Tiger mom for some, not for others

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanFeb 11, 2011 2:36 AM


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In a rumination on the "Tiger mom" phenomenon, Andrew Gelman suggests:

...Back when I taught at Berkeley and it was considered the #1 statistics department, a lot of my tenured colleagues seemed to have the attitude that their highest achievement in live was becoming a Berkeley statistics professor. Some of them spent decades doing mediocre work, but it didn't seem to matter to them. After all, they were Tenured at Berkeley. Now, I'm not saying Chua is like that--in writing this book, she's certainly not coasting on her academic reputation--but I do think it's natural for someone in her position to define her success based on where she stands in the academic pecking order (and, for that matter, a best-selling popular book will help here too) rather than on her accomplishments for their own sake.

That is an unfortunate, and frankly, scary side effect of the way meritocracy sometimes works. Some people fixate more on the proxy measures than the underlying variable which it is intended to measure. I immediately recall two close friends who were going to graduate school M.I.T. and Harvard at the same time, and by an unfortunate coincidence they made the same complaints about their advisors: that once these academics had reached their ultimate goal, they lost all sense of purpose, and simply decided to glide along after tenure. Status, not substantive contribution, turned out to be their ultimate motivation (one of my friends complained that his advisor had transformed himself into an extremely devoted family man after his reputation had reached its maximal value and there was no status return on labor investment!). No one could take away their positions as tenured faculty at M.I.T. and Harvard, and that was enough. I think this is connected to this Slate piece, Mary Gates and Karen Zuckerberg Weren't Tiger Moms: Is the Amy Chua approach bad for the American economy?:

This point was picked up by Larry Summers—hardly known as lackadaisical in personality or parenting style—who pointed out in a debate with Chua at Davos that if Karen Zuckerberg and Mary Gates had been tiger moms, they never would have let young Mark or Bill leave Harvard to pursue their entrepreneurial dreams, and we might not have Facebook or Microsoft (though America would probably have two more very competent dentists or lawyers). Of course, it's hard to invent Facebook or design the iPhone without developing sound foundations in math and science, the kind of preparation that Gates, Zuckerberg, and others born to privilege receive in America's elite private schools. The dismal showing of American students in international tests implies that we're limiting the pool of possible innovators by failing to provide this training to most children. It also doesn't mean that tiger moms should be any more forgiving in strict violin practice schedules or demands for A+'s in everything (except gym and art): That depends on whether they're willing to give up stronger prospects of Ivy League acceptance for the long shot of producing the next Bill Gates. But for the American economy to exploit its relative advantages fully, we may in fact be better off with a few more easygoing parents and fewer tiger moms.

The scary thing about the "Tiger mom" idea is that it will spread among the intellectually gifted elite, and grind away the spirits of the innovation generators. A mechanical fixation on outcome and lack of deep understanding is actually probably better for the average future worker bee. By analogy, I do not have the mathematical talents to actually do original mathematics research, so someone like me sees math as a purely instrumental (or sometimes fun) enterprise. I use it. I learn it. I memorize and get comfortable with useful tricks and techniques. And that's OK, because I'll never see the forest. I lack the capacity. People differ, and have varied strengths and weaknesses. There isn't a one-size-fits-all "method." Specialization is one way that aggregate economic productivity can rise. We should remember that.

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