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Chinese Mothers May Be Superior, but American Kids Are Still Smarter

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Say what you will about America, but I’ll be damned if you suggest we’re anything but schizophrenic.

On one hand, we constantly bemoan our educational inferiority (I believe it’s even written in both Tom Friedman’s and David Brook’s contracts that if they don’t revisit this issue at least once a month they’ll be reassigned to the New York Times’ Mongolia desk.) On the other hand, we’re always quick to remind any cynics that we can, with little more than a toss of the wrist, send any nation we wish back to the Dark Ages so how’s that for smart, you freedom-hating, croissant muncher?

Well, our national conversation about US education took a turn for the weirder earlier this week when the Wall Street Journal published the article “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior.” I give credit to the Journal’s editors, who, surely being aware of our sensitivity to the education issue, could easily have predicted that an article with a title like that would skyrocket to the paper’s most read list. And it did!

But the article’s contention, that is that Chinese parents are more demanding of their kids and that’s why Chinese students are ferocious academics who can literally eat physics textbooks, is hitting some resistance.

Vivek Wadhwa, whose mother is decidedly not Chinese, and who is a researcher at Duke, came out swinging on Businessweek yesterday.

“The Journal article was simply bizarre,” he writes.

His point? That yes, some nations like India and China do produce more engineers. But in reality, those engineers are pretty bad engineers. And, more importantly, America’s education system—while far from perfect-- fosters the kind of inventive thinking that creates the Apples and Googles of the world.

Few tweens will likely read Wadhwa’s article, but they should. That’s because Wadhwa’s research shows that unserious activities like texting, hanging out, and playing games are actually the very things that make American kids “smarter.” He writes:

The independence and social skills American children develop give them a huge advantage when they join the workforce. They learn to experiment, challenge norms, and take risks. They can think for themselves, and they can innovate. This is why America remains the world leader in innovation; why Chinese and Indians invest their life savings to send their children to expensive U.S. schools when they can.

Anyone who has ever worked in an office knows this instinctively. No amount of book knowledge can ever help you glibly avoid a useless meeting by fabricating some other nebulous responsibility, all the while smiling pleasantly.

But while Americans’ social intelligence remains our chief educational advantage, Wadhwa warns it may not last long.

India and China are changing, and as the next generations of students become like American ones, they too are beginning to innovate. So far, their education systems have held them back.

So while our national conversation about education remains troubled, it’s good to remember, if not out of respect to empirical evidence then at least to feed our bruised egos, that American kids are still better equipped to invent the products that move the world.

By the end of the Journal article, the writer tries to mitigate her own schizophrenic analysis with some good old fashioned fence straddling:

Western parents try to respect their children's individuality, encouraging them to pursue their true passions, supporting their choices, and providing positive reinforcement and a nurturing environment. By contrast, the Chinese believe that the best way to protect their children is by preparing them for the future, letting them see what they're capable of, and arming them with skills, work habits and inner confidence that no one can ever take away.

Or something.
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