amy chua

Insert Controversial Title Here

Yale Professor Amy Chua is at the center of a firestorm of late, but I contend not because of what she wrote in her book but thanks to a time honored practice that has grown decidedly more aggressive: giving articles controversial titles.

Her editor at the Journal, no doubt to make waves in the vast sea of information readers are forced to wade through every day, entitled an excerpt from Ms. Chua’s book, “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior.” While the title did its job, it also did a great disservice to the author.

The problem with titles is that people assume they are written by the author and therefore what the author believes. Psychologists Edward Jones and James Harris, as summarized by Dr. Robert B. Cialdini in Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, demonstrated this with an experiment where they showed people a pro-Fidel Castro essay and asked the participants to guess the true feelings of its author. The result was that even when participants were told that the author was required to write the pro-Castro essay, the participants believed the author was pro-Castro.

Every author has to expect a certain amount of opposition, but I’ve been surprised by the level of vitriol aimed at Ms. Chua – a level that only a judgment could produce. The wording of the title turned a reflective excerpt into a scathing indictment. No one likes to be looked down upon which any mention of “superiority” automatically implies. And when a reader is defensive a reader’s cognitive abilities are focused mainly on managing his emotions, leaving precious little to actually glean the message – she has a different style of parenting the consequences of which she is negotiating.

Nowhere, in interviews or her book, does Ms. Chua say that she believes Chinese mothers are superior to anyone. Her tone, in fact, is quite self-mocking and the book far more nuanced then the excerpt allowed. Yet that is all blown away by an editorial fanning of the flames as it were.

It’s enough to give any other person with a different viewpoint great pause – which is the cause for concern. As it is women voices in national media, even Wikipedia are grossly underrepresented. While headlines have been tweaked since time immemorial to sell newspapers, it can go too far and subvert the very voices it aims to promote.

Still I hope for more from voices not traditionally represented in media. The issue is will they be heard above the roar?

The Choice

I don't even have children, but I am endlessly fascinated by the dust up that Amy Chua's book has caused. I think this article in The Atlantic does a fine job of pinpointing the fear that caused so many violent reactions to Chua's book. Caitlin Flanagan's last paragraph struck a chord with me.

"She understood early on—as the good mothers are about to learn, when the heartbreaking e-mails and letters from the top colleges go out this month—that life is a series of choices, each with its own rewards and consequences. In a sense, that is the most unpalatable message of her book, the one that has caused all the anguish: it’s an unwelcome reminder (how can we keep forgetting this?) that the world really doesn’t lie before us like a land of dreams. At best—at the very best—it can only offer us choices between two good things, and as we grasp at one, we lose the other forever."

As a dreamer, myself, her line that "the world doesn't lie before us like a land of dreams" made me uncomfortable. Mainly, because, if I didn't think that, I'm not sure I'd be where I am today. But at the same time, I understand completely what she means by choices. To put your heart and soul in one thing, often means they aren't going into something else. But what I've learned is that it all starts with what you think the choices are in the first place.

What Chinese and American Moms Can Learn From a Dog

It all started with an excerpt of Amy Chua's new book, Tiger Mother, in the WSJ. The excerpt was given of course a controversial title to ensure plenty of pick up - "Why Chinese Mothers are Superior" (BTW, it was confirmed that the title was not hers but that of her editor). The article ignited a heated debate. A quick scroll through of comments on the article at WSJ revealed that most readers hated what she had to say. I, however, applaud Amy Chua's piece. Not because I agree with her parenting style, but because she had the guts to give voice to her story - when so few women do - especially when it might result in all sorts of opposition. I can't help it - I like the bold.

While some of her tactics seemed to me abusive, one thing that was clear is she loves her children. And yes, that love and want to do what's right can manifest itself in all sorts of screwed up ways. Still, I believe she made some good points that are worth discussing - such as, how often treating something with kid gloves assumes fragility.

That being said, the Chinese parenting emphasis on drills and route learning seems to be a pendulum swung perhaps too far in the other direction. She's simply playing on the other extreme.

An excellent essay with another traffic generating title, "Amy Chua is a Wimp" ran in the New York Times and hits a more nuanced center. In it, David Brooks argues, that the most intellectually challenging learning can only be had in complex social situations - situations that Ms. Chua's parenting actually keeps her children from. I thought Mr. Brooks hit a point that probably even many American moms fail to understand - just how important a role EQ plays.

But really, I think the whole matter could be settled by one industrious dog, Chaser. His owner, John W. Pilley, a psychologist, has taught the dog through rigorous daily teaching sessions of 3 to 4 hours over 1,000 nouns. He even went so far as to teach Chaser grammar. Which all goes to prove the point that even a dog can learn through extensive drills or is it that a dog is capable of learning nouns and grammar? One way of looking at it is that extensive practice and effort are easy or extensive practice and effort can produce great results.

Either way, I think the most important point was made at the end of the article on Chaser, when another doctor mentioned it wasn't the dog that was exceptional, but the attention lavished on her.