Sonntag, 9. Januar 2011

Revival; Chinese Parenting, Science &c

After I got up today, I read this article in the WSJ.
I just had to write a letter to the editor.

Every posting needs a picture!

Here's what I wrote:

I have read your apology about "Chinese-style parenting" (CSP henceforth). --- It might be just a clever flamebait by the WSJ, but I just could not resist to comment upon it.

First of all, your article roughly works like this:
1) CSP is superior to western alternatives, due to the ability "to produce so many math whizzes and music prodigies".
2) This is due to CSP's different attitude towards a child's success.
3) The conclusion that CSP results in "stronger children"

Now, I am neither a parent, nor have I studied pedagogy. Yet I find your reasoning deeply flawed even within the implicit convention your article uses to argue in favour of CSP.

The first part is probably the most obvious target for any criticism, as you commit some petitio principii. Your article appears to work on the premise that CSP's success lies in the ability to produce so many math whizzes and music prodigies".
First of all, I have to ask what exactly is "Western-style parenting", as there exist many schools of thoughts on the subject within the western culture, some of them very similar to the CSP you describe.

But ignoring this faux pas of over-generalisation, you probably do know yourself that whatever statistics you could produce on "above average academic success per capita", China has the world's largest population by far (something like 170 times the population of my home country Switzerland). Combined with the Chinese craze of sending their Kids to study abroad, any public perception of an influx of ethnic Chinese "superiority" must be taken with a grain of salt. I was also going to argue, that there is a lack of ethnic Chinese Nobel laureates, but it is very easy to argue that CSP's effect on these are yet to come. ;)

Also, one has to ask oneself whether a "music prodigy" (or a math prodigy, even) is something you would want your child to be, but this is a question of ethics and pedagogy --- Namely, the first question *any* scientist should ask himself when confronted with this problem: How do we measure success in education?
And if it is true that CSP has a positive effect on a child's aptitude to music, why is it that I am not listening to either music performed or written by ethnic Chinese? --- While this might be simply answered by stating the obvious that I only seldom listen to classical solo piano pieces. However, I do believe that there is more underlying problem, as modern music has changed so much from what we used to call music in the classical sense, that this is hardly surprising, but I am sure there are many enthusiasts disagreeing with me, as many are anticipating yet another recording of their favourite Haydn sonata ;)
Again, I have not studied music myself, but I listen to a lot of difference music. And I can not recall ever listening to music written or performed by an ethnic Chinese --- only "inspired", but that might boil down to personal preference.

On to part two and three!

The second part is in essence a very easy conclusion.
If you apply yourself to something, you can most probably attain a very high level of mastery.
To me, this seems trivial, and there is little surprise to me that if you are practising *anything* for more than 3h a day, even with the feeble mind of a child you will eventually become exceptionally good at it, assuming a "nurture" stance in the question of ability). You might as well teach your children differential geometry as a set of simple rules and manipulation of symbols.
Again, we must ask ourselves how exactly the ability to push a sequence of buttons on a 100 year old wooden box that has been painted shiny black improves a child as a human being --- Your claim here is in part 3, that going trough such rigorous training early on makes Chinese children "stronger". I can however tell you with absolute certainty, that it is *not* exceptional skill in anything that makes us capable of dealing with future, more complex problems, but the skill of overcoming problems itself.
In your article you describe Lulu's white donkey piece problem as an unique situation of extreme stress which may only arise due to CSP and which, thanks to CSP Lulu overcomes. The result is Lulu being overjoyed.
I have to wonder about two key facts that you simply assume true: a) Will this help Lulu overcome future, more complex problems? b) Why couldn't Lulu archive a comparable "mental lesson" having an argument with her parents or playing a computer game --- seriously, I cannot tell the difference between hitting a sequence of keys on a keyboard in order to navigate a bunch of pixels and hitting keys on a piano to produce sounds. The only difference is probably that you as a parent have no clue about computer games and wouldn't be able to pick appropriate titles for your child, while you must have some knowledge of the piano yourself to teach it and thus do not waste your child's time with easy pieces etc).

A quick Google search tells me, that you are a law professor, and this does in fact make me wonder: Why do you think that you, as an expert in jura are entitled to make any conclusion in the field of pedagogy? While you might be able to answer a), because you can simply watch your daughter's mental development, b) is entirely outside the field of opinion and personal experience. It requires rigorous study to answer, which obviously did not perform. Let me repeat: It *cannot* be answered by anecdotal evidence --- Worse yet, you are pointing your finger at "all these new books [...] portraying Asian mothers [in a bad manner]", while committing the exactly same fallacy of reaching a conclusion without proper scientific evidence, which I find very amusing coming from a professor.

So there is my advice to you: Get your act as a scientist together and show the world that there is hard evidence that CSP is superior to western style parenting, as the western world has been wondering about this question ever since Rousseau.

Probably the best sign that something is horribly wrong with your article, is the fact that I can take the last sentence and replace "Chinese" with "Western" and it still makes sense.
"[...] *Westerns* believe that the best way to protect their children is by preparing them for the future, letting them see what they're capable of, and arming them with skills, work habits and inner confidence that no one can ever take away."

Do not make the mistake that I advocate an "anything goes" style of education, rather I am writing this as an appeal to rationality when dealing with such complex questions. They cannot be answered by a gut-feeling.

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