Academic behind Tiger Mom phenomenon takes on ethnicity and success

AMY Chua gave us Tiger Moms. Now she's written a book on why some ethnic groups are more successful than others. And it's not about valuing education.

Academic and author, Amy Chua.
Picture: Supplied Source: NewsComAu
MANY people first learned about Amy Chua, a law professor at Yale University, from her 2011 op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, which ran with the headline "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior."

In the piece, she argued that Chinese parents were doing their children a favour by demanding straight As and unquestioning respect for elders. If that means calling children "garbage," as she was called by her father and as she called a daughter who was misbehaving, so be it. The offspring of these families are succeeding while lenient, self-esteem obsessed Western parents are letting their children fall behind, she wrote. Chua's op-ed drew attention and prompted numerous kitchen table and pundit debates about her book - Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother - from which the Journal's article was excerpted.

The Tiger Mom professor is back - this time with her husband, Jed Rubenfeld, also a Yale law professor - with a new book, The Triple Package that combines discussion of race, ethnicity, success and education in ways that ignited debate even before its official release. The "package" refers to "three unlikely traits" that Chua and Rubenfeld argue "explain the rise and fall of cultural groups in America."

Academic success features prominently in the book, but the authors reject the idea that the success of some groups, such as Asian Americans and Jews, can be explained by an "education culture" embraced over the generations. They note that Mormons - one of the groups they identify as having success -- "remained relatively closed to intellectual and scientific authority" for much of the 20th century. And while Jews have achieved considerable academic and other success in the US, many of the Jewish immigrants who arrived at Ellis Island a century ago "were barely schooled, having lived most of their lives in shtetls or ghettos in extreme poverty".

It's not that groups that succeed haven't come to value education, the authors say. It's that there are underlying traits that lead them to do so - and to find success. Those three traits are a feeling of superiority, a simultaneous feeling of insecurity, and impulse control. The groups that Chua and Rubenfeld identify as having these traits include the predictable (Asian Americans and Jews) but also Mormons and subsets of black and Latino Americans (black immigrants from Africa, and the early Cuban immigrants and their children), among others.

The book is mix of statistics about the success of various groups and of analysis of the way those groups are associated with the traits the authors see as crucial. The statistics include figures that cause discomfort in many educational circles. For example, the authors look at a recent class of admits to Stuyvesant High School, a New York City public high school for which admissions are based solely on test scores.

Admitted in 2013: 9 black students, 24 Latino students, 177 white students and 620 Asian American students. (Asian-American students make up about 16 per cent of the New York City public school system). The authors are quick to acknowledge that there are plenty of Asian-American families in the US today that have achieved the kind of economic success that provides an edge on test scores. But they use zip code analysis to show that large numbers of the Asian Americans winning entry to Stuyvesant aren't from wealthy families.

The book goes on to link the success to various traits, and especially the combination of superiority (think "chosen people" for Jews, or the extent to which many immigrant groups are told they must succeed for the good of their entire people) with inferiority (realising other groups may look down on them, and being told by parents that 98 on a test is a failure if someone else earned 100). It is the combination of these qualities that spurs success, the authors write. Traditional American Protestant elites may have felt superior, but never insecure, they suggest.

One piece of evidence: A study of freshmen at 28 elite American colleges and universities in which Asian-American students earned the highest grades and entered with the highest SAT scores, but had the lowest self-esteem scores of all ethnic and racial groups. These students are being pushed to succeed, but aren't being told that they are perfect. It's the opposite of the "trophy for everyone" approach to much of American child-rearing.

And as for impulse control - the other trait - the authors here in essence encourage Tiger Parenting, in which children are taught to study and study some more, are closely supervised, and are told to avoid wasting time on anything not promoting learning.

Perhaps responding to some of the criticism of the Tiger Mother book, the authors freely admit that there is an "underside" to being raised as a "triple package" child. They note the guilt and neuroticism that can be created by such an upbringing, quoting the Jewish joke that "5 per cent of Jews are mildly depressed. [pause] The rest are basket cases."

Chua and Rubenfeld also note that the package may be better for some careers and lives than others. "Triple Package cultures tend to channel people into conventional, materialistic careers," they write. "This is a direct result of the insecurity that drives them. The 'chip on the shoulder,' the need to show the world or prove yourself - these typical Triple Package anxieties tend to make people crave obvious tokens of success such as top grades, merit badges, high salaries, luxury cars and 'respectable' careers."

- theaustralian.com.au


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