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.