Via Instapundit comes a question in response to Amy Chua’s interesting article on the superiority of Chinese mothers:
Then again, as I said above, one wonders why Asians, if they’ve got things so figured out, need to emigrate to the land of the substandard “Westerner” in order to live prosperously and free.
I think Chua provides the answer herself:
Here are some things my daughters, Sophia and Louisa, were never allowed to do:
• 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
Other studies indicate that compared to Western parents, Chinese parents spend approximately 10 times as long every day drilling academic activities with their children. By contrast, Western kids are more likely to participate in sports teams.[emp added]
Noticeably excluded from her children’s activities is any kind of team activities. The secret of American’s collective success as a people is our ability to self-organize ourselves on both the small and large scale into highly effective teams The relative inability to self-organize into teams is why China and some other cultures have lagged behind in the modern world. Americans have long relied on activities like sports, theater, marching band etc to teach that one critical American cultural skill. By excluding such activities from her children’s life, Chua is depriving them of one of the most crucial skills an American must have.
American culture is based on the seeming contradiction of extreme individualism combined with a near instant willingness and ability to join a team to accomplish any particular task. The way New Yorkers spontaneously organized to evacuate Manhatten on 9/11 represented a large scale and dramatic example of the type of self-organization that Americans reflexively engage in on a daily bases.
Germans and the Japanese also excel at organization and group work but they default to hierarchical, top-down organization. Absent leadership or a predefined structure, both Germans and Japanese have a relatively hard time organizing themselves. American organization, by contrast, is strongly bottom-up with very flat or even nonexistent hierarchies. No other people self-organizes to the degree Americans do.
I think it clear that we developed this self-organizing skill owing to our unique history.
Firstly, we have America’s unprecedented internal cultural diversity. As a diverse nation of immigrants, we had to learn how to work with people we did not know personally and who might well come from significantly different cultures. Americans could not rely on previously established modes of cooperation specific to each culture but instead we had to create a flexible and adaptable means of forming teams on an ad hoc basis without any previous planning or standards.
Secondly, the nature of the frontier forced Americans to learn to self-organize from the bottom up. The mythology of the American frontier (actually nothing but a literary invention) plays up the role of the lone individual but in reality the real story of the American frontier is one of peaceful, voluntary cooperations between disparate people far beyond the reach of established authority and predefined organizational structure. They had no one to mediate or direct so they learned to do it themselves. Virtually all the formal Federal actions in the age of the frontier served to do no more than to formalize the solutions already enacted informally by the pioneers. Those that did not learn teamwork failed on the frontier.
Long after the great waves of immigration and the frontier ended, we still benefit from our skills of bottom-up self-organization. Indeed, our internal peace and prosperity rely on it. Each American child needs to learn how to form and work within teams and American parents have long been willing to sacrifice study time in academics in order to use sports, theater and other group activities to teach their children teamwork. By contrast, the Chinese parents that Chua lionizes teach their children to become hard working and highly skilled individuals but at the same time they prevent the children from learning teamwork. Those children grow up atomized with a relatively very weak ability to spontaneously cooperate with anyone outside their family.
A society of atomized individuals cannot self-organize from the bottom-up. Instead, it must be organized top-down by some authority. Historically, China (and most other cultures) has only worked well under a robust and effective autocratic government. Even their philosophies seek to create predefined structures and hierarchies of command. Confucianism in particular establishes a predefined rigid organizational order that starts with defining each individual’s role within the family and then spreads to the greater society from there. Ad hoc, bottom-up organization is a largely alien concept to the Chinese.
Even Taiwan, which has (increasingly) embraced democracy and free-market capitalism, finds itself organizationally limited. The Taiwanese success lays almost entirely in specialized manufacturing that can be performed by companies small enough to be managed by an extended family. Despite their overall economic success, they have no big multinational companies as do the Japanese and Koreans. Their atomized culture simply can support large, non-family based economic organizations because the Chinese have no cultural experience with spontaneous, voluntary, teamwork. Even in America where Chinese-Americans dominate in many technical fields, you will find proportionately few first or second generation Chinese-Americans in management and even fewer Chinese-American owned companies of any significant size.
Producing wealth in the modern world requires extensive and large scale teamwork. It requires teamwork on the job, it requires teamwork in private social organizations and it requires teamwork in government. Individuals must have the ability to quickly and easily work within teams both large and small. A society of pure Chinese cannot provide such high levels of organization without the high overhead cost of a political autocracy.
That is why Chinese struggle in a country dominated by cultural Chinese but prosper so much when they come to America. Non-Chinese American’s propensity for teamwork provides the organization that the Chinese need and they provide it at a low economic and political cost. America is a paradoxical nation in which voluntary, bottom-up collective cooperation creates an environment in which atomized individuals can thrive (as long as there aren’t to many to many of them in the overall population.)
Chua should be applauded for breaking the contemporary taboo against admitting that cultures differ and that those differences mean that some cultures produce individuals better at some task than other cultures. She should also be applauded for taking a stick to the ridiculous runaway self-esteem movement. However, she errs when she says that Chinese mothers are “superior.”
She forgets that tradeoffs dominate everything in life. When a culture specializes for proficiency in one area of endeavor, it must sacrifice proficiency in another area. Cultures noted for their food, music and sociability often fall short in economic endeavors. Cultures noted for economic endeavors usually don’t have very interesting cuisines, food or music. Southern Italy is a great place to vacation but its hell trying to get anything built or maintained. Germans get things done by few go to Germany for the food. (There aren’t a lot of German cookbooks on bookshelves outside of Germany but almost everyone has an Italian cookbook.) Examples abound in comparisons of any two cultures. All cultures represent some type of tradeoff and therefore all cultures relatively excel in some areas but fall relatively short in others.
Chinese culture excels in instilling individual proficiency but at the tradeoff of not teaching small or large scale teamwork.
(They might also fall short in teaching experimental problem solving an overall adaptability but that’s another post.)
Although she seems utterly unaware of it, by depriving her children of sports and other team activities, Chua guarantees they will grow up to be highly educated and skilled but they won’t have any experience forming teams or working within them. They will always have to depend on non-Chinese to provide organization. Worse, since a good leader is also always a good team player, her children will never have what it takes rise to the top of any large organization. They will never lead.
No doubt Chua’s children will be highly successful compared to the general population but they won’t be as successful as they might have been had she not raised them up ignorant of teamwork. They will always be dependent on others who spent their childhoods learning teamwork. Merely substituting a team activity for the time spent training for pointlessly high musical proficiency would greatly enhance her children’s ability to reach their full potential.
Chua should have adopted the American practice of taking the best of each culture and combining them together to make a superior whole. Fusing the Chinese work ethic and mania for self-improvement with the American talent for teamwork would create incredible people.