Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Amy Chua may be a Narcissist...

Amy Chua at the 2007 Texas Book Festival, Aust...The very accomplished Amy Chua. Image via Wikipedia
...but that doesn't make her wrong.

Why a narcissist? In my reading I came across the following.

Benjamin Franklin rightly mocked the “Society of the Cincinnati”—an elite club created by former officers of the American revolutionary army—for limiting its membership to the heirs of those who served the independence of the United States.

He said: “ ‘Honour worthily obtained (as for example that of our officers) is in its nature a personal thing and incommunicable to any but those who had some share in obtaining it.
Thus among the Chinese, the most ancient and from long experience the wisest of nations, honour does not descend but ascends.’ ” (BF.707)

“[Thus] when the Chinese won [honor],” explains Carl Van Doren, Franklin’s most famous biographer, “the credit went to his parents.

In Amy Chua’s book,
 “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” she suggests Chinese parenting is superior to that of the West for its relentless, disciplined dedication to academic success and no excuse for slacking. In one notorious passage Chua is pushing her daughter to perfect a tune on the piano, via the sorts of threats and put-downs we worry would “traumatize” a childand in fact probably would, if thats all the child ever heard. But no hard-core Chinese mother would write a memoir about such culturally obvious parenting techniques, unless of course a contrast was her point and, we assume, credit and ascending honor her due.
“The ascending honour [continued Franklin, in 1784] is therefore useful to the state, as it encourages parents to give their children a good and virtuous education. But the descending honour, to posterity who could have no share in obtaining it, is not only groundless and absurd but often hurtful to that posterity, since it is apt to make them proud, disdaining to be employed in useful arts and thence falling into poverty and all the meannesses, servility, and wretchedness attending to it; which is the present case with much of what is called the noblesse in Europe.”
He mathematically calculated the absurdity. After nine generations a Daughter of the Revolution, for example, would “owe her honor to the 512 persons (existing in 1784) from whom she had descended … each successive generation ‘with a smaller and smaller share of true honor,’ ” quotes Van Doren. Descending honor is a legacy of European aristocracy and anathema to American meritocracy.

So why is Chua not necessarily wrong?

Because ascending honor is worth consideration. No doubt it was on the mind of Amy Chua
’s own Tiger Mother. Result: a brilliant academic and legal career, tenure at Yale, and great honor to her parents. The approach is not invalid, as Chua’s own parenting experience attests, except (we tell ourselves) to the extent it compromises our children’s mental health. How does Professor Chua feel toward her own parents? Deal with her occasional failures (if any)? The answers may be telling—but do they matter? One sample is poor statistics, but her book sounds more subtle than its online critics seem wont to imagine. I look forward to reading it. 

Chua’s daughter did eventually learn that passage on the piano and was ebullient about it. Success is not learnt by rote, but it does reinforce itself. For a parent in the West, the line 
between brute discipline and fulfilling potential can be a hard one to draw, but that's no excuse for slacking.

UPDATE: Amy Chua Revisited

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