Tiger Mothers and Superficial Scholars

In my role as a fellowships adviser, I have a motto: think laterally - not literally. “Tiger mothers” as described by Amy Chua enshrine literal thinking of the kind that dooms overachievers when tested outside the realm of the rote.

March 1, 2011

In my role as a fellowships adviser, I have a motto: think laterally - not literally. “Tiger mothers” as described by Amy Chua enshrine literal thinking of the kind that dooms overachievers when tested outside the realm of the rote. Such tiger cubs are the “superficial scholars” of whom Rhodes Scholarship selector Heather Wilson complains and with whom I work to overcome the soul-shattering terror imposed by tiger parents of whatever ethnicity. I think the replies Dr. Wilson labels superficial reveal tiger cubs’ inability to offer their own opinions. Petrified of getting the ‘wrong’ answer about something as fraught as “what is worth killing for,” they say something simplistically ‘right.’ To a tiger cub, “I don’t know” means I don’t know Dr. Wilson’s answer, because she, in loco tigris parentis, conveys the authority to determine what is correct.

Practice makes for a particular kind of perfection. Repeat your multiplication tables until you memorize them and read historical time-lines until you remember the Americans revolted in 1776 and the French in 1789. However, the interpretive spark that makes a brilliant mathematician or political theorist does not ignite from memorization alone. You need to master the rules in order to break them. Tiger parents cultivate the former without opening their cubs’ eyes to the possibility of the later. The memorization and mastery of some preexisting ‘correct’ method and answer offers academic means without an educational end.

Practice scholarship interviews for tiger cubs typically close with the interviewee stating in frustration, “I didn’t know what answer you wanted.” She cannot imagine a question to which no ‘right’ answer exists and for which she therefore cannot prepare by memorizing it. I have to teach the cubs to answer based on what they know, think, and even - shock - feel. Anecdotes from the play dates Professor Chua prohibits offer better fodder for a fulsome answer to a query about the human condition than endless hours pounding out chords on a piano. We have all heard child prodigies play with technical precision but an emotional tin ear. I offer a crash course on the possibilities tucked within the ‘wrong’ answer for the honest, the innovative, and even the right.

Thus, I agree with New York Times’ columnist David Brooks’ assessment that “Amy Chua is a wimp.” She protects and prescribes a form of emotional coddling amidst her abuse. A child can physically survive being locked out of the house in the snow and being called “garbage.” The child will learn to practice and to please mommy in order to avoid insults to body and soul. Tiger cubs have this form of tenacity in spades. If I just work hard enough, I will succeed. I owe the one who ‘helped’ me for everything I have. Unfortunately, they are wrong.

You can work hard and fail - think Sisyphus. When you succeed, no one person deserves the credit - think Armstrong on the moon. Children learn these lessons through interaction with their peers - in clubs, on teams, at parties. Novel situations force us to cross-apply what we do know onto the unknown (lateral thinking); it is scary. Nothing disturbs me more than when a student who says she wanted to win something for me, because I worked hard to prepare her. If a student says that, I know she missed the point of the exercise. I want to make my advisees trust their own instincts, their own worth, their own ideas, and their own limitations while valuing those of the people around them.

In my role as a mentor to fellowship applicants, I experience something similar to a mother of multiples. I wonder how Professor Chua would feel if she had twins and only one of her cubs could be top of the class. No doubt she would expect them to share in equal glory, but there are circumstances that proscribe such an outcome. How would she handle the child who came second in a fair match? I work with multiple candidates. Some win; some don’t. As a result, I want each candidate who sits across a table from Dr. Wilson or some other selector to leave the conversation with the confidence that she answered each question true to her own essential self - not with an answer she thinks her mother, her interviewer, or I would give. Someone else’s answer will sound superficial and is always wrong. Just ask Professor Chua, who admits her parenting techniques not only break cultural norms but quite possibly the law.

Evanston, Illinois in the USA

Elizabeth Lewis Pardoe is a regular contributor at University of Venus and an associate director of the office of fellowships and teaches history and American studies at Northwestern University, from which she earned her B.A. (1992). She earned M.Litt. (1994) and M.Phil. (1995) degrees in European History as a Marshall Scholar at Cambridge University before completing her Ph.D. at Princeton University (2000)For more, visit http://elizabethlewispardoe.wordpress.com or find Elizabeth on Twitter@ejlp and LinkedIn.


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