Amy Chua made waves with this piece in the Wall Street Journal. She also had a very successful Davos visit where she found herself debating Larry Summers, which is a daunting task, even on a subject that you might think you have him on the backfoot for.
Summers had a quotable quote
I think you have to decide whether achievement is the route to self-esteem or whether self-esteem is the route to achievement.
But he also said
“It is not entirely clear that your veneration of traditional academic achievement is exactly well placed,” he said to Ms. Chua. “Which two freshmen at Harvard have arguably been most transformative of the world in the last 25 years?” he asked. “You can make a reasonable case for Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, neither of whom graduated.”
Now, Gates and Zuckerberg will certainly bump up the average earnings of Harvard dropouts quite a bit. I don’t have data to tell you if that will be enough to outdo the hedge fund millionaires among those who graduated. But I can guarantee that the median earnings of a Harvard graduate far exceed the median earnings of a Harvard dropout. And to Moms, medians matter, not averages.
As an Indian, I totally get where Amy Chua is coming from. Our Indian friends in the US are no less focused on their kids academics and extra curricular activities. You may think that this kind of parenting is part of the culture. It is, but it is not deep-set. It manifests itself because of economic reasons.
India, like China, is a poor country. There are no safety nets – no unemployment benefits, no healthcare insurance. If you don’t have a job, its a ticket straight to the poorhouse. The govt. hospitals don’t work and the rural employment guarantee program can only prevent starvation.
But just education doesn’t guarantee much. The dispersion in outcomes of your education is very, very wide. Even among college graduates, the average IIT graduate’s life-time income could be 10X that of an Arts graduate. I doubt that that is the case anywhere in the developed world.
And one more thing. The difference in quality of life between Rs. 4 lakhs and Rs. 40 lakhs p.a. is stark. Not like that between $40,000 and $400,000.
So if you are one of the millions of salaried, educated, middle class parents in India and you are thinking about the life your children are going to have, you are not thinking about self-esteem or creativity. You are thinking about simpler goals like how do I get my son into an engineering college? If your child shows just a little bit of promise, he will be entered into coaching classes every spare minute of the day. Or be sent to Kota. He will not have a life for two years of his childhood. Activities? Forget about it. You can’t make a living playing the flute. And no Engineering college needs you to have any extra-curricular activities.
Now imagine that you are that child. You made it into an Engineering college and then made your way to the US. How would you raise your kids? Probably the way Amy Chua did. Even though the income dispersion among college graduates is much lower in the US and even the bottom quartile of college grads have a pretty good quality of life, you raise your kids the way you were raised. It takes an effort to break away from your own upbringing. You may say, that’s why it’s cultural. But if it is, it wears off pretty quick.
The reason I don’t think this is culturally very deep set is because I can see how things can change within a generation. Even within India. Some of my friends in India would be called affluent anywhere, but in India they are in the top 1%. For their kids, they seek a more well-rounded education. Maybe they are wiser and know what really counts to get ahead. Or maybe they know that their own wealth gives their kids a safety net.
Does this parenting play out everywhere in the world? Probably not. I think there are a few conditions that are present in today’s India and China that make it so. One, the country must allow upward mobility. The economy has to be growing for there to be opportunities for talented graduates. Two, there should be a pretty sizable educated, salaried middle-class. That’s when parenting behavior becomes widespread enough to be deemed “cultural”.