The Asian Success Formula


A few weeks ago I was wandering around the U.Penn bookstore, waiting for Dana to finish her class, when I did a double-take and pulled a book off the shelf.

Top of the Class by Soo Kim Abboud, Jane Y. Kim

It was titled Top of the Class: How Asian Parents Raise High Achievers — and How You Can Too. Its authors are Korean-American: Soo Kim Abboud and Jane Y. Kim. This I had to read.

It was the kind of book you might expect given its title and cover. A lot of rah-rah about the high valorization of educational achievement, relentless work ethic, and ethnic pride. Sunny personal anecdotes and bullet-pointed advice. An easily digestible, but mealy, self-help cast.

Even now, a few weeks later, I’m having trouble sorting out how I feel about this book. Probably because I still have trouble sorting out how I feel about my own upbringing and, more generally, my identity as an Asian-American. Skimming through the book, there were moments when I could deeply relate to certain anecdotes, but then struggled with whether those experiences were as conclusively positive and simplistically instructive as the authors delineate them. And I do feel Ms. Abboud and Kim do the Asian-American community a disservice by reinforcing broad stereotypes about Asian-Americans. But there’s a sort of perverse pride in seeing Asian-Americans singled out for emulation.

There’s been a lot of literature devoted to the political and, to a lesser extent, social downside of the model minority myth, but a few days ago I encountered an article that had a novel twist to this debunkment.

“Does the Asian Success Formula Have a Downside?” by Deanna Kuhn
Education Week. Vol. 25, Issue 25, Page 29. March 8, 2006
(I’m not going to simply provide a link to this, because a subscription is now needed to view the article. I’ll just extensively quote relevant parts.)

Interestingly enough, it begins with a reference to the aforementioned book:

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.

It then starts with an interesting critique to these “Asian-American expectations”:

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.

…. 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.

Let’s put aside the fact the Ms. Kuhn makes the same fundamental mistake that Ms. Abboud and Kim make in propagating Asian-American stereotypes by not properly qualifying their conflated attributions of achievement and expectation to an umbrella ethnic label. Yes, her assumptions are wrong and ultimately damaging to our perceptual and political status in American society, but her conclusions do resonate with many of us first and second generation Korean-, Chinese-, and Japanese-Americans. Many of us do feel on some level that we have developed a kind of unhealthy meekness that can at least partially be attributed to our upbringing, that there is not enough assertiveness in the Asian-American community at large — especially relative to other ethnic groups. And perhaps this does lead to a wrong-headed relativism in taste and viewpoint if not examined and checked.

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….

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.

Well, okay. Again, many Asian-Americans can attest to repressed resentment we have felt at some time or other being under the pressure cooker of parental or cultural expectations. Many of us have experienced a gradual or sudden epiphany that these expectations were projections of the anxieties and idolatrous desires of those institutions.

But I’m a little suspicious here. Race itself is often a mask onto which other issues and anxieties are projected. It occurs to me that pointedly “ethnic” literature has become a kind of minor genre the way sci-fi, crime, romance, and horror are because of this very reason. Ms. Deanna Kuhn of Teacher’s College may ostensibly be talking about the learning styles of little Chinese wunderkinder, but her rhetoric sounds very familiar — like the bully pulpit of Alfie Kohn. I’m sure she’s not doing this on purpose, but she seems to be condemning a traditional, behaviorist approach to education in order to advance a more progressive, constructivist approach.

Ah, now here’s another reason why I’m all muddled up about this… because it’s also about my philosophy of teaching, which, too, is evolving. Those of you who’ve heard me rant at various stages in my life about education, know that I’ve taken a hard stance on contradictory sides of pedagogical approaches. I’ve published an article espousing Direct Instruction, a scripted behaviorist program for instruction, and I’ve also promoted constructionism as a way of allowing the interaction with technology to provide a more creative, organic understanding of complicated concepts. I’m the guy who likes to set a structured environment in the beginning of 7th grade with guided notes, worksheets, and lots and lots of mini-quizzes, but wants to end the year with a massive creative writing project challenging students to re-write scenes of Romeo and Juliet in different geographic and cultural settings.

I’m also the guy that was part of the Math team and Supercomputer club in high school (with summers spent in SAT prep programs), but ditched a scholarship and hitchhiked across the country to decide I wanted to be a Creative Writing major in college.

Mdmes. Abboud, Kim, and Kuhn are championing causes that oversimplify the issues. The Asian-American wunderkinders I know and am proud to be a part of were, yes, very good at getting very good grades. We were disciplined and self-effacing and accommodating to others. But we also turned out to be intellectually passionate and fun and creative. We weren’t molded in Red gymnasia to be medical and engineering automatons, but tempered in the crucible of America, often as the most minor minority in a school dominated by minorities. Doing well academically was a duty, and could be a chore, but it also ended up being a life’s pursuit and simple pleasure.

We rolled and rawked. You hear?!

asian-american, education, parenting, model minority myth, pedagogy, teaching philosophy, genre fiction, race


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