Saturday, April 30, 2011

A Nation of Slackers

You remember the Tiger Mom, Amy Chua. When she published her Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, cries of parental anguish filled the media.

American parents had blithely allowed experts to decide what was best for their children. They had wanted their children to grow up to be well-rounded creative innovators.

Amy Chua wanted her daughters to achieve and succeed, at their music lessons and in the classroom.

For reasons that escape me, many, many American mothers thought that Chua was a bad, even an abusive, mother. After all, she has great children. Many mothers took it to be an offense.

Now, Vicki Abeles has produced a documentary called  “Race to Nowhere.” I have not seen the movie, but it seems to fit into the genre of advocacy propaganda perfected by Michael Moore and Al Gore.

My impressions come from two excellent columns, one by Emily Yoffe in Slate, and another by James Freeman in the Wall Street Journal. They are linked here and here.

Abeles claims that the problem is that American children are working too much. They have become too obsessed with achievement. The fault lies with the school system. Their schools are too competitive; they give out too much homework; and they offer too many advanced placement courses.

Where Chua is advancing values associated with Confucian cultures, Abeles seems more concerned with promoting the more relaxed standards associated with Latin cultures.

Or better, with American therapy culture. One student newspaper in San Jose declared that the children featured in her movie seemed to be self-pitying martyrs. Which is their constitutionally protected right. But they do not have the right to criticize and demean children who work harder and do better.

Since Emily Yoffe claims that Vicki Abeles is the antidote to the Tiger Mom, let’s note some clear differences.

Since everyone is comparing Abeles and Chua, let’s note the most obvious difference. Chua was writing about a mother’s efforts to bring up her daughters. Abeles was filming a screed about the way school systems set standards and assign homework.

Abeles seems to want to create a class conflict between parents and schools. Chua, on the contrary, seems to have wanted to work with the school system to facilitate her daughters’ education.

One does wonder whether the American students Abeles finds would be as unhappy with their excessive homework if their parents thought that the extra homework was a good thing. And one wonders whether these children would have been as stressed if their parents were not showering them with pity, and telling them that overwork was going to ruin their lives.

It’s one thing to have a lot of homework when your parents accept the necessity of hard work. It’s quite another to have a lot of homework when your parents tell you that it is stunting your creativity and making you mentally ill.

It’s one thing if your parents are on board with tough algebra homework. It’s quite another when they want you to be out developing your creativity by making mud pies and learning critical thinking by taking things apart.

Abeles is an activist, and activists with a political or ideological agenda tend to distort facts, exaggerate the large picture, and manipulate emotion.

It is heart rending to read of a thirteen year old who commits suicide because she got a B, but how do any of us really know what really pushed this girl to such a desperate act?

As every social scientist knows, anecdotal evidence is the least meaningful kind. It’s only value is in its ability to agitate your emotions.

Blaming the school system and the culture of achievement for a child's suicide feels to me like a cheap rhetorical trick.

In America we have more than one school system. There are private schools and public schools. There are good private schools and bad ones. There are good public schools and bad ones.

From city to city and state to state, school systems are quite different across America. Saying that they are all bent on producing overachievers seems oversimplified.

It is no secret that New York private schools are extremely demanding. They require a great deal of homework. Parents spend a lot of money on these schools. They want their children to be working hard. They believe that hard work is the best preparation for college and for life. They believe that hard work will keep their children out of trouble.

Sometimes parents amazed at the amount of homework their children bring home, but they do not feel sorry for them. They certainly do not suggest that extra homework is making them insane.

Whatever Vicki Abeles or anyone else thinks, these parents are doing what they believe best for their children. And why would we trust experts and propagandists over real parents who are ultimately responsible for their children?

I am confident that many public schools adhere to the same standards, hopefully with the same level of parental support.

How much can we trust the facts that Abeles presents? While she is bemoaning the excessive homework children do, we also know that these same hardworking children are burning up massive amounts of time on Facebook and watching television. Unless they have Tiger Moms they have playdates, sleepovers, and all manner of creative afterschool activities.

So, you start wondering whether Abeles is trafficking in caricature.

And then, as James Freeman points out, for all its supposed emphasis on achievement, ours is a nation of underachieving children.

In his words: “The film reports that as hard as kids compete to win acceptance to name-brand colleges, they come out of high school without knowing much. The University of California at Berkeley, we are told, has to provide remedial education for close to half of incoming freshmen before they can handle a college course load. The film notes that American kids score poorly in international tests. If they work so hard, how do they learn so little?

“One possibility is that kids aren't working as hard as Ms. Abeles believes.”

Obviously enough, Abeles is a sworn enemy of the Protestant work ethic. Hers is a slacker ethic, gussied up with claims that it is going to enhance creativity, innovation, and critical thinking.

Yoffe explains the Abeles perspective: “She [Abeles] argues that part of America's greatness is born of our misfits and dreamers, that our gift to our children is time to engage in ‘aimless‘ play.”

If our nation’s parents are in an uproar about the school system, the reason does not just lie in poor test scores and chronic underachievement.

By now everyone knows that the nation is suffering because we have idolized misfits and dreamers, and have failed to put in the work necessary to support our standard of living. Aimlessness is not a way of life. It is a waste of time.

Critical thinking is fine in theory, but it is not, as Abeles seems to believe, the key to solving problems. If you want to solve problems you need to learn constructive thinking, how to put things together, not critical thinking, how to take things apart.

As it has been practiced in universities critical thinking teaches children to criticize. That’s what it means. By using critical thinking children learn to find fault with their country, with the business world, with the dominant culture.

This can only discourage and demoralize them. Who wants to play hard for a losing team. It is not the motivation you need to work hard and to enjoy it.

Learning that you belong to a failing system, a corrupt enterprise, and a criminal nation is not going to make you work harder to contribute to society and the culture.

It is going to turn you into an advocate, a grievance monger, who will blame the system for everything that goes wrong and who will try to take it down in the name of mindless play.

A nation of aimless dreamers and pseudo-creative types is not going to dig us out of the debt crisis that we are facing.

It is absurd to think that some new innovator is going to lead the economy into the promised land. Not when the people who do most of the work involved in bringing the innovation to market are located in India and China, in places where aimless slacking does not have a constituency and advocates.

Of course, if Vicki Abeles wants her children to slack off and to have more time for more spirited aimless play, that's her prerogative. When other Tiger Moms instill different values in their children, and when those children outcompete the slacker group, then, that is the consequence of her choice.

Abeles seems to know this. Her solution seems to be to change the culture so that everyone can be a happy slacker. One place to start is to denounce all of the Tiger Moms out there. If their children are doing better than the less competitive more self-pitying types, then surely they must be punished, criticized, and even looked down on.

1 comment:

JP said...

The only thing that is going to dig us out of the debt crisis is to deal with Medicare/Medicaid/Pentagon spending.

This is an issue for the political actors and has absolutely nothing to do with the issue you raise here of the Latin culture vs. Protestant Work Ethic/Confucian Culture.

It's generational and systemic.

We are not going to grow ourselves out of the debt problem, no matter how productive we become.