THE Chinese-style strict parenting is the consequence of our education system, employment system and social security system. Becoming “Tiger Moms” is the only choice for Chinese mothers.
“Tiger Mom” Amy Chua is chanting her battle hymn in the U.S., criticizing that American mothers are too tolerant and permissive, but her book exerts great impact on Chinese mothers, making them feeling in a dilemma.
Hu Min, the mother of a five-year-old girl, recently read Amy Chua’s article online. She was impressed by “ten things not allowed” listed by Tiger Mom: no extra-curricular activities of their choice, not allowed to watch TV or play computer games, not allowed to be in a school play…. Hu was puzzled because she had read another book introducing the experience of parenting, which suggests children actively participate in campus and community activities. The book even says that when parents are working in the garden or repairing electrical appliances at home, children should participate in.
The author of that book is called Zhenni Chua, a Chinese American with the same family name as Tiger Mom. They are of comparable ages, both introducing child-care experiences, but their views are very different.
Amy Chua thinks that Western children are too much respected: they cannot even hear the word “fat” from their parents. There is no way to force them to sit on the piano bench for three hours. Such parenting is irresponsible for children because their potential cannot be fully developed. By contrast, Zhenni Chua tells parents to respect the decision of their children, since interest is the inner motivation to learn.
The different ways of education advocated by two Mother Chuas reflect the tug-of-war between Chinese and Western education philosophy. Which one should Chinese mothers like Hu Min choose?
“Chinese students bury me alive”
There is a Chinese saying that a tiger father will not beget a dog son. Therefore, the best way to find out the “superior” education philosophy is probably to compare the results – Chinese and Western children educated in different ways.
Chinese children are undoubtedly leading on test scores. At the end of 2010, the OECD officially announced the new results of “Project for International Student Assessment” (PISA), which is held worldwide every three years. 15-year-old students from 65 countries and regions participated in the last test, including around 5,100 high school students from Shanghai. This is the first time for PISA to have students from mainland China; their scores amazed the world and won the championship.
This is definitely not unprecedented. The super capability for examination of Chinese students has been shocking foreigners for a long time. The gold medals of International Mathematics Olympiad seem to be prepared for Chinese students. An American little girl named Annie Osborn once went to Beijing and became an exchange student in a Middle School there for one year. After returning home, she wrote in an article: “In a trivia competition, Chinese students would bury me alive.”
OECD’s analysis shows that every 15-year-old child from the most powerful country enjoys education investment twice as much as that in other developed countries. However, they ranked only 17th (and 31st in math) in the last PISA. “Our math is really poor!” says Ned, a Harvard Graduate, “although our universities have won world-wide reputation, our primary and secondary education are facing a great crisis.”
U.S. Presidents also believe that such crisis does exist. In 2001, President George W. Bush announced his education blueprint “No Child Left Behind” on the second workday after he took office. He anxiously pointed out that “our high school seniors trail students in Cyprus and South Africa on international math tests. And nearly a third of our college freshmen find they must take a remedial course before they are able to even begin regular college level courses.”
Similarly, President Barack Obama has repeatedly said in public that Chinese and Indians are studying ever more seriously and getting ever more prominent performance, which makes him feel the pressure of how to ensure the success of America in the 21st century. In response, he decided to recruit ten thousand more teachers in areas of science, mathematics, etc.
Sufficient data proves that it’s very difficult for American students to get more scores than Chinese peers. Even among U.S. citizens, white students are trailing Asian-Americans.
In the U.S., official score statistics of SAT show that Asian students have the highest scores among all ethnic groups, and the average score of Chinese students is even higher than Asian-American average. In 2009, Asian students got the average score of 1623 out of 2400, apparently higher than white students, exceeding Hispanic and African students by more than 200 points. What surprised whites most is that Asian students not only did well in math, but also got higher scores than them in writing test.
Excellent SAT scores result in the rapid grow of Asian students in American universities, especially in the Ivy League. According to a report in the New York Times in 2007, Asian-American students generally accounted for 20% to 30% in a dozen of famous universities, while Asian-Americans made up only 5% in U.S. population. In Princeton and Columbia, which had the least yellow students, 13% of undergraduates were Asian-Americans.
One of the most surprising figures came from University of California. In several of its campuses, Asian-American students comprise more than 40% of undergraduates. In UC Berkeley, the proportion of Asian students reached 41% three years ago, and this figure is constantly growing. Among all Asian students, Chinese is the most eye-catching group. Some students even say that Mandarin is sometimes more useful than English in Berkeley.
The scores of Asian students is so high that some universities set special limits for Asian-American students in order to balance the proportion of ethnic groups in campus. In those schools, Asian students need to have higher test scores than whites, blacks, and Hispanics in order to be admitted, which becomes a controversial topic in America. Some people consider such limits to be discrimination.
There are some quips among American universities referring to Asian-American students’ “taking over” of U.S. higher education. UCLA is said to be “United Caucasians Lost among Asians”, and MIT stands for “Made In Taiwan”. There are also some people who felt fear. According to the Wall Street Journal, in some district of California, where Asian-Americans gather, some whites sold their houses and ran away for fear that their children will feel embarrassed in front of Asian peers because of poor school performances.
Harvard graduate Ned thinks that the good performance of Chinese students is partly related to the relatively difficult living conditions of immigrants, and also due to the parenting from their families. “You can hardly find a lazy Chinese student at Harvard. They are working harder than whites,” says Ned.
Chinese student Zheng Yanqiu, PhD candidate in Education at Indiana University, has also observed the consequences of two different educational philosophies. He has taught undergraduate students in the U.S. for more than two years, and finds that “there are only a small number of students who really concentrate on their studies and think positively in the classroom. Most American undergraduates may still be ignorant of life purpose. For them, to play in college may be more important, and school work seems to be an inescapable task.”
Different from the ignorant American students, Chinese students have already been taught the idea of “no cross, no crown” in rigorous education. As expected, they really won the “crown” in terms of scores.
“Tiger Mom-style has no future”
However, education scholars in China have reached a consensus that the crown of points doesn’t necessarily mean the success in life, let alone the happiness in life.
Professor Xiong Bingqi says that knowledge, ability and literacy are three determining factors of life. The Chinese-style education focuses on knowledge, which can be improved by training — more time, learn better. Therefore, Chinese students can certainly get excellent scores in exams by hard working.
“But according to human resources theory, the knowledge learnt from childhood to university plays only a very small part — approximately 5% in one’s life. It’s ability and literacy that benefit for life.” Prof. Xiong says.
In the Chinese-style education, ability and literacy are the short-boards, because they cannot be cultivated by simply prolonging the training time and enhancing training intensity. Prof. Xiong thinks that Chinese education especially lacks the cultivation for civic literacy, awareness of self-reliance, personality, mental health and other aspects of literacy. “We generally consider being admitted to famous universities to be success, but this kind of evaluation is flawed and needs to be changed from the perspective of lifelong development.”
In fact, even the idea that Chinese students are on the advantage of knowledge has been questioned. Mathematician Shing-Tung Yau once said that “the best students in the U.S. are really good! In a number of leading schools, students of 11th and 12th grade can do calculus well, but not all high school students in China are learning calculus.”
A Tsinghua University graduate says that he was “absolutely convinced” by Yau’s words. “The reason is simple: whites are not stupid, and their learning and researching are truly motivated by their interests. They won’t be worse than Chinese. A very clear evidence is that so many first-class scientists were born in the U.S. Could it be said that they suddenly pushed off at their middle age?”
Over the past 100 years, less than ten Chinese scientists won the Nobel Prize of science, while Americans won about 300. As many as 180 Jews won Nobel — Jews account for only 1% of world’s population, but they shared a quarter of the Nobel Prize.
In Sun Yat-Sen University Professor Feng Zengjun’s view, the core of American education is freedom, which “levels up excellent ones, but also brings down lazy ones”. Thus, it’s easy to understand why Americans perform poorly on average scores but succeed in cultivating outstanding talents.
Feng also believes that the essential difference between Eastern and Western education philosophy is that “we Chinese are selecting talents for the society, but Westerners regard education as a way to achieve the comprehensive development of all citizens.”
In fact, the concept of “comprehensive development” is the starting point and the biggest advantage of American education. “Tiger Mom” Amy Chua, who believes in Chinese-style education, forbids her children to attend a sleepover, or to choose their own extracurricular activities, but such sleepovers and activities are exactly the key parts of American-style education. The New York Times columnist David Brooks believes that Tiger Mom’s children lost the opportunity to learn the ability of handling complex social relations, which is actually more challenging than spending hours after hours practicing the piano, and also more important for children’s future.
Children growing in Chinese-style education lack the social communication skills, and often lack social concern. According to the observation of Harvard graduate Ned, Chinese students is creative for “they can write very nice articles, and can make important achievements in the laboratory”, but they have a characteristic that they rarely consider from the perspective of “How can I change the world, make the world a different, better place”. “What they generally want is to get better lives for themselves and their families under the current system.”
The way of thinking directly affects their career choices. Most of Ned’s Chinese schoolmates went to the top investment banks and consulting firms after graduation. Few of them chose to startup business of their own, or to engage in charity, NGO and other careers related to social responsibility. “If they are not in Morgan Stanley, they are definitely in Merrill Lynch. They are doing so well that some of them have already become multimillionaires just two years after graduation,” says Ned.
The program “Dialogue” of China Central Television once provided evidence for Ned’s words. When high school students from China and America involved in that program were required to choose among the value of truth, power, wealth, love & beauty, and wisdom, American students’ choices are only of two kinds: truth or wisdom, but half of Chinese students chose power.
There are also some people pointing out that in all ethnic groups of American young people, Chinese has the highest suicide rate. One netizen says that there is only one Lang Lang who was forced to learn the piano and ultimately became famous; other parents who force their children to become Lang Lang may bring a large number of patients with depression.
Even the above-mentioned American girl who was “buried alive” by Chinese classmates also said: “Chinese schools have many strengths, but they do not foster many broadly philosophical thinkers.”
“Tiger Mom-style education may be successful to some individuals, but for the development of the entire nation, such education method has no future,” says Prof. Feng Zengjun.
The choice of no choice
In fact, the Chinese people in recent years haven’t stopped thinking about the weaknesses of traditional Chinese parenting and the advantages of American-style education. When Tiger Mom published her book, many Chinese publicly criticized her education philosophy.
The cultural celebrity Hong Huang called Amy Chua “mother of hell”. “We all condemn the barbaric demolition, but many parents are demolishing their children’s childhood, sending them to a place of nightmares where they do not ever want to go.”
She also traced Tiger Mom’s philosophy to Chinese cultural traditions. In old China, the value of a woman is measured by her children. There is a Chinese saying that “the mother’s honour increases as her son’s position rises”. In other words, the full value of a mother is her son. Therefore, it is not difficult to imagine how wives and concubines, whose fates were hold in the hands of others, infighted by exploiting their children.
Hong Huang also noticed that the Chinese people believe in “hardship” as a necessary way towards success, while passion and pleasure have almost nothing to do with success. In addition, the protection of individual rights remains inadequate in China, so it’s easy to understand why parents could easily take children’s rights away.
But others believe that we should not blame cultural traditions for the problems of education in China. There is an ancient book in China based on the teaching of the Chinese philosopher Confucius called “Di Zi Gui”, which starts with “filial piety and fraternal duty are the most important, and then integrity, universal love and benevolent”, and then it says that “if you still have time and ability, study knowledge.”
“Present Chinese education philosophy is shaped by our education system, employment system and social security system, rather than our tradition.” Prof. Xiong Bingqi says.
The education system mentioned by Xiong is the examination-oriented system. In this system, students with highest scores can get better educational resources. Universities in mainland China have been increasing enrollment more than ten years, resulting in the enrichment of China’s higher education resources, and the college enrollment rate has jumped from less than 10% to over 20%. “One reason to enlarge enrollment is to change the phenomenon of ‘squeezing through a single-plank bridge into universities”, but now, high school students are squeezing through another single-plank bridge into famous universities to get better resources,” says Xiong.
American universities also have famous ones and general ones, but there is no “single-plank bridge” phenomenon in the U.S., because the gaps between different professions are not significant, and the social security system is equal to everyone. “Even those who go to training colleges can be well secured in their future work and life. This is very different from China, where diploma means job, and diploma from famous universities means high-paid job. Besides, the mutual recognition of credits between colleges and universities in the U.S. is common. As long as one has the ability, a community college student can also transfer to Harvard. This is unimaginable in China,” says Xiong.
Due to the limits of various external systems, although the innovation of education concept has been discussed for a long time, it is impossible to become true for a period of time. Thus, Tiger Mom-style education will still have a great market in China.
The principal of High School Affiliated to South China Normal University Wu Yingmin frankly stated that “we all know the American-style education is good, but we cannot adopt it, due to the insufficiency of our education resources and many other obstacles.” According his observation, the vast majority of educators do not dare and do not want to be close to American education philosophy. “If the enrollment rate is not good, the position of principal will be greatly challenged. We dare not take the risk.”
Principals who have thousands of students dare not take the risk, let alone Chinese parents who generally only have one child due to family planning policy: what if my child cannot be admitted to a leading middle school? What if he or she not admitted to a famous university? What if he or she not find a good job? The British philosopher Whitehead once said that he can only be sure of one thing in education, that is “there is no universally applicable and easy way”. But in today’s China, Tiger Mom-style education becomes a relatively simple and universally used way, for they have no other choice.
“After all, for the parents, what the system teaches them is the most practical lesson,” says Prof. Xiong Bingqi.(Originally printed in Southern Weekly [in Chinese], January 27th, 2011. Written and translated by Fang Kecheng. Chen Tiemei contributed reporting.)