Saturday, January 22, 2011

"Greatest hits of the '60s, '70s, and now the '80s"

This is the new tagline of the Boston oldies station, at least since the new year. There are two problems with this change. First, I happen to like the greatest hits of the '50s and want them back. Second, I was alive in the '80s. Oldies have always been an expressly historical genre, representing pop music that happened before I existed and thus was of interest to me for purely antiquarian reasons. (I mean, it's hard to explain how I was an antiquarian at age six, when I first started listening to the radio, but suffice it to say, I was.) Now, oldies and I have apparently converged. History has fused with the present! What outrage is next? My present will be the present's past? Oldies will represent my personal nostalgia instead of the nostalgia of old people? I WILL BE OLD???


Friday, January 21, 2011

Final thoughts in support of Amy Chua, who will disappear from the internet any minute now

As I predicted, the controversy immediately turned into a heated racial conflict in which white people applauded themselves for loving their children more than Asians and Asians complained that Chua rekindled memories of their own childhood traumas and was reinforcing pernicious model minority myths just when it seemed like Asians drug dealers and hip hop dancers might finally get their place in the limelight. Since I still don't care about these things enough to worry that China will eat us or think that Asian children are merely deformed versions of our infinitely well-adjusted non-Asian American children (back pats all around), I only want to answer some final comments on the previous post and clarify my original endorsement of the argument for making your children do things they don't want to do on completely Western grounds (which are Chua's grounds too), since I have no idea what the Chinese grounds would be.

Last week, I played tennis a couple of times for the first time in probably six years. At first, I couldn't quite master the size of the court and the height of the net, but a few minutes in, the old rhythm returned, and I was able to keep up (though not beat) my much more recently-practiced companions. And it felt quite satisfying and, in Chua's words, fun. And this could not happen unless I had started playing tennis when I was eight and kept at it for 10 years, and I wouldn't have done that had my mother not pressured me to.

That pressure was not always or even mostly well-received--I liked tennis well enough and was objectively better suited to it than many other activities (I tried basketball about the same time, but was alas doomed to be 5'2), but I did not like having to practice it in any sustained way. Thus my childhood tennis career featured many tantrums on my part, much parental resentment, waking up at 7 am on Saturday mornings to get to lessons, and then four years of varsity team regimens, the last year of which was combined with my last-ditch effort to get into a selective college that involved taking so many courses that I didn't have a lunch period but still had to stay to play tennis until 6 pm every weekday and all day Saturday and never sleep. And all this was to maintain a very low level of competitiveness--my high school team sucked and my parents realized that my future was not going to hinge on tennis and never sent me to tennis camps or farmed me out to private instructors so that I could compete at a higher level.

The result of all this is that now I can play tennis tolerably well. And what is the value of that for a political theory grad student, you ask? Because it is fun to be good at things, and most things are only fun when you're good at them. People who take up tennis as adults are extremely unlikely to become even as tolerably good as me, in large part because it is very difficult to master the correct stroke form as an adult, and improvement in tennis is based almost entirely on good form. When adults try to improve their game and their form is wrong (you may have seen old dudes trying to hit really hard while basically punching the ball at your local community courts), they develop sports injuries. And when you're not good, tennis is an extremely frustrating waste of time--all your shots fly into the sky or fall into the net, and you can't keep a satisfying rally alive. The same principle applies to many satisfying kinds of knowledge and activity--music, languages, sports--they can only be mastered if one gets an early start, and one can only get an early start if parents pressure. (Sure, there are some children who will practice diligently out of pure love for the activity and will not need any external pressure, but they are rare and more likely to make a vocation of the activity rather than a hobby.)

Parental pressure can backfire--hence the stories of all the resentful forced pianists who now avoid piano on pain of death as a result of being pressured as children. But, given that they would also not play as adults if they hadn't been pressured at all, that outcome seems to be a wash. Not playing piano because you hate it and not playing because you don't know how put you in the same non-playing place. If we account for the haters and the ignorant, we are left with a sizable middle portion of pressured children who will come out of the experience with a tolerable competence in the activity, and that seems to be the goal of most parents who override their children's indolent wills and demand that they practice or rehearse.

The other arguments against parental pressure--that it breeds resentment and diminishes the time left to the child to imagine and play and find himself or whatever--seems equally biased towards the extremes. This might be true if a child is being forced to practice violin or whatever 20 hours a day, but most parents, including all the Asian parents I've ever known, are not that demanding. They know their children and realize quite quickly, like my parents did, that, unless their child shows remarkable early talent, violin or tennis or French is not going to be the whole of that child's future and so doesn't warrant the kind of full-time dedication that a vocation would. Those who oppose parental pressure because it monopolizes childhood time seriously underestimate how much time there is in childhood. I spent 10 years playing tennis regularly, and yet I could basically forget about the entire experience until last week's tennis playing reminded me. There were so many other things that happened in those 10 years that tennis is not even among my primary memories of that time.

As with time, so with parental resentment. The fights I had with my mother over tennis had also faded from mind until I thought about this Amy Chua thing. I still don't understand quite how she got her daughters to go along with her regimen since I was not so amenable to much milder versions of that kind of pressure and could be moved to tantrums by much slighter provocation. But even by high school, I had pretty much forgotten any resentments I harbored against my mother for making me play tennis in the years prior. Again, one might point to extreme cases of festering child-parent resentments born of parental pressure, but I don't see how they demonstrate the intrinsic evil of pressure, since never overriding your children's preferences can result in an equal degree of resentment that you never gave them opportunities or developed their potential and left them with no long-practiced and developed skills in adulthood.

A final argument against this kind of pressure is that its objects are chosen arbitrarily. Why violin and not ice hockey or French or bassoon or Japanese or carpentry? How can you know that the activities you choose for your children now will serve them as adults if you can't know their future occupations in advance, or even that they will be able to enjoy these activities later? (If they don't have access to a piano, for example, they can't play it.) Rousseau acknowledges this same problem in Emile as a fundamental difficulty of all modern education:
In the social order where all positions are determined, each man ought to be raised for his. If an individual formed for his position leaves it, he is no longer fit for anything. Education is useful only insofar as fortune is in agreement with the parents' vocation. In any other case it is harmful to the student, if only by virtue of the prejudices it gives him. In Egypt where the son was obliged to embrace the station of his father, education at least had a sure goal. But among us where only the ranks remain and the men who compose them change constantly, no one knows whether in raising his son for his rank he is not working against him.
For the most part, the problem of the unsuitability of the education one gives to children for their future needs is insurmountable. We simply can't know any longer (if we ever could) what our children will be and what they will need to know in advance. Nonetheless, we can't not educate them for this reason. So, unless you take this as a reason to follow Emile's curriculum, which is expressly designed to educate the universal human being who is prepared for anything that comes his way, you have to make arbitrary choices for your children. You can justify them with some kind of argument about how piano or basketball or Japanese will teach them fundamental "life skills" of some sort, and it's true in some cases. Diligence and persistence are good "life skills" that might be learned from almost any childhood activity diligently and persistently pursued, but that's just the problem--any activity. So which one to impose on your children?

The answer, I think, is that it doesn't much matter, so pick whichever activities are 1) the most conducive to your children's individual natures and temperaments (says Locke) and 2) the most demanding and satisfying, and 3) most worth preserving for the future of our civilization. There is no great shame--contra many Chua detractors--in selecting something that will also look good on a college application, since in large part, college admissions does value those skills that are actually difficult to master and valuable for the world, even if it does for superficial and instrumental reasons. Which leads us to the final point--pressure to do well in school.

Look people, it is important to do well in school, both for short term ends like getting a job and for long-term goods like happiness, understanding, and self-knowledge. Pushing your children to master the middle school math curriculum when they would rather get C's is not a form of cruelty or an impossibility--middle school math is not that hard and far more children can master it than currently do. I know you all know of dozens of people (including yourselves) who are geniuses despite their indifferent academic records, but you and those people would not be less brilliant if they'd also done well in 10-grade geometry. It is easy enough for kids like me, who quite liked school, to decide at age eight that they're good enough at reading and writing, so don't really need to also be good at math and to promptly stop trying for the next 10 years. This was a mistake. Yes, things have so far turned out fine despite this mistake, but it was no less a mistake. It is as important to understand mathematics as it is to understand any of the other constitutive structures of our society (language, literature, history, etc). It's too bad that I constitutionally suck at math, yes, but I could've sucked somewhat less if I hadn't simply given up in grade school. Whether the suckage differential would've been significant in any way, I don't know, but at the very least, it would not have hurt to try. Childhood is long and its petty injustices are easily forgotten, so a few more math problems would hardly have made a dent.

On the other hand, of course, spilt milk. Childrearing as a political question has historically been a matter of on average (for Locke and Rousseau), and is now a matter of in aggregate. It never offers much assistance when one is faced with an actual screaming child. So good luck with that, peeps. Consider Greek and Latin instruction at an early age.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Speaking of gym class

In a serendipitous moment, just as Alpheus tries to candy-coat the futility and cruelty of gym class, my own high school district finally relaxes the class's iron grip on students.
The plan as voted on will reduce staff in the physical wellness department by incorporating health–now a one-semester stand-alone class–into sophomore physical education classes, cut drivers education, and schedule junior and senior electives more efficiently...

After listening to teachers talk about the importance of physical activity and drivers education, Superintendent Nanciann Gatta pointed out that while physical activity is important, the district now requires eight semesters of physical education and one of health–and only six of math and four of science.
I suppose I should not get worked up over the fact that these requirements have been in place--in that ratio--for at least a decade. One semester of gym class for every semester of high school enrollment--and no exceptions for such irrelevant substitutes as varsity sports participation. (Although that last rule may have changed since my tenure.)

Sure, I would've preferred to have a lunch period my senior year instead of standing out on a softball diamond in shorts and a t-shirt in November for 40 minutes a day. I probably could've found something better to do with my time instead of a summer school health class I was forced to take because it too was required for graduation on top of all that gym time, during which I spent eight weeks watching powerpoint presentations depicting the symptoms of chlamydia that the instructor had outsourced to the students so that he could get paid to surf internet sports sites. (He also told us he invented the cheese hat that Green Bay Packers fans wear and became a millionaire from it.) One day, when we look back on the successes and shortcomings of NCLB, the elimination of the colossal waste of time that was health class at Niles West will rank among its triumphs.

It's true that things worked out ok for me in the end. Now, maybe they will also work out better for other people. After much searching, I finally found the actual restructuring plan. (Notably, the revamped school "newspaper" has opted to forgo coverage of teacher firings and curriculum changes in order to whinge more extensively about how unfair the school ban on Facebook is.) While I am deeply dismayed to see such illustrious traditions as "Fashion Workshop," "Sports and Entertainment Marketing," and "Interior Design 1 and 2" (we had this???) bite the dust, I find it difficult to be upset about increased emphasis on real subjects at the expense of such otherwise edifying and important instruction as "Chlamydia 101, or How I Became Rich By Selling Cheese Hats."

Sunday, January 09, 2011

A study in comparisons: How fun should learning be?

As a long-time proponent of both not freaking out about teh Azns and not permitting pedagogy to surrender to juvenile interests in video games and texting, the contrast between this:
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.
...and this:
A.P. teachers have long complained that lingering for an extra 10 or 15 minutes on a topic can be a zero-sum game, squeezing out something else that needs to be covered for the exam. PowerPoint lectures are the rule. The homework wears down many students. And studies show that most schools do the same canned laboratory exercises, providing little sense of the thrill of scientific discovery.

All that, says the College Board, is about to change...A preview of the changes shows that the board will slash the amount of material students need to know for the tests and provide, for the first time, a curriculum framework for what courses should look like...In biology, a host of more creative, hands-on experiments are intended to help students think more like scientists...The new approach is important because critical thinking skills are considered essential for advanced college courses and jobs in today’s information-based economy. College administrators and veteran A.P. teachers familiar with the new biology curriculum believe the changes...might bring some of the excitement back to science learning.
greatly pleases me. Except I realize that, in approximately seven seconds, Teh Internets will tear Amy Chua to shreds for 1) not authentically representing Chinese people everywhere*, 2) exacerbating negative cultural stereotypes about Smart Asians, and 3) being tyrannical, repressive, and possibly psychotic, whereas the changes to the AP exams will be lauded as beneficial and progressive. But I maintain that there is nothing about the supposed Chinese/Asian/ambiguously ethnic attitude towards education that is not wholly in keeping with fully mainstream American values, which, if you need to be reminded, do actually include hard work, persistence, discipline, and parental obedience. I have no doubt that ideas truly foreign to us do prevail in China, but these ideas don't make it to Scarsdale High without undergoing some congenial modifications. The real question is, how did Amy Chua get her children to obey?

*Sometimes, I am glad that there are, numerically, very few Jews in the world so that I will never be held to the standard of accurately representing the views of one billion people.