Formula for Success or Racism?

Most of you will remember Amy Chua, if not by that name then from the title of her first popular book, “Tiger Mom”. Chua and her husband, Jed Rubenfeld, both professors at Yale Law School, have a new book out, The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America. The book has attracted attention for two reasons. First, similar to books like Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, it implicitly promises that all your child needs is a simple cocktail of three traits or habits to be successful. (At least Tough told us what the three traits are in his subtitle. Chua and Rubenfeld make you have to read the introduction. But I’ll save you the suspense [spoiler alert]: superiority, insecurity, and impulse control.) Please don’t let my tone suggest that I don’t take these books and others like them seriously. Tough’s book is excellent and an important read for parents and teachers alike. They teach us about students and teaching and parenting and, ultimately, about ourselves. If we can resist the temptation to either become completely consumed by their promises or be completely cynical, they force us to reflect on what we do well and where we need to improve. But, as their most thoughtful critics also point out, they also make two questionable promises. First, they define success and achievement very narrowly as something measurable by GPA, SSAT, SAT, GRE, name brand of your child’s college, income, and net worth. That is a topic for another time and constant reflection, but the poverty of imagination and vision in that worldview is stultifying.(1) Second, they make it seem so easy. A logical conclusion of Chua’s argument is that if we could find a pill that would deliver these unlikely traits we should give it to our kids. Why wouldn’t we? These books play on our insecurities and fears as parents and while they offer important arguments for us to reflect on and integrate into our teaching and parenting, they sidestep the daily, gritty, hard work of teaching, mentoring, coaching, and parenting kids. Who doesn’t want to do that work in a way that leads kids to develop grit, curiosity, character, well founded/humble confidence (to combine Chua’s superiority/inferiority duality), and impulse control?

[My thanks to the parent of my son’s classmate who pointed me toward this New York Times piece by Chua and Rubenfeld that summarizes their book.]

The second reason The Triple Package has attracted attention is because the claims in it evidence what Suketu Mehta, writing for Time, called a “new racism” and historical inaccuracies. Mehta’s racism claim bears consideration for many reasons, including that she puts it in the context of similar claims made over the last century or so. I commend Mehta’s article to you, not only on this score but also because in her conclusion she speaks to other reasons to think twice before buying into Chua and Rubenfeld’s arguments completely. To give you a taste of her broader critique:

Chua and Rubenfeld make another mistake when they try to set up a hierarchy of good culture vs. bad culture-in which good culture invariably means getting rich. They take their definition of success from that of Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.: “the gaining of money and position.” Nowhere are cultural traits like kindness, community and public service or martial valor given any value. 

Immigrants, claim Chua and Rubenfeld, are wary of “an excessively permissive American culture”-the bogeyman that haunts the dreams of so many who see the U.S. as losing the vigor of a former age. But isn’t that permissiveness exactly what makes America work: this messy mix, this barbaric yawp, this redneck rondeau, this rude commingling? Isn’t that what permeates its films, movies, books? And isn’t that the principal product it can still export? It is American culture’s permissiveness, its new world energy, that still attracts the masses to the “golden door.”

As it did with my father, who in college in 1950s Calcutta was first exposed to the great rock-‘n’-yell of Chuck Berry and Elvis-music the Jesuit deans of St. Xavier’s tried to ban because they couldn’t stand to see students gyrating their pelvises. My father had never heard such an awesome caterwaul before, and-along with America’s decadent movies and books-it seeded the young man’s desire to go live there someday.

It’s not conformity that makes this country great; it’s an individual striking out against the expectations of his culture, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg dropping out of Harvard, Miles Davis coming out of heroin addiction to produce ‘Round About Midnight, the 14-year-old Billie Holiday turning the pain of her childhood into the bluest beauty, Sylvia Plath taking on death with pills and poetry, William S. Burroughs writing from the bowels of his addiction in Naked Lunch; it’s Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Cheever and Carver drinking and writing, writing and drinking through their demons. Imagine what American culture would be if American artists had kept a tight check on their impulses.

I love the tension between arguments for impulse control, on the one hand, and creative exploration on the other. For free, unstructured play on the one hand and “10,000 hours of practice” on the other. And I think Mehta points out another important thing to reflect on after reading the book—what is unique to America and how did it come to be and to continue? There are obviously bad ways to answer that question, lest Americans become too enamored of themselves for the wrong reasons, but, keeping that caution in mind, what can America and the world learn and emulate from America’s history and culture?

So, with all that said, it’s important to consider arguments like Chua’s and Rubenfeld’s and exercise the critical thinking we expect of our students and children: evaluate the strength of their claims without getting swept up by them or dismissing them as cynical, learn from them what we can and become more thoughtful thinkers, teachers, and parents as a result.

Though I include links to Amazon when I mention books, I strongly encourage you to order books through Washington’s Hickory Stick Bookshop or your own local book store.

(1) Among other things, the vision of life Chua holds out is essentially that of Nietzsche’s will to power. As he wrote in his book by that title, “My idea is that every specific body strives to become master over all space and to extend its force (its will to power) and to thrust back all that resists its extension. But it continually encounters similar efforts on the part of other bodies and ends by coming to an arrangement (“union”) with those of them that are sufficiently related to it: thus they then conspire together for power. And the process goes on.” We all need to take Nietzsche seriously because his is a serious vision of reality with a lot of merit. It’s one I ultimately reject, but only after spending a lot of time considering alternatives.

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