Saturday, January 8, 2011

Battle Hymn of the Tigress Dnieperist Future Mother

Law professor Amy Chua has an article in the Wall Street Journal titled "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior." In it, she defends traditionally strict Chinese methods of child-rearing over "softer" Western approaches. I have written on similar topics before, and so I agree somewhat with Chua -- although I would probably be far less strict than she. Half an hour of music practice will be enough for the future Pnins.

I am puzzled, however, by her emphasis on classical music performance as the extracurricular of choice for her children and by her equally fervent rejection of theater. (She notes that her daughters were never allowed to be in a school play and later, that no Chinese kid would ever proudly announce to her mother that she'd gotten a part in the school play.) I'm no expert, but the odds of being able to forge a career in classical music performance vs. acting seem about the same. Both are winner-take-all fields in which, unfortunately, most entrants won't win. Maybe that is Chua's aim, but I don't think it is for the typical Asian or otherwise Archerist-inclined parent. Rather, I always thought of academics as preparation for typical white-collar jobs as the true centerpiece of an Archerist upbringing.

Oh, and because I am a loon, I sometimes even fantasize about creating an Archer-Pnin dynasty of future libertarian law professors. Being a prawf is basically one of the most splendid jobs in the world, of course. Chua -- who is married to fellow Yale professor Jed Rubenfeld -- should understand this as well as anyone.

If the point is therefore in most cases to equip a child with some skills transferable to typical white-collar jobs, wouldn't theater actually be slightly better? Theater imparts some useful public speaking skills, after all. This is useful not just for offspring aiming to fulfill my weird dynastic ambitions, but also for litigators, corporate managers, and many other attractive careers. Former actors are good at reading body language and at modulating their voices to fit various social situations. My cousin is one of the few double majors in theater arts and math in the world. Though what she does day to day now draws more on the math, she said that she's aced every interview she's ever gotten because of all that theater training.

Actors also have to be unusually sensitive readers of text. I noticed in high school and college that classmates who had been in lots of plays were often much more insightful when discussing Shakespeare than those of us who had no such experience. Skill in close reading is extremely valuable in literature and of course law. Again, woo dynastic ambitions! Even future engineers and scientists usually have to take some literature and composition courses in high school and commonly in college. A's in high-school English are probably a nice plus even at science-oriented institutions like MIT or Caltech.

Pnin also raises the point that it is a bit ironic that Asian parents are shown here as so devoted to classical music over theater. Chinese drama has a long and storied history, whereas the introduction of Western piano and violin is a much more recent development.


  1. The theater thing was bizarre and really stuck out - maybe it's not a "Chinese" thing so much as a "this particular mother" one.

    I also didn't see why it's to be celebrated that "Chinese parents" tell their daughters they're fat. Is the point just that children are there to be insulted? Plenty of academic successes are plenty fat.

  2. I also didn't see why it's to be celebrated that "Chinese parents" tell their daughters they're fat. Is the point just that children are there to be insulted? Plenty of academic successes are plenty fat.

    Yeah, that is bizarre, too. I think the point there was supposed to be that Chinese parents feel free to be more blunt about their children's failures in any departmentas well as academic endeavors. I actually suspect that this is true. My Russian in-laws occasionally make direct and blunt comments to people, including about weight, that many Americans would shy away from making.

    This tendency can be good and bad. It may be good, as Chua says, because directness about pointing out failure can spur people to success.

    But it can be bad, too. In the Russian context, Pnin tells me it was notoriously difficult to train Russians to work at the first McDonald's in Red Square. They tended to snarl, act surly toward customers if they felt like it, etc. They weren't good at smiling, acting nicey-nice, and in general flattering customers' self-esteem (if you will.)Maybe this example is too far-flung and not related to the tendency that we're discussing, but perhaps there is some relationship...

  3. What surprises me, I guess, is that weight would be one of the "departments" considered. Presumably "Chinese parents" aren't being blunt about their daughters' failure to make the cheerleading squad, to win prom queen, etc.