Thursday, January 20, 2011

Amy Chua: Possibly a Better Mother than Historian

Yale Law professor Amy Chua has recently been making headlines with her book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, a misleading excerpt of which was published in the Wall Street Journal, about the "superiority" of Asian mothers, who do not let their children attend sleepovers, insult their children for failing to achieve academic excellence and make them practice music for hours on end. I found the whole thing amusing as this was not the first time Amy Chua has crossed my radar. Several years ago I had a lot of fun posting on her book Day of Empire and her utter incompetency as a historian. I think it is worthwhile to note that, from what I can tell, Chua does not appear to force her daughters to spend hours on end attempting to critically analyze primary and secondary sources, something that Chua is clearly unable to do and has written a book proving it.

Unlike her many critics, I will not question Chua's abilities as a mother and keep my knocking of her to the realm of history. Actually I think there is a lot to be said for Chua's style of parenting. While not nearly as intense as what Chua describes, my parents were much stricter with me than most of my peer's parents were with them and I benefited from that. The point that Chua makes that struck the strongest chord with me was:

What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you're good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences. This often requires fortitude on the part of the parents because the child will resist; things are always hardest at the beginning, which is where Western parents tend to give up. But if done properly, the Chinese strategy produces a virtuous circle. Tenacious practice, practice, practice is crucial for excellence; rote repetition is underrated in America. Once a child starts to excel at something—whether it's math, piano, pitching or ballet—he or she gets praise, admiration and satisfaction. This builds confidence and makes the once not-fun activity fun. This in turn makes it easier for the parent to get the child to work even more.

This is a key argument used by educational theorist Daniel Willingham in his book Why Don't Students Like School. Willingham argues for the value of homework and repetitive drilling particularly in the early grades. The idea is that learning in any given field requires a certain baseline of knowledge and set skills. You either have it or you do not and there is no fun easy way to get it. The only option is to just drill it in. Once a child has gained the necessary skills then the real education can begin and yes it can be fun.

I am good with history and enjoy it because I made myself memorize loads of historical facts as a kid and therefore have a baseline knowledge and skills now to read even really difficult works of history. In contrast I never really developed the necessary skills in reading Talmud. My high school yeshiva education was therefore hell as I floated along accomplishing nothing. Today I have a mental block when it comes to the topic and avoid it. Perhaps I needed a Tiger Mother to drill me into a Talmudic scholar.


Larry Lennhoff said...

I can't speak to her expertise as either a mother or a historian, but I will say she appears to be a brilliant marketer. The controversy over her NYT article will sell lots of copies of her books.

Anonymous said...

I just started reading you.
Go Bucks.
I'll let you know what I think when I know you better.

Sholom said...

Regarding Gemara, have you tried the Gemara Markings System?

It is relatively easy to adapt to your own personal learning style (I don't use all of the markings, and have innovated some of my own). While the initial learning of a particular daf may not be that enjoyable, even with the system, after you have appropriately annotated that daf--subsequent review becomes much more enjoyable.
If you can identify areas in the Gemara, particular discussions, that are inherently interesting to you, and employ this system, you may experience some of the pleasure of learning Gemara, that some real "Gemara junkies (my trademark)" feel.
Not that Gemara is everything--Jewish literature is vast, but if you haven't employed this method, and are interested in returning to Gemara, I'd give it a shot (I also unabashedly use Artscroll to know I'm making the most accurate notations).