Education Debate reaches Cosmic Dimensions

To parents, the question how their children will fare in life isn’t a trifle. But that alone doesn’t explain why Amy Chua (蔡美儿, Cài Měier), a Yale Law School professor and the child of ethnic Chinese migrants from the Philippines, has become a big topic in the international media. Chua related the recipes of her success as a mother to the readers of the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), and the gist of it is that her two daughters, Sophia and Louisa, were never allowed to

• 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.

Big deal. I know a number of children – mostly either from very religious families or children of academics – who are educated in similar ways here in Germany. Sometimes it seems to work, sometimes it doesn’t. When it does, the results are often remarkable. When it doesn’t, the results are sometimes disastrous. Education, in Germany, is similar to soccer. Every idiot has an “opinion” about it. Everywhere else, too, I guess. After all, we all once attended school.

I’m sure there are hundreds of thousands, if not millions of parents in America whose “recipes to success” look very similar to Mrs Chua’s. That isn’t necessarily good. And it isn’t necessarily bad. The results depend on the children, and on their parents.

A blogger named Lloyd Lofthouse who taught English, journalism and reading in the American public schools from 1975 to 2005 and experienced the decline of the American family while working 60 to 100 hours a week teaching, writing lesson plans and correcting the work his students turned in, blames the Self-esteem Arm of Political Correctness (SAP) for the problems of education in America.

In America, any semblance of a parent’s freedom of choice of how to raise a child all but vanished starting in the 1960s when the Self-esteem Arm of Political Correctness (SAP) became the only acceptable way to act, think, and speak as a parent.

Parents that deviated from the self-esteem model were driven underground and Chua was perceptive enough to see that.

Amy Chua herself describes how tough she is or was as a mother, and explains what Lofthouse refers to as the SAP concept as follows:

First, I’ve noticed that 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.

For example, if a child comes home with an A-minus on a test, a Western parent will most likely praise the child. The Chinese mother will gasp in horror and ask what went wrong. If the child comes home with a B on the test, some Western parents will still praise the child. Other Western parents will sit their child down and express disapproval, but they will be careful not to make their child feel inadequate or insecure, and they will not call their child “stupid,” “worthless” or “a disgrace.” Privately, the Western parents may worry that their child does not test well or have aptitude in the subject or that there is something wrong with the curriculum and possibly the whole school. If the child’s grades do not improve, they may eventually schedule a meeting with the school principal to challenge the way the subject is being taught or to call into question the teacher’s credentials.

Mr Lofthouse used to be a teacher. No wonder that Mrs Chua’s remarks struck a chord when he read them. But if all parents had subscribed to SAP while he was a teacher, Lofthouse would probably have worked 120 hours a week, and suffered a nervous breakdown or a fatal heart attack long before 2005. Or the parents would have had a word with the school principal, and have Mr Lofthouse fired.

The whole issue isn’t discussed in a way now that would benefit education, be it at home, be it in school. The “Chinese mothers are superior” theme is catchy, but it’s a sham package. Amy Chua herself points that out within the first paragraphs of her controversial article (even if only reluctantly):

I’m using the term “Chinese mother” loosely. I know some Korean, Indian, Jamaican, Irish and Ghanaian parents who qualify too. Conversely, I know some mothers of Chinese heritage, almost always born in the West, who are not Chinese mothers, by choice or otherwise. I’m also using the term “Western parents” loosely. Western parents come in all varieties.

But with the choice of the title of it, she has awarded her case all the makings of a bestseller. It’s president Obama’s sputnik moment in the field of education (and the public atmosphere that surrounds it), and therefore, it resonates with the public more, than if she had simply written a book of educational advice.

And that’s the problem. Issues of education, the question what kind of life a child should live, are not only a matter of ideology here (that’s unfortunatle, too, but normal anyway), but it has become a matter of global politics. This isn’t what Chua necessarily wants to happen, to be clear. She makes it very clear that achievement is good for a child as an individual. But it was foreseeable that the issue of how children could become beneficiaries of their own efforts wouldn’t become the focus of the debate. It’s  “America’s decline” or “China’s rise”.

That’s not only unfair to a child. It’s also unpractical.

Children aren’t raw material, or just different slices from the same batch of material. The “tough love” Chua preaches can have different effects on different children. Some will indeed never doubt that their parents love them after all, however tough the love may be. But others will.

Parents aren’t all the same either. Some may be sensitive and intelligent enough to soften or change their demands on their child, once their approach becomes destructive. But others won’t.

Yangcheng Evening Post (羊城晚报, Guangdong Province) took a more sober look at the issue a few days ago than Chua, her intercessors, or her opponents, even if not without some noticeable pride in the “Chinese (education) model” and its sudden relevance in America.  The paper ends its article by quoting Chen Kai (陈凯), an associate professor at the China University of Communication, who suggests that a synthesis of the two approaches of “too much criticism” and “too much praise (“批评太多”,一个是“表扬太多”) could be the most promising way.

Radicalism is no good when it comes to education. Debates beside the actual issue – the children – isn’t helpful either.


Why should young Children Learn Mandarin, July 2, 2009

Update / Related
[Jan. 30, 2011] “Empower, don’t enslave them”, Tina Tsai, January 13, 2011

[April 8, 2011] The link behind Tina Tsai’s link currently leads to a (justified or not) “attack-page” warning  –


3 Responses to “Education Debate reaches Cosmic Dimensions”

  1. You quoted me correctly. Thank you. You were also correct that not all of my students were raised by parents that I call SAPs or I would have been burned out for sure. I came close a few times but the Winter Break of Summer usually saved me for the next rough of the fight.

    I also said in another piece, that according to reputable studies that the average or common parent in America was a SAP, which means there are students at either end of the scale that were not raised by SAPS. Some were exceptional and some belonged to street gangs. I even taught shooters or what we refer to as “hit men” but they were “hit kids”. The youngest was 13 with about a dozen kills of rival gang members.

    Every class in taught had a few exceptional students that were raised by Tough Love parents. These parents were often among the few that attended parent conferences. I taught more than 200 students a semester but fewer than thirty came to parent conference nights. Most of those thirty had teens earning As and Bs.

    My best years were when I taught Journalism, which was the class of students that produced the monthly high school newspaper. Most had no passion for journalism. They were there to improve their writing skills and add Journalism to their record as a way to help them be accepted to a top university.

    Most of the journalism students had high GPAs and went onto universities such as UCLA and Stanford.

    I still know teachers I worked with and I’m hearing that it is worse now five years after I left. One friend that still teaches high school English says to measure up and improve the schools API score is so intense, that he doesn’t have enough time to correct the student work and must hire a retired teacher at $25 an hour to correct the work for him while he spends most of his time in parent conferences attempting to get these SAP parents to cooperate when it comes to monitoring homework and reading assignments at night.

    He told me that he has changed his retirement plans. AT first, he planned to teach until he was 65. Now he will stay until he is 55 and if he has to find other work after he retires. When you retire at 55, your retirement pay from CALstrs is reduced. He would earn more if he taught ten more years to 65.

    In fact, it is well documented that half of the new teacher entering the profession leave within three years without ever returning to education.

    They arrived full of enthusiasm and idealism and left burned, angry and frustrated.

    The pressure was too much. While I was still in the classroom, the record for leaving teaching was half a day. At the lunch break of his first day in the classroom, this new teacher walked into the principal’s office, threw his class keys on the desk and quit.

    Lloyd Lofthouse


  2. And thank you for commenting! From my own observation, I’d say that a majority of parents here would tend to be “SAP, and quite many like to question that the performance of their children should be rated at all. That, however, hasn’t taken the shape of an ideological movement (yet), and is therefore not very articulate. It expresses itself in an inclination to question every move teachers may make – in teaching or rating. Which is, of course, a fatiguing business for everyone involved.

    The strange thing is that the same parents often do good jobs themselves, in their breadwinning professions, but don’t seem to see that once their kids start a professional training, or academic studies, they will meet the big, bad world anyway, and that quarreling with bosses or professors will lead nowhere, apart from the exit.



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