International Commentary

Does the Asian Success Formula Have a Downside?

By Deanna Kuhn — March 07, 2006 6 min read

The latest data show U.S. 12th graders performing below the international average for 21 countries in math and science. An October report from the National Academies, “Rising Above the Gathering Storm,” takes note of this fact and sounds a warning: “[W]e are worried about the future prosperity of the United States,” the panel of experts said.

Around the same time, another new publication, Top of the Class, a book by two sisters, both highly successful young Asian-American women, was released. In it, the authors advise parents who want successful children to raise them just as they were raised: in a strict household where their parents invested time and effort to inculcate a work ethic in them, making clear that they were expected to excel and that their failure to do so would reflect poorly on the family. Research suggests that the authors’ family is not at all extraordinary within the context of its culture. Asian-American parents (compared with European-American or Hispanic-American parents) are the only group, one study reports, that expects their children to obtain graduate degrees.

Does this formula for success from members of a high-achieving subculture offer mainstream American families the solution they need to set their children on a path to academic excellence and, ultimately, to success in a competitive global economy? At the very least, parental investment in children’s education seems unlikely to be a bad thing. Yet could there be a downside to the Asian formula?

Research that my co-workers and I have conducted suggests this possibility.

Moreover, there are indications that education experts in a growing number of Asian countries are themselves becoming concerned about possible downsides of their education success story, and are taking steps to address them.

In a series of studies to be published later this year, my colleagues and I asked middle and high school students and their parents in America, in Israel, and in Cyprus, as well as in Japanese, Korean, Korean-American, and Taiwanese-American communities, questions such as the following:

“Many social issues, like the death penalty, gun control, or medical care, are pretty much matters of personal opinion, and there is no basis for saying that one person’s opinion is any better than another’s. So there’s not much point in people having discussions about these kinds of issues. Do you strongly agree, sort of agree, or disagree? If disagree, what do you think?”

Differences in the responses of Asian and non-Asian participants were statistically significant and striking. A majority of American parents and teenagers, for example, disagreed with this statement, maintaining that it is productive to discuss such issues. Among Asian and Asian-American parents and teenagers, only a minority disagreed with the statement, with the percentages of those who did so ranging from zero to a high of 38 percent.

The Asian distaste for disagreement, for acrimonious exchanges certainly, and their desire to maintain harmony are well known—constituting almost a cultural stereotype. What, if anything, might be sacrificed in such a value system, which Asian parents appear to be successfully inculcating in their children? Should these values be cause for concern? “To each his own” and “live and let live” arguably are the stances we need more of in every part of the world.

But there is a cost. When asked related questions about two hypothetical, discrepant views—whether one musical composition could be judged as better than another, and whether one scientific theory was more correct than another—Asian respondents more often than non-Asians affirmed the view that each person should believe whatever he or she chooses, and that one alternative could not be judged any more “right” than the other. In short, tolerance for multiple views and the inability to discriminate among them are equated.

Educators in Asian countries have begun to ask themselves whether the development of the skills and dispositions necessary to engage ideas and examine them critically (and creatively) has been shortchanged in their education systems. Perhaps developing these skills is an important part of what it means to become educated. The best thinking is very often collaborative rather than solitary. But collaborative intellectual engagement comes with what may be a high cost from the Asian perspective: the at least temporary sacrifice of agreement and harmony.

Still, the most conspicuous part of the Asian success formula is what goes on at home, between parent and child. And here another case can be made for a serious downside to the formula. Parents can inculcate in their children the belief that excellence in their schoolwork leads to family pride, material wealth, and social status (and that failure to achieve excellence leads to the opposite—shame and disgrace). The drawback here, however, is that the relationship is an instrumental one: Investment and outcome—means and end—bear only an arbitrary connection. No intrinsic relation is apparent between means and end—investment of effort and outcome.

What is it that school provides, such that acquiring it confers lifelong benefits, and failing to do so condemns one to failure? Unless students can construct authentic answers to this question, ones that they themselves believe, the relation between investment and outcome remains arbitrary. Here then lies the downside.

The well-documented fact is that once an activity is regarded as merely a means to an end, it tends to be devalued as unimportant in its own right. It is engaged in only because it is believed to produce a future dividend that is valued. Thus, should one at any point become skeptical of this connection, the activity quickly loses its meaning and purpose.

The value of an intrinsically prized activity, in contrast, lies in the activity itself. The benefits of the activity emanate directly from it. One engages in the activity because it is seen as valuable in its own right. The advantage is clear; continued commitment to the activity is ensured. Commitment is not dependent on a relation between the activity and some independently valued outcome such as parental approval.

Activities that have clear, readily discernible intrinsic value thus provide the firmest basis for sustaining intellectual motivation through childhood and adolescence and into adulthood. These are the activities we need more of in schools. Students need to experience for themselves the value of the intellectual activities they engage in and the intellectual tools they acquire and develop as a way of life. They will then become able to make use of these tools for their own purposes, and see the fruits of their labors. In this way, they buy into education, developing both intellectual values and intellectual skills. If, on the other hand, they can’t come up with their own reasons for “why this is worth doing,” they are unlikely to continue doing it in the long run.

And so, while applauding the impressive record of Asians’ academic accomplishment, and the work ethic that underlies it, let us be wary of adopting any simple, one-ingredient recipe for success, pressing our children to bring home those grades of A and A-plus.

Children need to discover for themselves the best reasons to become educated. What we can do is make this as easy for them as possible by ensuring that what we ask them to do in school makes sense, to them as well as to us.


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