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Americans have ample reason to wonder these days, starting with our distinctly loserish economy. Though experts have declared that the recent recession is now over, economic growth in the third quarter of 2010 was an anemic 2.6%, and many economists say unemployment will continue to hover above 9%. Part of the reason? Jobs outsourced to countries like Brazil, India and China. Our housing values have declined, our retirement and college funds have taken a beating, and we're too concerned with paying our monthly bills to save much, even if we had the will to change our ingrained consumerist ways. Meanwhile, in China, the economy is steaming along at more than 10% annual growth, and the country is running a $252.4 billion trade surplus with the U.S. China's government is pumping its new wealth right back into the country, building high-speed rail lines and opening new factories.
If our economy suffers by comparison with China's, so does our system of primary and secondary education. That became clear in December, when the latest test results from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) were released. American students were mired in the middle: 17th in reading, 23rd in science and 31st in math 17th overall. For the first time since PISA began its rankings in 2000, students in Shanghai took the test and they blew everyone else away, achieving a decisive first place in all three categories. When asked to account for the results, education experts produced a starkly simple explanation: Chinese students work harder, with more focus, for longer hours than American students do. It's true that students in boomtown Shanghai aren't representative of those in all of China, but when it comes to metrics like test scores, symbolism matters. Speaking on education in December, a sober President Obama noted that the U.S. has arrived at a "Sputnik moment": the humbling realization that another country is pulling ahead in a contest we'd become used to winning.
Such anxious ruminations seem to haunt much of our national commentary these days, even in the unlikeliest of contexts. When the National Football League postponed a Philadelphia Eagles game in advance of the late-December blizzard on the East Coast, outgoing Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell was left fuming: "We've become a nation of wusses," he declared on a radio program. "The Chinese are kicking our butt in everything. If this was in China, do you think the Chinese would have called off the game? People would have been marching down to the stadium. They would have walked, and they would have been doing calculus on the way down."
These national identity crises are nothing new. During the mid20th century, we kept a jealous eye on the Soviets, obsessively monitoring their stores of missiles, their ranks of cosmonauts and even their teams of gymnasts, using these as an index of our own success (not to mention the prospects for our survival). In the 1980s, we fretted that Japan was besting us with its technological wizardry and clever product design the iPod of the '80s was the Sony Walkman and its investors' acquisitions of American name-brand companies and prime parcels of real estate.
Now the Soviet Union has dissolved into problem-plagued Russia, and our rivalry with the Japanese has faded as another one has taken its place: last year, China surpassed Japan as the world's second largest economy. The U.S. is still No. 1 but for how long? We're rapidly reaching the limit on how much money the federal government can borrow and our single biggest creditor is China. How long, for that matter, can the beleaguered U.S. education system keep pace with a rapidly evolving and increasingly demanding global marketplace? Chinese students already have a longer school year than American pupils and U.S. kids spend more time sitting in front of the TV than in the classroom.
The document that finally focused the nation's attention on these crucial questions was not a blue-ribbon study or a hefty government report, but a slender book that sprang from one mother's despair over her daughter's teenage rebellion.
Amy Chua lives in New Haven, Conn., in an imposing mock-Tudor mansion complete with gargoyles that was built in the 1920s for a vaudeville impresario. The woman who descends the winding stone stairway and opens the studded wooden door, however, is wearing a sweatshirt, jeans and a friendly smile. As we take a seat in Chua's living room, the laughter of her older daughter Sophia and her boyfriend (yes, she's allowed to have a boyfriend) floats down from the second floor, and the fluffy white dog that Chua tried, and failed, to discipline stretches comfortably on the rug. (Disclosure: This reporter also lives in New Haven and has heard Chua regale friends with parenting stories.)
The first thing Chua wants you to know is that she is not a monster. "Everything I do as a mother builds on a foundation of love and compassion," she says. Love and compassion, plus punishingly high expectations: this is how Chua herself was raised. Though her parents are ethnically Chinese, they lived for many years in the Philippines and immigrated to America two years before Chua was born. Chua and her three younger sisters were required to speak Chinese at home; for each word of English they uttered, they received a whack with a pair of chopsticks. On the girls' report cards, only A's were acceptable. When Chua took her father to an awards assembly at which she received second prize, he was furious. "Never, ever disgrace me like that again," he told her.