where anyone can advance to college just by graduating high school. You can be sure that standards will decline as third-rate colleges welcome students that would normally be considered dropouts for their own survival.

Despite decades of economic growth and high education standards (if we speak of averages), the flaws of the Japanese approach to education is none the more apparent in the way it has fallen apart much like the economy (There aren’t that many Japanese Nobel laureates despite the emphasis on math and science in the post war era. Also, a significant number of the laureates did their defining research in the states and continue to do so). It simply doesn’t work to mass produce education as industrialized nations transition to a knowledge, service economy.

Here Come the Koreans and Chinese

As Japan falls back, other Asian countries, are rising and many of these countries used the Japanese model as a point of departure when Japan was actually successful, including the education system. Now Japan provides an interesting case study as a train wreck that’s even more valuable so that they can avoid making similar mistakes.

It’s hard to deny that countries such as Korea and China are not only surpassing Japan but well on their way to leaving Japan very far behind. China is already the number two economy and will probably pass the United States in the next few years. Korean electronics are cutting edge and much more innovative and cheaper than Japan. Samsung surpassed Sony a long time ago and continues to grow.

Education in Korea and China is highly competitive and if standardized tests are to be believed, Shanghai is the world’s most competitive in terms of education.

There is no doubt that taking a systematic approach to education will produce results at the aggregate level. Despite the fact that Western educators have consistently criticized “rote memory” education as ineffective, they lose sight of the fact that for average students, this approach is be best for maximizing their potential. The problem is with elite education.

I don’t think Shanghai or any other Asian city (including India) will unseat American colleges as the center of learning any time soon (although eventually, America’s post 9/11 policies and declining education system will finish the job). There needs to be more freedom and intellectual initiative to really produce and attract the geniuses.

Smart people tend to flock to where other smart people are. Countries such as Germany and Hungary experience first-hand how delicate the balance is when they lost many of their most promising scientists when they started to pursue racist policies during World War II. Right now America is where you will find the best combination of quality academics, ample funding, and the closest thing to complete intellectual freedom that any smart person will find hard to resist. It remains to be seen if China and Korea can combine the best of “Chinese mothers” and the Western style.