Usually, I avoid reading and writing about star books as much as possible. As in the case of various pop stars, general and particular opinions are inevitably influenced by the ‘pros’ and ‘cons’ aired in the media, the result of ingenious PR campaigns aimed to sell. ‘Successful’ books are often evaluated in terms of sales reports and although I could appreciate a smart communication strategy aimed to increase the income of both the publisher’s house and the author, I prefer to keep myself away from the trends. At the end of the day, a valuable book could stand the test of time, couldn’t it?
But in this case (see footnote below), I prefer to make an exception, given my interest for the history of elites and genesis of intellectuals. Six months after finishing my PhD thesis on intellectuals in Central Europe, I wanted to force myself into a kind of coming back to the world of the history of ideas.
Instead of a detached intellectual introspection, from the first pages of starting Chua’s book, my indignation increased, stirring old memories about situations still fresh in my mind. I was thinking about a former colleague of mine from primary school whose parents were obsessed with (only) 'A' grades. Indeed, she always had ‘A’ grades, but I have never heard anything about this person in the last 20 years. Probably, the parents were the only ones to understand the success of such an ‘educational strategy’.
More recently, I remember the busy mothers of classmates of my daughter, explaining how exhausted they were after accompanying their children to at least two extra-classes each day. And that schedule was religiously followed for years, for all seven days of the week. As in Chua’s case, failure of any kind was considered a disaster, but mostly from their personal point of view. All those mothers were always talking proudly about their efforts to create a safe intellectual haven for the family, their sacrifices to split between jobs and family, their hopes for their children.
Still back in the box with memories, I can remember my own schedule in my first years of school: some piano lessons for a while, foreign languages always, unsuccessful attempts to introduce sports into my schedule, and various long lists of lectures, some of them very classical and not attractive at all. I always felt happy to be able to make my own choices out of a long list of opportunities. I never felt forced to do so for some ideological purposes and the love for learning was more important than being forced to learn for various peripheral and selfish reasons.
What is the motivation of the ‘tiger mother’ (or tiger parent) for the impossible program administered to her daughters – and her pride in it? An imaginary ‘Chinese way’ which excludes failure and a life aimed to enjoy the happiness of the moment. What about enjoying the happiness of shared knowledge, the modesty of knowing that we’ll never be able to acquire full knowledge, and the wisdom of understanding the lessons of our failures?
The propaganda publications in the communist Romania of the ‘80s were publishing largely images of poor people on the streets of New York as an example of what you can expect if you want freedom instead of the secure life of starvation in the happy ‘East.’ In 1935, the Soviet miner Aleksei Stakhanov mined 102 tons of coal in less than 6 hours – more than 12 times his quota. Soon, the Soviet media reported various competitions breaking this impressive record. Of course, most (if not all) of the reports were nothing more than propaganda. This ‘West’ might be superficial or oriented towards a less noble aim such as happiness, but at least you have more chances to learn about respect towards freedom and individual integrity and the freedom of choice.
We don’t have to learn for the sake of the golden medal, but because we should understand that we need education for being more than lions, tigers or other members of the bestiary, but for living as human beings. Otherwise, we confuse children with puppies and we try to admonish them according to the same ‘educational methods’.
Ana Dinescu is a regular contributor to University of Venus and a PhD candidate in history at the Faculty of History, University of Bucharest, with a background in Political Science. She has been a journalist for ten years for Romanian daily newspapers and is currently a communications consultant, living in Berlin.