Archive for February, 2011

22 February, 2011

Crouching Tigers, Raising Dragons

jovidushi-003There’s always enough blame to go around. There’s always a nice fat chunk of it that can be placed upon the sturdy shoulders of parents the world over. That’s in fact one of the undeniable contributions of parents to society – because you can’t blame the government for everything. Children are born perfect and destined for perfection except that between that first suck of air and that first utility bill, the darn parents get involved and everything goes haywire.

Or so they say. So lets go back to those previous posts on under-performing schools and over-performing students, both equally misguided and doomed. Assuming we all agree with Seliman’s paraphrasing of the Greeks, how do we teach children to lead a productive and purposeful life? The memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua (Penguin, January 2011), whose list of credits include a professorship at Yale Law, authorship of Day of Empire (Anchor, 2009), and World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability (Doubleday, 2002) and mothership of two high-achieving daughters, has a few thoughts on that. You can read the excerpt over at the Wall Street Journal. Here are two snippets:

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.

Western parents try to respect their children’s individuality, encouraging them to pursue their true passions, supporting their choices, and providing positive reinforcement and a nurturing environment. By contrast, the Chinese believe that the best way to protect their children is by preparing them for the future, letting them see what they’re capable of, and arming them with skills, work habits and inner confidence that no one can ever take away.

Chua’s book generated, among other things, a collection of rap songs spoofing her method of parenting. There has been criticism of her, testimonies of clawed-kids and bemoaning of the lives of her deprived children. There has even been defense of the American Way and at least one writer, Ayelet Waldman, graciously acknowledging that we all muster the best we have on behalf of our children. But while we are busy doing all this, we are still failing to examine what ails our own over-achieving (albeit sub-par compared to tiger cubs), children. Ours certainly excel at various games and classes. Some of them go to Olympic trials in their chosen sport, others graduate with academic distinction, and most of them do these things without ever once experiencing failure. Few if any of them achieve the same degree of success that a Hua kid might. Conversely, a Chua offspring is probably less able to separate herself and her own ambition from those of her parents than one of our daughters or sons are able to do. Yet somewhere between these two lies an ideal of contented childhood that could signify successful adulthood.

I decided to look closely at the choices I have made as a parent. My oldest daughter tried everything from ballet to tap to gymnastics to basketball to tennis to track to swimming…and she excelled at everything. Somewhere during those early years, I had the presence of mind (and the absence of confusion brought on by other children, not to mention the relatively normal environment in which I lived, in Maine), to recognize her bliss when she found it in running and swimming. Holding a prize for distinction in mathematics or earning good money for creative writing did not mean that she had to spend her summers delving deep into the mysteries of the universe as opposed to getting bored at home. I was able to say no thanks to the NJ State Ballet and the traveling gymnastics league in Madison, to the Bossov Ballet School and the basketball league in Maine as well as the glossy invitations to the plush programs run by Johns Hopkins for gifted children. Being good at various things did not necessitate filling up every waking moment with trying to become better at all of those things. In the same way that one best friend is a treasure beyond compare, one great sport could, truly, bring both comfort and joy to her.

Fast forward a few years and I find myself in an environment that makes it just short of impossible to divorce performance from worth. Having discovered that, no, just because I dance does not mean I can ice-skate, and, in fact, I look completely ludicrous and graceless as I lurch about the rink, I decided to enroll my younger daughters in a season of lessons. Everything went swimmingly well until I was handed, at the end of the session, a little booklet with blank pages listing all the many levels and skills-sets that awaited them during, presumably, years and years of skating. It wasn’t enough for my children to simply learn how to ice skate so they could do it with their friends, they had to be reeled into a program where some greater skill was waiting, always out of reach. And trying to achieve all of these skills in all the many sports/activities that our children may try does deprive them of the focus they may need to reach a level of perfection that is, for most people, only possible in one or two of them.

I use ice-skating as my example, but take a look at any one of the activities that American parents in a school district like this could choose – soccer, basketball, swimming, running, fencing, dancing (in a multitude of styles), performing (theater and dance), playing tennis, rowing, playing the piano/fiddle/violin/cello/guitar, skating… Any time that a child signs up for one of these activities, that child is expected to continue that activity, the implication being that dropping out of something after having tried it for a season or a summer, implies a failure on the part of both child and parent. And, sadly, too many of us seem to agree.

While parents like Chua pick an activity or two for their children and then bully their children into excelling at those activities, most of us offer our children a range of activities and (a) do not encourage them to find the ones they truly love and (b) allow the underlying popular judgment (made by parents, coaches and team mates alike), that stopping equals “giving up” or “quitting” to go uncontested. Our children grow up with the sense that the only reason to participate in a sport/activity is if ribbons/medals/trophies are guaranteed by their dedication and performance. They are unable to identify the things that truly bring them joy because far too many of these activities force the acquisition of competencies unrelated to the enjoyment of the activity by the child. It’s a lose-lose. Often they are either winning at something they don’t truly care about, abandoning those they may actually enjoy but do not excel at, or they are turning their backs on joyless activities and feeling like losers for doing so.

No wonder so many of them end up in high school stressed out, unhappy, out of touch with their own souls while meticulously churning out those A’s and making it into those Honors classes. No wonder so many of them are terrified that the worst thing that could happen to them is a ‘B’ that they feel is waiting around the next corner to bite them in the arse. No wonder they make it through high school and enter college completely unprepared for the delight of exercising an unfettered mind while simultaneously expecting to attend Stanford, Brown or Yale.

The single truly self-reflecting article I saw on this topic was by Karen Heller of the Philadelphia Inquirer who, it happens, was at Penn Charter watching ‘Race to Nowhere’ at the same time I was and drawing similar conclusions:

Not all children are exceptional in every way. Nor should they be. They can’t all be in the top 10 percent.

And not every child will go to Harvard, though it’s not for lack of trying.

With a range of colleges and universities, how did so many students see themselves at Harvard? A record 35,000 students applied for the Class of 2015, a jump of 15 percent, despite a decline in high school graduates. This means one in 50 seniors wants to attend Harvard, even though the odds of getting in are lousy. The admittance rate last year was 6.9 percent.

So, yes, we’d better prepare our children for failure.

I don’t know whom, exactly, to blame for this. Surely, some of the blame belongs to parents – children cannot enroll in activities on their own, and their approach to school has as much to do with a parent/guardian’s views as it does with their own ideas. Some of it belongs to secondary schools that measure success by average GPAs and college admissions over the fostering of the thing that is the truest indicator of life-long success: a love of learning. And some of it belongs to colleges that fall back repeatedly on the letter grade, standardized test scores and GPA over the personal history and intellectual potential of a student. When a student is reduced to listing awards and grades, and that becomes the measure of her worth, something quintessential about education is lost.

I realize that I am speaking of a privileged group of kids, those who live within a middle or upper middle class income bracket, and I know full well that, like the two movies, they are separated by a considerable gulf from the problems that beset their poorer counter parts. The overall thrust of a culture, however, affects us all equally. The kid who is told that college will save him and the kid who is told that college is non-negotiable, both will, one day, find themselves in a similar if not identical college environment. And that environment will probably be wrong in how both of them are judged. There are some changes afoot here in my house. The youngest is not in the Challenge Program for advanced kids, the middle one has been asked to aim for a D or less so she can realize that the world still stands, and the oldest has been advised to drop her second language and take pottery or photography instead. There are mixed results. The notion that “not in Challenge” means that she is not “smart enough” still hovers in the presence of her older siblings, the ‘D’ remains elusive, and a concentrated effort is being made – on the part of the youngling – to replace that second language with Theology rather than clay. But it’s a start.

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1 February, 2011

The Miseducation of the American Child

I’ve been immersed in childhood recently. The unfettering of it, the recollection of it and, most of all, understanding it; I’m a parent of this milieu, I have to understand all things. Straddling these three points, however, has me in a bit of a knot. Picture the children’s game, twister, and you have your image.

As I said recently to a swim coach from Lower Merion High School whom I’ve come to know and like, I am all about saving the entire world on any given day. Education, primary and secondary education to be precise, is a cornerstone of that intention. Watching the movie ‘Waiting for Superman’ twice, with friends, was a large part of that cornerstone and one I reflected on after. Watching ‘Race to Nowhere,’ came next.

Therein, the knots. Both movies are about education, but their points of intersection are few. While ‘Waiting for Superman’ bemoans a system that cannot reward excellence in teaching and tracks students from Kindergarten through High School – thereby trapping a child in years of low/high expectations – and advocates intensifying time spend in school, ‘Race to Nowhere’ demands the opposite. Less time spent in school and on school work. Perhaps that is not altogether unexpected: the first movie concentrates on the teeming masses of the under privileged, for the most part, whereas the latter focusses on the far smaller group, the severely driven children of the upper echelons who go through life with the whirring of helicopter blades above their heads. The only common thread is this: neither high pressure nor low is working.

So what is or will work, and who is responsible? I belong fairly in the group that is addressed by ‘Race to Nowhere.’ I live in a suburb where the public and private schools are only distinguishable from each other by the lack of uniforms in one and the presence of them in the latter. Their facilities do not differ, their students graduate and enter prestigious four year colleges in equal rates. Lower Merion High School has been ranked by the Wall Street Journal as one of the top 60 high schools in the nation, public or private. But through personal experience and anecdote I have come to understand that the drive for not only the perfect college but the perfect college application, has turned many Lower Merion’s students into young people who are riddled with self-doubt and low self-esteem (always guaranteed outcomes when one plays the comparison game as these students do, and incessantly). They – like those students profiled in the movie – are less interested in a particular subject as they are in the “right” combination of subjects – and activities – that will “sell” them to a college.

And then what? That is a question that has, it seems, never been posed to these students. They have, it seems, managed to go through over fifteen years of academic instruction (give or take a few depending on pre-K non/enrollment), without ever having understood that there is no externally imposed formula for happiness or success. Life, they seem not have been told, is not lived behind desks or inside glossy portfolios. It unfurls in the trenches. There is no “right” combination. There is no “right” college. And if they have been made to believe that getting into the “right” college is the be all and end all of their existence, I fear for the impoverishment of spirit and mind that is sure to follow in the wake of graduation four years hence. There is only one “right” and that is the student herself. She, made more interesting through her lacks and nuance, her gifts and struggles, her awkwardness and misfitting, her good or bad grades, her prancing on a stage or her awe as the audience, her gift of language or lack thereof, her poor singing voice and the amazing arrow of her body diving into a pool or flying along a track, she is perfect. And it is that flawed perfection – not the list of awards and mindless regurgitation of fact and figure – that creates the perfect school or college or other environment, and, eventually, the perfect family, community and nation.

We know this, as adults. How then has that disappeared from view when, last time I checked, we were the people in charge? I saw this movie at the William Penn Charter School, the nation’s oldest Quaker School. Screening this movie was certainly in keeping with the school’s commitment to intellectual curiosity and support of a larger community. But I was hard pressed, as I sat there, to reconcile the splendor of the newly dedicated Kurtz Center for the Performing Arts (which rivals the Kimmel Center here in Philadelphia), with the school’s mission statement that also embraces honesty, compassion and simplicity. The splendor of the auditorium in which I sat grated on the images that rose in my mind of the many different Friends Meeting Houses in which I had contemplated “that of God in everyone,” all of them simple, all of them devoid of ostentation, all of them remarkably well suited to the pursuit of simplicity. How does a school’s administration convince a student seated in such grandeur – an administration that saw fit to pursue the acquisition of such grandeur – that their lives should reflect the worth of scholarship acquired through diligence and innate interest and that their spirits should be nurtured through quiet reflection in places that foster such reflection? How does one speak the word, simplicity, on such a stage? Admittedly, I am biased toward the arts and a part of me does feel that if spending must occur, let it be in the direction of the arts, but still.

To their credit, the administrators who facilitated the discussion after the movie spoke candidly about the fact that theirs was a college-preparatory school, though they alluded to the fact that somehow it was parents paying $28,000 a year who were driving this focus, not themselves. So are parents the ones at fault? According to an article titled ‘All Joy and No Fun: Why Parents Hate Parenting,’ in New York Magazine (July 10th, 2010), Jennifer Senior writes:

Martin Seligman, the positive-psychology pioneer who is, famously, not a natural optimist, has always taken the view that happiness is best defined in the ancient Greek sense: leading a productive, purposeful life. And the way we take stock of that life, in the end, isn’t by how much fun we had, but what we did with it. (Seligman has seven children.)

So, are parents to blame? Stay tuned, because you know I’ve got some feelings about that.

The Books:

The Books:

On Sal Mal Lane

In the tradition of In the Time of the Butterflies and The Kite Runner, a tender, evocative novel about the years leading up to the Sri Lankan civil war.

A Disobedient Girl

A Disobedient Girl is a compelling map of womanhood, its desires and loyalties, set against the backdrop of beautiful, politically turbulent, Sri Lanka.


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