A recent BBC News story compared two questions, one from a Chinese math test and one from a math test from the UK. The difference was fairly astonishing. Chinese people are good at math to an extent we never imagined possible. And this could have staggering implications in the near future, as China continues its ascent as a major economic power:
A glance at the two questions reveals how much more advanced is the maths teaching in China, where children learn the subject up to the age of 18, the society says. Science undergraduates in England are likely not to have studied maths beyond GCSE level at the age of 16, it says.Now see if you can do the problems:
It's a fact: If world power were determined by math skills alone, then we'd already be worshipping our new Asian imperial overlords. But why are Asians better at math? I can only offer one Asian-American's perspective.
Awhile ago, there was a news story picked up by the Washington Post and many other major news outlets. Here's the Washington Post headline: "For Math Students, Self-Esteem Might Not Equal High Scores." The article said, in part:
The international test results from 2003 and related surveys from 46 countries show that the world's most confident eighth-grade math students are found in the Middle East, Africa and the United States. Of the 10 countries with the highest levels of student confidence, only Israel and the United States scored higher than average on the international test, and their scores were far below those of the much less confident students in Japan, Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan.In other words, even though United States students felt better about themselves, they did worse than other countries (in particular Japan and Korea) in which students thought they sucked at math, didn't enjoy math very much, but scored well nonetheless. Although the article explores the question of whether or not we should even be striving for higher scores if it means a harder-edged approach, I'd like to talk from personal experience, about why there's might be this difference in the first place.
I grew up in a major suburb in New England. Although I went to public school, a good 10-20% of the graduating class went to Ivy League colleges. There was a major Asian population in my school; when I was a senior, one of my honors classes had 15 people, 13 of which were Asians. This is the perspective I speak from, when I give these reasons why Asians are better at math:
1) Their parents - My parents are immigrants. From a cultural perspective, they carried over a lot of their cultural hangups with them when they came here. I had a lot of Asian friends when I was growing up. One common thread that united us, in addition to our Asianness, was the fact that whenever we misbehaved, or whenever we went home with a bad grade, our parents disciplined us. A common Asian story is that when you bring home a report card with 5 A's and 1 A-, your parents will ask you "Why didn't you get that 6th A?" Then next semester, bring home 6 A's, and your parents will ask you "Why didn't you get all A's last semester?" Perfection was the goal, yet always out of reach.
Many of us came from homelife that valued achievement above all else. Our parents immigrated here in search of a better life. Despite considerable cultural and linguistic barriers, they were able to carve out a place for themselves. Consequently, they expected the same sort of perserverance, the same sort of excellence, the same sort of triumph from us, and often they would get it. They certainly didn't blow smoke up our asses.
Oftentimes, when we were young, our parents beat us. It was just a way of life. Sometimes they would get creative and use objects around the house (e.g. a coat hanger). As barbaric as this sounds, many of us considered it a valuable part of our upbringing. It set boundaries for us, gave us discipline, and instilled in us a desire to work hard. Today, we have friends, have jobs, etc. There is no festering mental illness as a result of these beatings; only an occasional fear of coat hangers (j/k).
I think child abuse is a terrible thing. I read A Child Called It too, and some parents clearly have mental problems in the way that they treat their kids. But in American culture, beating your kids, as a general proposition, is strongly looked down upon. Even Tony Soprano doesn't do it, and is ashamed of himself for the one time that he did! There's a difference between child abuse and child discipline. I'm a strong advocate of child discipline is all I'm saying.
Setting boundaries and not being an enabler can only be a good thing. See this video by hilarious comedian Russell Peters for a nuanced treatment on the subject:
(From Youtube user arommendahl)
2) Their curricula are the hardest in the world - As we've already seen from earlier in this post, the expectations levelled on Asian students are beyond compare, in terms of the "hard" sciences and subjects. In Asia, students are expected to shoot for the moon, especially in math and science. Yet there aren't that many that aspire to be poets, filmmakers, or WWE professional wrestlers. Why do you think the most prolific, talented people in those areas come from the United States? Because in America, we try to value those creative aspects of the human psyche as much as any of the others. In China and Taiwan, they value cold, hard skills.
3) Their schools are oppressive, draconian environments from which there is no escape - Some kids here think 180 days/year for school is a lot. You ain't seen nothing. Schools in China and Taiwan are akin to oppressive regimes. School is run virtually year round with 10-12 hour days not uncommon. This in fact is one of the reasons why my parents brought me over here; they wanted me to grow up with schools that would encourage freedom and creativity rather than regimented discipline.
These factors make Asians better at math and science. But does it make them better, holistically speaking?
I think there's no good answer for the question (and let's be honest; it's not a very good question to begin with). In the end, we've seen that Asians are better at math...but they might grow up feeling like their math skills are worthless. Is that necessarily better? I don't think so; I think it just makes us all different.
For every smart, friendly Asian person you encounter there may be another socially maladjusted one. For every good thing that comes with having sky-high test scores, there's something I could point out that's bad. In the end, it just makes us all (whether we're white, black, brown, red, yellow, etc.) different, disparate parts of the wonderful, brilliant tapestry of humanity that are trying to find some kind of peace, some kind of bond, in America.