Sunday, January 30, 2011
In one of the most entertaining of the sessions at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, this week, the organizers pitted Larry Summers, the former Treasury secretary, Harvard president and recently departed Obama administration chief economic adviser, against Prof. Chua. Harvard vs. Yale, West vs. East, Economist vs. Lawyer, Permissive Postmodern Parent vs. Dictatorial Disciplinarian of Daughters.
Prof. Summers, for a start, is evidently no pushover parent himself. At the meeting, organized by the Global Agenda Councils, he instantly acknowledged that he bears no resemblance to the indulgent, indolent Western stereotype Ms. Chua excoriates in her book "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother," first excerpted in The Wall Street Journal earlier this month. In fact, he noted ... that his own reputation—at home as much as in his professional life—was as something of a "hard-ass." ...
[Summers] recalled anyway some of his more turbulent exchanges [at Harvard], like the time he once told puzzled faculty members: "I think you have to decide whether achievement is the route to self-esteem or whether self-esteem is the route to achievement. I think you guys think self-esteem is the route to achievement, and I think you're wrong."
And yet even the stern intendant of traditional academic values couldn't quite bring himself to endorse the hard-ass Asian mothering style. Surprisingly for an academic who has won almost all the glittering prizes, he challenged the idea—cherished by Ms. Chua and her admirers—that academic success as a route to a rewarding career should be the sum of a child's ambitions.
"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." If they had been the product of a Tiger Mom upbringing, he added, their mothers would probably have been none too pleased with their performance.
The A, B and C alums at Harvard in fact could be broadly characterized thus, he said: The A students became academics, B students spent their time trying to get their children into the university as legacies, and the C students—the ones who had made the money—sat on the fund-raising committee.