It looks like one of the most entertaining sessions so far at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, this week, was the one pitting Larry Summers, against Amy Chua. The unwillingly infamous former president of Harvard vs. the deliberately infamous tiger mom.
Larry Summers is the former president of Harvard University, who sparked an uproar back in 2005 when he seemed to suggest that innate differences between men and women might be one reason fewer women succeed in science and math careers.
Amy Chua is the Yale law professor, who recently authored the book, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother”, in which she describes how she pushed –“Asian style”— her two daughters to excel.
Harvard vs. Yale, West vs. East, Economist vs. Lawyer, Permissive Postmodern Parent vs. Dictatorial Disciplinarian of Daughters, Pursuit of youthful happiness vs. Extreme parenting.
The problem is that they are so much alike that there was nothing to debate. Both hard assed … in so many –though sometimes different– ways!
Chua scorns the Western style of parenting. Summers came very close to scorning women’s ability to succeed in science.
Chua “bullied” her own daughters into submission to … excellence. Summers tried to do the same to the Harvard faculty by pontificating: “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.”
Chua and Summers had their differences. While Chua used “brute force” to make sure her daughters succeed, Summers suggested
that probably no one’s daughter has a chance (at least in math and science).
Chua pushed the idea that academic success is a route to a rewarding career, and that this should be an integral part of a child’s ambitions. Summer resorted to one of his generalizations that often gets him in trouble; his description of the Harvard alumni: “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.”
Chua may have captured inadvertently “the two things middle-age Americans now fear most—China, and their own children”. Mr. Summers could only offer Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg to assuage the worries of Middle America.
Chua chose to be a dragon-mother to secure her daughter’s future. Summers never mentioned Mommie Dearest, Joan Crawford. Too bad he didn’t know what her own motherland calls her? An American mom, not a Chinese mom. The title of Chua’s book in Shanghai is simply, “Being a Mother in America”.
Chua was being intentionally provocative in selling her hard-ass Asian mothering style in books. Summers wasn’t even thinking of marketing his own arrogance.
He also missed using a good line. “Your book is only listed fifth on the NY Times bestseller list. Not first, Chua? Guess you must be “garbage”.
“Summers scorns women’s ability to succeed in science…. Summer[s] wouldn’t give anybody’s daughter a chance (at least in math and science).”
This sounds like a statement from someone who has taken in only the sound-bite version of the story, rather than someone who has thoughtfully considered Summers’ actual words. Here’s one excerpt from his speech:
“So my best guess, to provoke you, of what’s behind all of this is that the largest phenomenon, by far, is the general clash between people’s legitimate family desires and employers’ current desire for high power and high intensity, that in the special case of science and engineering, there are issues of intrinsic aptitude, and particularly of the variability of aptitude, and that those considerations are reinforced by what are in fact lesser factors involving socialization and continuing discrimination. I would like nothing better than to be proved wrong, because I would like nothing better than for these problems to be addressable simply by everybody understanding what they are, and working very hard to address them.”
The short answer is: I reserve my own right “to provoke”. Now, whether it was the “Sound-bite” version of the story or your excerpt of it is irrelevant here. The bottom line is that the story led –as you surely know and if not try Google– to strong reactions from the Harvard faculty, and from several learned societies, which eventually led to his resignation.