The Virtues of Obedience

The Virtues of Obedience:

A great deal of discussion has arisen about the article "Why Chinese Mothers are Superior." Cassandra sent me an interesting response; here is another.

First of all, filial piety requires me to say that it should be obvious that Southern mothers are the most superior. I assume we all have such duties, so everyone gets to make a one-off statement of this type in the discussion below before we tackle the serious issues.

Issue number one: Does growing up under strongly directed authority limit your ability to be spontaneous as an adult? Shannon Love thinks so:

Noticeably excluded from her children’s activities is any kind of team activities. The secret of American’s collective success as a people is our ability to self-organize ourselves on both the small and large scale into highly effective teams. The relative inability to self-organize into teams is why China and some other cultures have lagged behind...
This was the Duke of Wellington's point when he spoke of Waterloo being won "on the playing fields of Eton." Nevertheless, I'm suspicious of it as deployed against China. The Chinese seem to have an excellent structure for forming themselves up into working teams. The problem China has had over the last fifty years has not been its inability to form such teams, but that the teams that form are culturally encoded to "look up" for direction, rather than to "look around." Thus, the Red Guards could appear throughout the urban regions in short order, and function effectively; the Communist party could rather quickly spread to control all aspects of life.

What hurt China was the lack of spontaneous systems of resistance to authority. It wasn't that they couldn't form spontaneous teams: it's that the teams that formed tended to point the same direction.

That may be a problem of this style of "leadership" (insofar as domineering counts as leadership). There is another problem with top-down direction, which is this one:
I once read somewhere that American conservatories graduate over 300 pianists a year, and I would guess that the fraction of them who go on to careers in classical music, other than giving lessons to the next generation who in turn won’t enter the field, must be very low. Chua is setting her kids up for failure; and if it’s argued that music lessons are a good in themselves, which they may be, why does Chua treat them like a matter of life or death, making her kids and herself miserable over them?
The chronic cycle of shortages and price-destroying-surpluses that plagues Communist-type systems arises from this feature. You don't have to be a Communist to suffer from it, though: all you have to be is a central planner. You and I and Bob can look around the world, and we all see basically the same problems (e.g., there is not sufficient wheat being produced). Thus, we all call for basically the same solutions. Six months or six years on, those solutions are now the problem: we all directed our systems to produce wheat, and now farmers can't make a living off the price of the stuff.

The first problem was that the people were starving; the new problem is that the farmers are. So we let some of the farmers do something else, and subsidize the rest: but we all do that, so that the supply of wheat suddenly drops sharply, while residual low prices cause it to vanish. Starvation again!

None of the decisions we've made are bad. In every case we've made precisely the right decision. Centralized planning has this negative quality, even when decision making is perfect. This is true for mothers as well: if every Chinese child is raised to play the violin, the marginal value of violin-playing is going to be even lower than it already happens to be.

You might argue that violin-playing is valuable in its own right, as a way of expanding the mind and developing its faculties. Very good! I agree. Music is a wonderful skill for just that reason. So, though, is drama, an activity that the self-described Chinese mother abhors:
Her scorn for drama takes on a sinister cast when we find out that her husband, Jed Rubenfeld, studied theater in the Drama Division of the Juilliard School from 1980 through 1982.
What does drama teach? Two things, chiefly: exposure to the plays of Sophocles or Shakespeare develops a deep capacity for understanding and sympathizing with humanity; while the experience of playing a role -- or, even more, of directing several actors each trying to play a different role -- develops the faculties of understanding human emotion. You are learning to convey it, but you are also learning how to read it from others. This can make communication easier, develop your ability to understand body language, and generally improve your ability to work with and care about others.

I think we should distinguish, again, between China and this particular "Chinese mother." Obviously the Chinese do not have any problem reading body language, or understanding the intricate unspoken signals at work in a social situation. They are excelled at this set of skills only by the Japanese, and only because the Japanese have a more homogeneous culture. I think this is more an eccentricity of this particular lady than it is a quality of "the Chinese," who love drama and have several fully-developed theatrical traditions of their own.

A generalized point, which seems to underlie the whole discussion: is it important to teach children to obey authority, or to resist authority and follow their own conscience? The answer is: "Yes." The skill that really needs to be taught, though, is the skill of distinguishing which of the two responses is appropriate in a given case. That judgment can be quite difficult to make; it's really what we were discussing in the post on violence and politics, the other day.

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