Sunday, February 6, 2011


I am reading Amy Chua's controversial, bestselling, non-fiction book, BATTLE HYMN OF THE TIGER MOTHER, an excerpt of which went viral on the Internet. Chua, a Chinese-American married to a Jewish law professor at Yale, has two daughters, Sophia and Lulu. Her husband and she made a pact upon marriage: Their children would be raised Jewish by faith but Chua would have charge of their education, which she undertook according to what she calls "the principles of a Chinese mother." Such mothers, she says, do not have to actually be Chinese, and many ethnic Chinese do not qualify. Rather, being a "Chinese mother" is a set of practices.

By Western standards, these practices can seem appalling. Her girls were raised to never bring home less than an A from school; to practice a musical instrument five or six hours every single day; to be forbidden such "time wasters" as sleep-overs, sports, or any extra-curricular activities that don't help out a college application; to have their mother make all their choices for them. Both girls ended up brilliant, well-behaved, and playing at Carnegie Hall. Western parents, Cha said, don't demand enough from their kids, and it does the children no good in the long run. Tough love makes kids happier because they gain real skills to propel them through a real, often harsh world.

This was on my mind a few weeks ago as I listened to President Obama's State of the Union address, in which he mentioned that American kids are falling behind in international test scores, especially in math. The president said that our kids make up for this in creative thinking and flexibility.

Yes and no. A little background here -- I hold an M.S. in education and taught the fourth grade for four years. It was during the early seventies, when American education was embracing non-drill, non-coercive, open-classroom techniques where the underlying assumption was that if learning was fun, kids would naturally learn everything. Ten years later, when I was teaching freshman English at a college, I saw the results of this: most of my students could not punctuate, spell, or identify the parts of a sentence (as in, "Your verb needs to agree with the singular subject, not that plural noun that is the object of your prepositional phrase." What verb? What's a prepositional phrase?) Many could not sound out unfamiliar words because they had not been taught phonics, only "whole-word recognition." For a while I always knew which freshmen had been to Catholic schools -- they could do those things (they also had better penmanship). Eventually, however, that disappeared as well.

Now I teach adults who want to be professional writers. Too many come to this point without the basic tools of written English, which makes the job of learning to write well much harder for them (it also means I spend hours upon hours line-editing). The truth is that there are basic subjects -- commas, multiplication tables, phonics -- that are best taught by repeated drill, so that they become so internalized they can be forgotten about, allowing the mind to concentrate on the larger purpose of whatever task is at hand. Yes, kids may find that drill boring. That doesn't mean it isn't a good thing.

Chua goes too far, in my opinion -- way too far (she rejected a hand-drawn birthday card from Lulu because Lulu had done it hastily and "Your mother deserves better.") But underneath her appalling and amusing book (she writes very well) is a serious point. For parents and aspiring writers both.


Ann said...

I taught middle/high school English for 20 years (until 2007), and I agree. The only way to learn grammar and punctuation is by drill. I loathe "free-writing" techniques and rebelled against using them.

I also found the "research" paper to be of questionable value because number of X pages properly cited is not the best way to teach children/teens to write complete sentences and flowing paragraphs.

I taught composition and grammar the way the nuns taught it to me, and all but the most stubborn lazy student could write well enough to outclass most people he/she will meet in the real world.

TheOFloinn said...

When my brother cut back on his law practice to teach high school history. Some of his stories are positively scary. His AP and Honors students, he says, are as good as any, but "college prep" is the new "standard" and "standard" is now the lowest track. There are people in college prep who cannot possibly benefit from a college degree, and who are losing out on the vocational training that would have once given them a decent job.
+ + +
Drill in education serves the same purpose as exercise in physical education. Muscle memory. In this case, the "muscle" is the mind. As you say, in order to think creatively, we can't waste time re-inventing each wheel from basic principles each time. I saw this happening in math, because the Ed school professors were across the hall from the math grad assistants' offices. They were trying to teach abstract algebra to children as yet unclear on basic arithmetic. Once, when we engaged one of the Ed profs in dialogue, we math-types raised the objection that the teachers themselves did not know the mathematics they were trying to teach. His answer: The teacher doesn't have to know the subject; only how to teach it.

Pfui, sez I. In order to think, you must first have something to think about.
+ + +

John Lukacs, who was my professor in History of Western Civilization, wrote of all this in 1980 in a book entitled The Passing of the Modern Age, ch. 10. "The Dissolution of Learning."

Orion said...

I assess whether or not a person is fully literate by his/her use of apostrophes. There are several distinct uses for the apostrophe in English, and the rules for when to use them and when not to are quite simple. Anyone who has not learned these rules is not fully literate.

It is probably no accident that people who can't use an apostrophe correctly tend to be bad at organizing their thoughts on the page, even after the lack of punctuation is removed from the equation.

Rote drill cannot be one's entire education, but it is a necessary component. There has got to be a balance somewhere that we can all agree upon.

I can't support an educational system that asserts that it is better for the student to feel comfortable with his or her lack of competence at X than to actually perform well at X.

bluesman miike Lindner said...

I read the book too. I believe the technical term is "child abuse."