Category Archives: Education

Last Persons and the Tiger Mother

Are competence and integrity really under attack? Are they really being sacrificed for individual happiness? Are people really raising Last Persons? The controversy that surrounds Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother demonstrates the battle. Parenting and education offer major avenues to instill values and capabilities in the next generation and are good barometers for what is valued.

Chua’s approach, like all competent action, executes a strategy towards goals. This strategy is informed by models of reality and perception of constraints.

She sees parents making excuses instead of developing their kids potential. She experiences kids spending time on trivialities, draining resources, and playing victim. She notices decline in values and meta-capabilities necessary for achievement in progeny of successful immigrants and vows to not allow it.1In The Triple Package, Chua models psychology of success with a proud combination of superiority complex, insecurity, and impulse control and elaborates on the antithesis between these and contemporary Western culture.

Chua’s strategy glorifies hard work and achievement, denigrates excuses, and prizes excellence. She executes it vigilantly because she knows failures that others later try to excuse as inevitable come from little slips. She shows the effort, pain, and planning involved in achievement. And it basically works: her kids achieve excellence in music, get into Harvard, and appear to be reasonable, hard-working people who love and understand their mother.

Most reactions focus on Chua’s cruelty, but she explains how her actions connect to successful execution, how her approach ultimately benefits children, and why good parents are responsible for such efforts. Most objectors offer no plan of how to achieve results Chua seeks with alternate methods and no explanation of how standard parental behavior does not contribute to problems Chua sees. The two sides basically agree: Chua says others create Last Persons by not doing the necessary things; they reply that things Chua considers necessary are mean.

More insightful evaluations come from people who grew up with parenting techniques Chua advocates. Unlike most righteous objectors they often acknowledge that there are trade-offs being made: that in some sense alternatives sacrifice excellence for happiness, that in some sense they embrace Last Personhood. Ryan Park begins an insightful exploration of his conventional success with a question whether

“the trade-off between happiness and success [is] worth it?”

In agreement with Chua, he ties his parents’ ability to educate him to

“two cultural values that would carry their children far: a near-religious devotion to education as the key to social mobility and a belief that academic achievement depends mostly on effort rather than inborn ability”

But ultimately decides:

“I aim to raise children who are happy, confident and kind — and not necessarily as driven, dutiful and successful as the model Asian child. If that means the next generation will have fewer virtuoso violinists and neurosurgeons, well, I still embrace the decline.”

Many justify such choices by denigrating the shallowness of success: gaudy consumerism, obsession with status, sacrifice of individuality and integrity. Chua seems preoccupied with competitions without much caring about their purpose: she seems to care more about winning than music, about grades than learning, about perfection of execution than creativity of innovation. Why work and suffer to become an uninspired, expendable cog while increasing your risk of depression? So you can buy trinkets?

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1 In The Triple Package, Chua models psychology of success with a proud combination of superiority complex, insecurity, and impulse control and elaborates on the antithesis between these and contemporary Western culture.

Contribution and Consideration

Do individual competence, integrity, and excuses even matter? We already use structural incentives to get people to do good things they might otherwise choose not to do: economic incentives, legal disincentives, social pressure. If markets, laws, and opinion can squeeze societal usefulness out of groups of selfish individuals why worry about self-centered behavior? Why not just encourage individuals to figure out what they want for themselves and then structure institutions to squeeze social good out of whatever choices they make in aggregate? Let individuals worry about how to get what they want.

The answer seems obvious, at least for social pressure. It is circular to rely on social pressure to police behavior while socially encouraging selfishness. Humans desire acceptance and a feeling of being good which empowers social norms to shape behavior. But if these norms accept excuses and glorify happiness then that is what they will encourage.

While a bit less obvious, civic concern and individual responsibility pull a lot of weight in legal incentives. It is much easier to incentivize people to do the right thing in a community that mostly agrees on the importance of doing right than in one that mostly agrees that everyone should focus on themselves. On what basis should the creators of incentives and enforcers of rules not optimize for themselves otherwise? The difficulty of establishing the rule of law in countries without a sense of civic responsibility should speak for itself.

And while markets might be still less obvious, non-economic concerns with fairness and contribution significantly aid markets. Simple and effective economic incentives are easiest to implement when most believe that good people don’t merely do whatever is most profitable. Consider Deirdre McCloskey’s extensive writings on the importance of values to capitalism, Fukuyama’s Trust on the importance of unselfishness in coordinated endeavors, or simply imagine how different the world would be if most thought it prudent to sneak out of restaurants without paying if they could get away with it.

The pragmatic focus on institutions is valuable and necessary, but so is the idealistic focus on the Motivational Compass of individuals. These Hamiltonian and Jeffersonian priorities are in inherent and essential conflict, but one that can be healthy if each sticks to their natural scope. Contemporary encroachment of Hamiltonian values into everyday interactions and beliefs attacks the sense of individual agency and meaningfulness of pride and progress. It questions the honor of competence and integrity. It separates individual actions from larger concerns and mostly leaves hedonistic Last Personhood and cynical battle of interests as the seemingly coherent options.

The basic beliefs that one can contribute more or less, that one can understand how things work better or worse, that these are skills that can be honed, that developing and applying these skills makes one a better person begin to be treated as naive, reductionist, and judgmental. But these beliefs are the essence of mentoring competence and integrity and the fuel that motivates achievement and contribution. Without them people who build, innovate, excel, and uphold principles can only be understood as freaks with an odd set of personal interests and an indifference to their own suffering.

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Motivational Compass

For as long as I can remember the defining qualities of a good person seemed obvious: competence and integrity. Competence not only contributes and makes possible, but reduces mistakes, inefficiencies, and unfair burdens. Integrity not only underpins ethics and guides competence, but reduces distrust, hostility, and selfishness. Competence and integrity give to the world while their opposites drain from it.

These qualities demand a lot of individuals. They must learn to delay gratification and endure discomfort, inconvenience, and difficulty. They must develop high standards, be self-critical, respect truth, and loathe excuses. They must prioritize performance and potential over perceptions, emotions, and costs.

These qualities bring risks to society. Competence unbalanced by other considerations is, among other things, dangerous.1Psychopaths offer an extreme example of this. Integrity unbalanced by other considerations is, among other things, impotent. And many otherwise reasonable combinations are, among other things, overconfident and judgmental.

It is a challenge to embrace these qualities despite their arduous nature and to intertwine their development with enough wisdom to apply and balance them well. This challenge is at the core of classical philosophy. It is prominent in religion, military, science, and engineering. It animates intensive educational experiments by the likes of James Mill, Bertrand Russell, Leo Wiener, and Laszlo Polgar. It finds expression in the idea of the New Soviet Man. Its essence is to instill maximal striving to develop one’s potential, live honorably, and contribute to a larger purpose – and to organize society to aid in this task.

This goal depends on assumptions. It presumes existence of better and worse, possibility of agency and coherence, inescapability of causation and responsibility. Its implementation ties worth to choices and promises evaluation on the basis of efforts and achievements.

On these foundations it erects the expectation of judgment and the desire to prove oneself. It then provides tools to do one’s best: to strive for perfection and accept responsibility; to focus on understanding how things work; to control impulses that might lead one astray; to think carefully about intentions and take care in action; to find it dishonorable to hide behind excuses and ignorance or to get away with carelessness and incompetence. It fundamentally depends on, and encourages, individual pride based on contribution, integrity, and effort.

There are many disagreements about implementation details, but they mostly share prerequisites. And each of these prerequisites has come under growing scrutiny over time. It increasingly feels like the ethos itself is under an unrelenting attack from all sides. And perception of such attacks seems to underlie many vicious disagreements of our time.

These attacks are rooted in societal and personal risks, justified through postmodernism, and emboldened by prosperity.

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1 Psychopaths offer an extreme example of this.

Teaching and Learning

When it comes to parenting, coaching, teaching, learning, and education there is a great diversity of approaches – and no shortage of strong opinions, judgments, and excuses. On a level applicable to all projects, this is explainable by difficulties of execution and communication, by differing missions and selfish choices, by resource constraints and conquering battles. But there are sources of disagreement and ineffectiveness that transcend ineptitude, selfishness, and malice and apply more specifically to mentorship. They are most apparent in parenting of small children so I’ll focus there.

Learning Areas

A major culprit is insufficient appreciation that learning experiences influence all of the following domains:

  • Skills specific to the subject being engaged
  • Meta-capabilities like perseverance, concentration, logic, introspection, empathy
  • Values and Habits like honesty, compassion, independence, fairness
  • Facts that define truths of the subject and/or the world
  • Models that explain functioning of the subject and/or the world
  • Resources like status, connections, credentials, memories
  • Relationships with individuals, groups, subject, society, self

Mentoring approaches are optimizations that rank not only specific attainments, but these general areas. When this happens without sufficient awareness, interdependencies threaten unpleasant side-effects. When it isn’t made explicit enough, outsiders are tempted to presume ignorance and defend worthiness of sacrificed components. And even when deliberate and explicit, chosen trade-offs are naturally challenged by proponents of alternate rankings.

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