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Counterpoint: The Chinese Mother Is Worth Listening to, Even When She's Wrong

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Inti St Clair | Digital Vision | Getty Images

A few years ago, I spent the long weekend over MLK studiously avoiding doing either the conservative thing—celebrating our country’s dedication to equality and color-blindness—or the progressive thing—celebrating the accomplishments of African Americans.

Instead, I read a book called "The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently … and Why. "

Psychologist Richard E. Nisbett started out as a universalist concerning the nature of human thought, convinced that all populations perceive and reason in the same way. Apparently, this is (or was) a very common assumption among psychologists. Prompted by a Chinese student, however, Nisbett began to read more broadly and discovered evidence that Westerners and East Asians have maintained very different systems of thought for thousands of years.

Nisbett writes that the Greeks developed a system of thought based upon individual agency, categorization of objects, open debate and logic. The East Asian thinkers developed a system of though based on harmony, awareness of context and cooperation.

According to Nisbett, westerners have always looked at the world as made up of individualized atoms whereas the East sees the world as made up of a continuous substance. These ways of thinking persist today. In one striking example, American and Japanese students were shown a pyramid-like object made from a reflective plastic and told that this was called a “Jax.” When shown a number of other objects and asked which one was a Jax, the American overwhelmingly chose a pyramid regardless of what it was made of while the Japanese chose the objects made from the reflective plastic regardless of the shape.

Back when I first read Nisbett, I tried a version of this experiment in a bar over the weekend. I was having some off-the-record drinks in the Mars Bar with some gossip columnists from a foreign-owned yet surprisingly xenophobic New York tabloid. This is possibly one of the dirtiest bars in New York now that the Village Idiot has closed. I grabbed a couple of my friends and drew a pyramid on a napkin, telling them it was a Jax. Then I grabbed another napkin and drew a large circle with a smaller circle. Next I broke off a piece of the crumbling walls and drew a pyramid.

“Which one is the Jax?” I asked.

They chose the pyramid.

“That’s interesting because the Japanese would have chosen the napkin.”

“No wonder we went to war with them. That’s clearly not a Jax. It’s a damn bagel.”

To prove Nisbett’s point we planned on stopping at a Sushi joint and conducting the experiment with the chefs. First, we took a cab up to a bar called the Cellar because it was, well, in a cellar.

They were having their annual bartender party. Instead of giving the bartender’s year-end bonuses, the bar lets them split the till for the night. I felt I pretty much had a moral obligation to go in order to repay the bartenders for all the free drinks they had supplied me.

After a couple of short glasses of dark liquids, we made our way uptown to Bungalow 8. The gossip columnists loved the place because it was always packed with improbably good looking women, and the columnists tend to pull above their weight class with would-be models who hope to get their career started with an appearance in the pages of the tabloid.

I hadn’t been in Bungalow for a couple of years, so it felt a bit like we were doing the time warp again back to 2001. It was still as ridiculous as ever. One guy who I talked with was about to leave for a cannon-ball run style race across Europe in either a classic Cadillac El Dorado or a new Bentley. Apparently he has both in a private garage in Manhattan. Somewhere along the way I lost my scarf, my copy of Nisbett’s book and forgot to stop in the Sushi joint for the other half of the experiment.

The “why” part of Nisbett’s book is disappointing. He claims that differences in ecology created the economic circumstances that led to different ways of thinking. I cannot say whether Nisbett is accurate in claiming that the ecology of China encouraged rice-based agriculture which required a communal and context oriented mind-set. But I know his description of the ancient Greeks is wrong. To Nisbett the Greeks were urban dwelling traders and pirates, when in fact ancient Greece was a highly agrarian society.

But if it wasn’t ecology or economics, what could have caused the Greeks and Chinese to develop such different ways of thinking? Nisbett’s book exhibits an annoying bio-phobia, never considering that the differences in cognitive process may rooted in physiological differences. I’ve never understood why it is considered better that differences in behavior or ability are caused by ecology rather than biology, but this is a prejudice in a lot of recent books about the diversity of peoples on our planet.

How could physiology cause the different ways of thinking? Nisbett’s book avoids mentioning IQ but the different cognitive processes he discovers also correlate with differences in IQ. The contextual-communal thinkers have higher average IQ’s than the object-logic thinkers. Could logic, then, be an adaptation to counter the handicap of having a lower IQ? That is, could the dimmer Westerners have developed a way of thinking that the bright Chinese didn’t need?

It certainly seems to me that the tools of logic and categorization are very useful but perhaps they are unnecessary for very bright people. If so, there would have been selective pressure in favor of logical thinkers in the West that would not have had as much influence in the East. Even the Western emphasis on individual liberty could be the result of Westerners not being quite smart enough to be collectivists.

Something like this informs my reading of Amy Chau’s controversial essay on “Chinese mothers.” She insists that her strict way of raising her kids—no sleepovers, no playdates, never allowing anything but an A—resulted in highly successful daughters. What’s more, she thinks that although this is a peculiarly Chinese way of raising children, there is no genetic component to it. I suspect she believes that if only Western moms could raise their children this way, all children would be above average.

Charles Murray has the appropriate response:

But genes play a big role in whether you can demand that your child get an A in advanced calculus or make first seat in the violin section of the orchestra. With that in mind, let’s contemplate the genes being fed into those Chua children who are doing so well.

Maternal grandfather: EE and computer sciences professor at Berkeley, known as the father of nonlinear circuit theory and cellular neural networks.

Mother: able to get into Harvard (a much better indicator of her IQ than the magna cum laude in economics that she got there); Executive Editor of the Law Review at Harvard Law School.

Father: Summa cum laude from Princeton and magna cum laude from Harvard Law School, now a chaired professor at Yale Law School.

Guess what. Amy Chua has really smart kids.

I wonder if the child-rearing techniques of Chua work especially well with particularly smart kids who are genetically suited to be contextual-communal thinkers, rather than slightly duller children who need logic, categorization, and a kind of rugged individualism to figure out the world. That is, kids of Westerners may need to experience of sleepovers in order to figure out things like social status and rivalry.

Note that this position also undermines one of the critiques of Chua’s parenting offered by David Brooks.

I believe she’s coddling her children. She’s protecting them from the most intellectually demanding activities because she doesn’t understand what’s cognitively difficult and what isn’t.

Practicing a piece of music for four hours requires focused attention, but it is nowhere near as cognitively demanding as a sleepover with 14-year-old girls. Managing status rivalries, negotiating group dynamics, understanding social norms, navigating the distinction between self and group — these and other social tests impose cognitive demands that blow away any intense tutoring session or a class at Yale.

This again assumes a kind of identity of mental abilities that every bit of evidence we have suggests does not exist. What if Chua parenting works for the Chuas of the world, while other styles are better fit to the offspring of parents with different genetic and intractable cultural baggage? The very existence of a this divergence of parental styles implies that they each pass a fitness test for those that practice them.

The implications of the fact of diversity are often beguiling to many people, who are taught to worry if such thoughts are racist. But not thinking about diversity doesn’t make it go away. And that's one reason I reluctantly disagree with my colleague Ash Bennington: Amy Chua is worth listening to because she is drawing our attention to diversity.

I mentioned this theory to the pretty girl who had come into Bungalow with the race-car driver. He had evacuated the bar in favor of the bathroom, presumably to revive his spirits with powdered medications. She had blonde curls that fell in front of her eyes when she talked. It was hard to pay attention to what she said because the long legs stretching out from her tiny sweater-skirt demanded so much attention.

I think she replied that my hypothesis was surprising because it would indicate that so many good things in the world—logic, individual liberty, philosophy and science—were the result of the West being a bit thick in the head.

I told her that this was not so surprising. We don’t necessarily think that the best civilization is the tallest or the one with the best eyesight. Why would being smarter necessarily make you better? Perhaps it’s more desirable to not have the average intelligence of your society be quite so high.

The music had gotten louder, and she had to lean in close to hear me. Her knees were pressed against my legs, and she was propping herself up with a hand on my thigh. Her hair smelled like rosemary and mint.

“What are you two on about?” the race-car driver asked.

“Oh, well, John here was just telling me how you don’t have to be the biggest to be the best.”

He smiled and stretched out his hand to her. They were off to dance and I was left with my whiskey and heretical thoughts about biodiversity on Martin Luther King Day.

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