Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Kids Are Not Alright

Now is the time when the world’s movers and shakers, the global economic elite, descend on a sleepy Swiss town called Davos.

Ostensibly, they are participating in the World Economic Forum, but clearly they are there to network. Both with their fellow world leaders and with prospective clients. One world leader told Andrew Ross Sorkin that Davos was “like freebasing clients.“

Clearly, Davos targets people for whom Facebook and Linkedin are not enough.

Anyway, George Soros is there to talk about the future of the Euro. Jamie Dimon is there defending the banking industry. French president Sarkozy is there discussing the G20.

Oh, and by the way, Harvard Professor and former high government official, Larry Summers, is there debating with… you’ll never guess… Prof. Amy Chua, the Tiger Mom, herself. Link here.

To his credit, Summers summed up the dispute over the Tiger Mom clearly and directly: “I think you have to decide whether achievement is the route to self-esteem or whether self-esteem is the route to achievement. I think you guys think self-esteem is the route to achievement, and I think you’re wrong.”

Given that this echoes my own view of the conflict, I find it to be completely on point.

Strangely enough, in seeming contradiction, Summers then proceeded to defend American self-esteemist pedagogy on the grounds that it produced more creativity and innovation. After all, he says, most of what you learn by hard work and discipline can now be done by computers anyway.

Strange idea, suggesting that there is no other value in hard work and discipline than to do rote, mechanical tasks. And who does Summers think is programming all of those computers, if not the ace programmers who are no longer to be found in America, but who are mostly in India.

As Summers put it, two Harvard dropouts, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, were responsible for creating major industries.

I am not sure what that says about the abiding value of a Harvard education… but we’ll leave that for another day.

Whatever you think of Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, the world does not really need that many of them. A world where everyone is Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg would be utterly and totally dysfunctional.

And every time you mention the name of a great innovator, you should also have to tell us how many young people have failed in life because they felt that they had to grow up to be like Gates or Zuckerberg.

Whenever you hold these two out at exemplary products of the American system, you should also ask yourself how much time and effort the two of them put into their work.

As Malcolm Gladwell explained, actualizing your potential as a genius requires many, many hours of intense labor. You are more likely to become great if you have been tutored by the Tiger Mom than if you have been brought up to be well rounded.

Many of Amy Chua’s critics have asserted that American parents are happy that they are not bringing up maniacal overachievers. They want their children to be well rounded, happy, fun-loving, wholesome, happy adults.

No one mentions the fact that Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg are really closer to being maniacal overachievers than to being well-rounded humans who have actualized all of their potential.

Anyway, those who have attacked the Tiger Mom also raise the issue of the mental health of her children, or of any children who are brought up in a Confucian system.

And they note, with some undisguised Schadenfreude, that these Confucian children are at greater risk of committing suicide.

They are implying, with no real subtlety, that Tiger Mother parenting, as it is practiced in America-- in a culture that rejects its values-- will make your children mentally ill.

Take that, Tiger Mom!

Since these critics raised the issue, it is useful to discuss a new UCLA survey that evaluates the mental health of today’s college freshmen. Link here.

Most of these children, I would surmise, have been brought up with a steady diet of unearned compliments and accolades, have had the play dates and sleepovers that the Tiger Mom forbid her daughters, and have followed David Brooks’ direction by learning to socialize in the cafeteria, are emotionally troubled.

True enough, they are optimistic about their futures, but they are more likely to be stressed out, in need of or taking psychiatric medication, lacking confidence and focus, and depressed.

Given that the Pied Pipers of self-esteem have insisted that building self-esteem would lead to better mental health and thus to higher levels of achievement, it should come as something of a surprise to discover not only that American children are chronic underperformers, but that they are suffering from poor mental health.

However optimistic they are, one has to wonder what exactly these children are optimistic about, and why this optimism has not, as we have been promised, made them happier.

Is their optimism based on achievement or on hope? Are they like the young American Idol contestants whose voices are underdeveloped, who lack experience and real talent, but who want so badly to go to Hollywood that you can taste it.

Have we brought up a generation that has come to believe that success comes, not to those who work hardest and earn their way, but to those who want it more badly?

Now, how can we know why these students feel so overwhelmed by what is required of them, why they are so stressed out, and why females are more likely than males to be in poor emotional health?

The study’s authors suggest that these freshmen are suffering the fallout of the economic crisis. Their parents, especially their fathers, are more likely to be unemployed. Thus, they have to take on very large debt loads to attend college.

We can easily understand why this factor would cause greater stress. It is less clear why it would cause the students to feel optimistic about their futures. And it is even less clear why this would affect girls more than boys.

If American parents feel that the Tiger Mom was too harsh in making demands on her daughters, how does it happen that American students who are not subject to these demands are still feeling overwhelmed by their schoolwork?

Here is it difficult to interpret the results. All I can do is to speculate.

As for the first option, that all of these children were brought up by Tiger Moms, that does not seem very plausible.

If that is not the problem, they might be suffering because they never learned discipline and focus, and thus feel overwhelmed by tasks that a more disciplined child would be able to confront.

Or perhaps, they have been taught how best to complain, and are simply exercising a skill that they have mastered. When it comes down to a choice between managing your relationships and complaining about them, American culture today seems to side with the complainers.

Or perhaps these students are overcommitted, not simply with school work, but with sleepovers, play dates, cafeteria coffee klatches, school spirit days, community service, saving the polar bears, Facebook friends, and everything else that a well rounded American child is doing these days.

Or perhaps, their parents, especially their mothers, do not spend enough time with them. After all, Tiger Mothering requires a great deal of time and energy, and many of those mothers who attacked Prof. Chua insisted that they did not have the time to do what she did, even if they had wanted to.

When a child grows up with inadequate parental supervision, he or she might also feel stressed for having to make too many decisions that are above his or her age grade.

Let us not ignore the fact that well-rounded American children are living in a hookup world, without having many moral principles to guide their decisions. Most parents today feel that-- Use a condom-- provides moral guidance.

As it happens, and as I and many others have often argued, girls are most likely to be the victims of this freewheeling hookup world. Especially if they have been influenced by what is called sex positive feminism.

Now that we are speaking about high school girls and college women, it is worth mentioning that, for decades now, feminist educators have been working relentlessly to raise their self-esteem.

This effort has pushed teachers to over-grade and over-compliment girls while under-grading and demeaning boys.

Obviously, this classroom bias detaches achievement from hard work. Boys and girls are awarded or criticized based on their gender, not on their abilities.

In some ways the worst part, is that this self-esteemist pedagogical technique gives students a daily diet of lies about how good they are. How can these children feel confident in their abilities if they have no real idea of how good they are, how much more work they need to do, and how fairly they will be judged?

How stressful can it be not to know how good or bad you are? And how stressful is it to have to go to school every day to be lied to?


Ed in Kanata said...

My wife works at a local college where she is sometimes asked to proctor some student test sessions. Normally the students come in complete the test and leave, the exception are the Chinese students who stay to the end of the session and keep improving their test papers.

When my kids were in High School they always commented on the Chinese students who were always in the library studying when the other students were outside socializing.

A Chinese friend who my wife showed your articles on Tiger Mom said she wasn't as aggressive as Amy Chua but could not understand parents who put hockey practice before studying.

Anonymous said...

This Chinese (I refrain from using my Korea-vet dad's term for them) shitting-on-your-kids thing is so far out of my world I cannot "get my head around it."

Screw Bill Gates, Zuckenberg.... Screw a bunch of Tiger Moms. Try and raise one of these:

"I did what I did because in the scheme of painting the picture of that ambush, that was just my brush stroke. That’s not above and beyond. I didn’t take the biggest brush stroke, and it wasn’t the most important brush stroke. Hearing the Medal of Honor is like a slap in the face."