Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Most Dogs Do Not Have a Profession


I can sympathize with those dogs. Prof. Amy Chua is an elitist and a stereotyper and a strict parent. I'm also an elitist and a stereotyper, but I go beyond her in these vices. I've known a lot of high-achieving Asians like her and her kids (and one low-achieving Asian man), including Jane, who wrote the precursor to Prof. Chua's book.

Some believe that these Asians with their strict ways should be outsourced from our country so that we can return by attrition to a society of free, creative citizens, like those who came on the Mayflower. Yes, our "economy" will melt; yes, our dominance in science, technology, and global military power will vaporize. Perhaps you are envisioning a future all-White society of whiners and artists, begging to be taken over by China. You'd be right... except for the "all-White" part. 

I've discovered that there are kids from high-achieving backgrounds of all races with a different set of drives, who've transcended the point-based competition for head-of-the-class achievement, social status, and wealth. For them the predictability of success for a socioeconomically advantaged child—after endless drilling and grueling study—is, frankly, a little boring. These types are busy falling out of the high-ranking, stable, decent-paying professions of their parents and even grandparents—scientists, doctors, engineers, professors—and work pursuing the true high-ranking ones (historically, anyway): artist, writer, musician, or even "philosopher"...of the non-academic type. Many are poor by now. And that's a good thing.

Pointing this out makes me sound like a crusty Englishman in the first half of the twentieth century, bemoaning the replacement of good, old-school professions like clergy, statesman, soldier with crasser fields like law, business, and medicine (you know, the ones that actually pay well these days). But just as snobbery within the microcosm of high school popularity ranking melts away in subsequent stages of life, our current conceptions of what constitutes a working day in the life of an elite person are more contextual than we admit. Computer programming, for example, not that long ago was a low-status profession. Many members of the samurai (high) class during the Tokugawa period became so poor that they had to marry into merchant families just to keep food on the table. So much for snobbery about one's profession!

Educationally, the process is parallel to the old saying about wealth in America ("the first generation earns it; the second generation manages it; the third generation loses it"), or it's scary Asian counterpart ("rice paddy to rice paddy in three generations"). The teleological implications are clear: educationally, professionally, and class-wise, the goal is to move toward increasing uselessness, until the slight chance emerges that something transcendental will be produced (in art, philosophy, or what have you), far removed from the rat-race. If nothing interesting comes of this succession, that's okay: just go back to the farm (it might be less stressful if every family still had a farm, or, in my case, a paddy). Sometimes it's enough just to move over a generation from a practical field (statistics, engineering, law, physics) to an impractical one (literature, film, journalism, etc.). To anyone who's tried this or is contemplating doing so, the idea of staying in the same exact profession as your parents seems quite boring.

What is supposed to distinguish good artists and philosophers from other workers is that they aren't directly reliant on the approval of the contemporary masses—even by proxy—for the final evaluation of their work. That's why art/music/philosophy tends to be the domain of secretly (or not-so-secretly) smug, know-it-all people. All other careers are dependent on the approval of bosses (in the case of entrepreneurship, "the market"), so people who think they're always smarter than the boss and the masses do not tend to do well in them. Likewise, kids who truly and honestly believe they are smarter than their parents are not good candidates for "Chinese parenting" (it helps if they actually are smarter). If you like hierarchy and want your social status guaranteed by an ever-rising position in a Mandarin bureaucracy, this style is for you. It also helps if you enjoy taking civil service exams, which the Chinese invented long before we did.

Should society allow Asians who are good at math to become slam poets and rock stars? Should our schools encourage shy girls to become cutthroat lawyers, sassy political agitators, and ruthless "I"-bankers? The answer is Yes and Yes. That will leave room for Pat Buchanan's WASPs to get into Harvard by excelling at engineering and provide cultural space for diversity among the rest of us. Educationally, we need a two-track (or two-tiered, for you elitists) system: one for the designated useful people, and one for the rest of us.

The useful people know who they are. They can fix things (for example, I once fixed a computer), or produce goods and services that are in high demand by society. Those people should just go ahead and keep on doing all those useful things, to the benefit of us all. But the people who do not enjoy serving others and society with their labor-production need to admit this. And their (transplanted Asian) parents need to admit it, too. Then we can really start to have an educated class in this country. No, I don't mean science education—though one should have a robust general knowledge of what science is, especially its history. No, I don't mean being able to score 800 on SAT Math (though I love mathematicians) or the ability to engineer a new technology that will "transform our lives, and our economy." What I mean is education divorced from economic production and social hierarchy. In other words: fun.

I know that the idea that America ought to abandon our quest to stay on top—using all citizens in economically/technologically productive ways—by "out educating" other countries is popular neither among liberals nor conservatives. Hastening the decline of American economic and technological power may indeed be a dangerous idea (especially if we get into a war with China), but I think it could be beneficial to our culture and overall well-being. A nation of under-achievers doesn't have to be a nation of losers. Foreigners sometimes sneer at us for "having no culture." Let's get to work on that, and leave the engineering to hungrier peoples.

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