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Striking a Balance Between Ivy League or Bust

Obama becomes president: Genius or rigor?

In a previous post, Raising "Star" Children: The Pressure May Be Too Great, I pointed out the inherent risks when parents strive to raise "star children." Most often, such efforts focus on education. Beginning in preschool, many children are being groomed for admittance to the country's most elite Ivy League colleges. But while parents might be correct to reason that a good education can be the linchpin for future achievement in an economic environment that grows more competitive and globalized by the day, a recent Boston Globe article highlights my conclusion that potentially painful potholes surface when very young children are placed on a fast track to success.

The article, In China, Ivy League Dreams Weigh Heavily on Students, shows how China, with its near obsessive drive for modernization and especially its longstanding one-child policy, has in many ways become a virtual laboratory testing the limits of hyper-focus on academics for its generations of singletons. It deals with a case study of Liu Yiting. Liu (a single child) was one of the first Chinese students to enter Harvard with a full scholarship. At issue are what the author describes as Liu's parents' "unconventional techniques to turn out an Ivy-caliber child." In other words, a star child.

Liu's star training began when she was a baby. Her parents' methods included placing toys beyond her reach so she needed to struggle for them. Later, they implemented a jump rope training regimen that increased in intensity until Liu became school champion. Starting in elementary school they meticulously charted, minute by minute, their girl's studying time. Believing it would improve her focus, her parents made Liu study under distracting conditions. They even "challenged the young girl" to hold ice for as long as possible to build fortitude.

Most parents in the United States would recoil at the image of a young girl with frozen hands. Such tactics would widely be viewed in the West as draconian, perhaps abusive. Chinese parents had the opposite reaction. We know this because Liu's mother authored a book, Harvard Girl, which chronicled her daughter's upbringing in elaborate detail. The book was an instant phenomenon, selling millions of copies in China. Indeed, it spawned an entire genre of similar how-to books proposing techniques to rear an academically super star.

While parents in all cultures are equally eager to see their children succeed, those in collectivist cultures like China's, with a standard of living far below what we enjoy, are more dependent on their child to support them in old age. The fact that most Chinese children are singletons ups the ante significantly.

What might be getting overlooked by parents, who correctly reason that a good education can be essential for future success, is that when it comes to stress, discipline, and rigor, more is not always better. In a New York Times Op-Ed, David Brooks recounted Barack Obama's story of how his "mother would wake him up at 4:30 to tutor him." In Brooks' opinion, this "underlines the two traits necessary for academic success: relationships and rigor." It would not be reasonable to argue against the importance of caring family relationships in any sphere of life. Neither would it make sense to dispute the value of rigor as fundamental to academic success. With rigor, however, it is a question of degree, and one must proceed with caution. Indeed, President Obama himself views rigor quite differently from Brooks. Reading further we learn Obama's own definition of rigor, in the context of his personal story, and it involves neither sleep deprivation nor frozen fingers. Instead, the President means "testing and accountability."

In individual cases such as Liu and President Obama, it is impossible to say with certainty whether they excelled because of, or despite the extraordinary attention they received growing up. What is clear is the danger of trying to apply a single formula - or definition of rigor - to an entire generation of children. The bottom line might be that in 2008, a decade after Liu Yiting's much heralded success and its famous documentation, only five out of 484 Chinese students who applied to Harvard as undergraduates were accepted.

I recently had a conversation with a graduate of Harvard's Graduate School of Education. Parents of all cultures might want to consider his comment. He studied Chinese attitudes and approaches to academics, and heard many first-hand experiences from Asian classmates. "I thank my lucky stars I only had to deal with a U.S. education," he said. "I'd never have made it in China."

You may also be interested in Is College Necessary? Ask Recent Graduates; 5 Steps to Prepare Your Toddler for College; Off to College, Off to Party, Off to Drink and Drink and...

Copyright 2009 by Susan Newman

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