Sunday, January 30, 2011

Tiger President?

It may be mere coincidence but the central tenet of President Obama's State of the Union address last week--we must compete in the global marketplace!--found an uncanny echo in the viral controversy surrounding Amy Chua's bestselling Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Not that Mr. No-Drama resembled in tone the psychopathic Ms. Chua, or that his eminently sensible prescriptions verged as hers do into the abusive or deranged. And yet, as Elizabeth Kolbert cannily observes in her New Yorker review of Chua's screed, all the to-do about Tiger Mothering may well stem from displaced anxiety about America's declining global fortunes. And if the success of Chua's draconian methods rests on the slender shoulders of her two young daughters, America's future, our President tells us, depends on the competitive abilities of our national offspring.

But does it?

Surrounded by his honor guard of corporate advisors, Obama clearly pitched his message
to a business-minded audience for whom merit-based reward is a pleasing message. Likewise Chua's bizarre ideas escaped into the internet via her op-ed abstract in the Wall Street Journal. Both play on the idea that good things come to those who work hardest--we earned that million-dollar bonus, that acceptance to Harvard. We paid the price. While Chua's social model is a steep-sided pyramid, with herself and her daughters at the apex, so is Obama's a thinly disguised brief for widening social inequality.

But what if the good society rests on other values? What if the well-being or quality of life indexes that a few economists are trying to craft would show that the engine that drives us toward the highest levels of satisfaction, personal and collective, has more to do with solidarity, belief in the collective enterprise, concern for the least advantaged, and less to do with the cultivation of exceptionally talented, 'creative' (and highly paid) individuals? While it is easy to measure the productive effects of creative entrepreneurs like Gates or Jobs, who can measure the demoralizing effects of gigantic Wall Street bonuses? Highly visible, unmerited earnings by the 'winners' in our Tiger economy are profoundly corrosive of public ethics, and the widespread demoralization that results is massively unproductive--just visit any standard workplace, where the talk turns more often than not to ways to game the retirement system in one's favor.

All of which is not an argument against teaching math more effectively in our schools, but it might question the use of competitive exams as a measure of our educational successes. Rather than worrying that those children in Shanghai-or Estonia!--will eat our children's lunches, we should encourage them to think collaboratively about how nutritious lunches might be afforded to children everywhere. I don't expect that sentiment would earn the respect of the crazed Ms. Chua, but I had hoped to hear something more like it from Mr. Hope.


At February 6, 2011 at 1:55 PM , Blogger Arthur Goldhammer said...

A brilliant post, Brent, full of insight.


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