28 January 2011

"The central plan has instilled a kind of parental lethargy."

Jeffrey Tucker of the Mises Institute has written a provocative essay on the education of our yoots sure to please, irritate, or both. His point of departure is the recent "Tiger Mom" controversy. From lewrockwell.com:

Tiger Moms and the Central Plan

by Jeffrey A. Tucker

The hottest commentary of the year appeared in the Wall Street Journal: Why Chinese Mothers are Superior by Amy Chua. The story has 7,200 comments and counting, and every other outlet including the New York Times, the Washington Post, and everyone else, including tens of thousands of bloggers. The author’s name yields more than one million Google hits.

The thesis was simple. American moms coddle their kids and protect their self-esteem; Chinese mothers, in contrast, work their kids hard, accept nothing less then excellence, and help the kid accomplish real things so that self-esteem is rooted in reality. The response was beyond belief, with mobs of angry mothers claiming that the author was essentially advocating child abuse.

I’m not entering the fray on child-raising techniques. Rather I would like to draw attention to something that seems to be lost in this debate: the institutional context that has led to the American tendency to let the kids grow like weeds.

The problem begins with public schooling itself. Teachers and parents alike tend report the widespread tendency of parents to take a strong interest in their child’s education from preschool through second grade. But after the child learns to read, more or less, and life gets busy to double-income households, the job of tending to education is left to the authorities, who give off the illusion that they are taking care of all important matters.

The child is meanwhile swimming in a world of peers and the distance between this world and the world of the parents grows, and by the time the child is in middle school, there is very little connection left between the parents and the child that would allow anything like close monitoring of educational outcomes.

Child rearing becomes a waiting game and a matter of a huge checklist. Reading: check. Basic math: check. Middle school: check. High school: check. SAT prep: check. College admission: check. Then the magic age of 18 arrives and it’s off to college, a time when parents sign huge checks and the child learns that life is a blast with few responsibilities beyond repeating on tests the blather they hear from the expert standing up front.

What about the child’s individual traits, such as strengths and weakness, talents and preferences? These are private matters, not something readily accommodated by the great system of K through 12 education, which is really a type of central plan. Most parents don’t even think twice about it but it is true: this country has an approved tract for all kids and the goal of the system is to force conformity to it. If a child is faster than the plan allows, he or she has to learn to wait. If a child is slower then the plan allows, he or she had better speed up. Each year that goes by is a marker, like a production goal in a Gosplan.

You can see it in the educational codes of every state, which have a century of accumulated cruft that reflects a slight change in educational philosophy that is written into law every ten years or so. We must have open classrooms and language experience! But no child can be left behind! Values clarification! Back to basics! The old priorities are not repealed but rather become like a layer in an old growth tree, the branches of which are a gigantic bureaucracy living off the taxpayer. But who can complain since the system is "free?"

Any child who deviates from the approved path is considered to be a problem. What if a child is ready for college at the age of 13 or 14? You can count on school administrators, counselors, teachers, pastors, and other parents to all say that it would be a disaster for the child to skip a step. Is it even allowed that a child can graduate that early?

And look at the shock and horror that has greeted the success of homeschooling: people who do this are seen as short-sighted, freaky, and even unpatriotic. Certainly they are doing the child no favors in denying him or her the glorious socialization that comes with staying with the central plan. When the homeschool child performs well, and all the data indicate that they do, this is chalked up to some exogenous factor and then ignored by the central planners.

Has this system reinforced a certain pattern of negligence among parents, the sense that there is no real need to push the child in this direction or that or otherwise insist on excellence and help the child achieve it? Certainly that is the usual path that central planning takes. When we are no longer owners of a resource, and no one in particular takes responsibility for outcomes, and the things we do to affect those outcomes don’t produce substantial results anyway, why bother?

This might be the real reason for the American tendency to approve of things the child is and does. As a culture, we’ve come to trust someone else to take on the essential responsibility of molding the next generation.

The central plan has instilled a kind of parental lethargy. We let the state take over the core responsibilities from the age of 5 through 22, and then we are shocked to discover that kids leave college without a sense of work ethic, without marketable skills, and even without the ambition to succeed in the real world. So we let them become boarders in our homes, "reverts" who specialize in Wii and Facebook updates. Growing up takes longer and longer because the machinery we have in place saps individual initiative and punishes any outlying behavior.

As for the Chinese approach, it might reflect a sense that authorities can never be trusted with the essential job of training a child for life. Long enough experience with a central plan will tend to teach that lesson. Americans are just behind the learning curve in this regard.


MrsC said...

Two points to consider:

1. The quintessential “Chinese super mom” does not reject nor distrust the authorities or the “central plan.” She embraces it and plays to win. This is not always the same thing as pursuing excellence or knowledge or truth or service.

2. How easy would it be to be a “tiger mom” when one has more than one or two children? What does that say about this model of parenting?

No time for more. Calculus, physics and piano practice for my progeny await.

X said...

I wouldn't take advice on the raising of children from either Amy Chua or Jeffrey Tucker, two very flawed "adults."

Emily said...

Having dusted off my Russian dictionary, I think the poster says something like, "Thank you, Papa Stalin, for executing our parents!"

Michael said...

As a person who lives in Belgium, I know for a fact that American moms and dads SPOIL their children. And maybe that's why Amercians are ALWAYS seen as uneducated here in Europe. Most Belgians know four languages and many young adults already have their very own businesses by their late twenties. I'm not condoning the Chinese approach but I do think that the American system of education is deeply flawed and its products are closed-minded individuals with absolutely no appreciation for culture.

Anonymous said...

I think the comment about Chinese mothers might have been BEFORE the one child policy that has produced children as overfed and indulged as any American child.

MrsC (RAWR) said...

In response to Michael's comment:

As a non-American living in the United States, I've observed first-hand a generous "can do" spirit in this country which motivates individuals to seek innovative solutions to a problem. On education, homeschooling typifies an outside-the-box solution which takes guts and commitment to implement. Many Americans are re-thinking what it means to be educated. While some solutions fail and others work, many excellent supplemental education programs are emerging in this process. "ALWAYS" this or that is a terribly broad stroke to describe any people.