Tiger teacher

12 Jun

Amy Chua got praise, criticism, condemnation and concern with her memoir Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, in which she shares her perspective on parenting, including trying to teach her daughters about striving for excellence and earning their accolades, rather than expecting a trophy just for showing up.

Last week, a Wellesley, MA high school English teacher sent a similar message to the graduating class of 2012 in a speech that told them frankly, “You are not special. You are not exceptional” (http://bostonherald.com/news/regional/view.bg?articleid=1061137286).

David McCullough laid out the mathematical evidence for his declaration:

Across the country no fewer than 3.2 million seniors are graduating about now from more than 37,000 high schools. That’s 37,000 valedictorians … 37,000 class presidents … 92,000 harmonizing altos … 340,000 swaggering jocks … 2,185,967 pairs of Uggs… Even if you’re one in a million, on a planet of 6.8 billion that means there are nearly 7,000 people just like you.

McCullough went on, “You see, if everyone is special, then no one is. If everyone gets a trophy, trophies become meaningless. … We have of late, we Americans, to our detriment, come to love accolades more than genuine achievement.”

And his definition of “genuine achievement”? “The fulfilling life, the distinctive life, the relevant life is an achievement, not something that will fall into your lap because you’re a nice person or mommy ordered it from the caterer.”

McCullough’s speech has been well-received, both by the Class of 2012 and his virtual audience (you can watch his address here: http://news.yahoo.com/video#video=29599955), which has me thinking about how the messenger impacts the receiving of any message.

Certainly, there are many and significant differences between Chua’s and McCullough’s theses, rationales, evidence, presentations and tones. And there’s no doubt that some of the outrage against Chua stems from her own representation of her strict, and even abusive, parenting.

And, inextricable from what they said and how they said it is how they as individuals are perceived, simply on the basis of identity. In my experience, there’s a certain authority a bespectacled and graying white male English teacher enjoys (especially when backed up with empirical evidence) that a pretty Chinese-American mom (even one who is an Ivy League law professor) may have to work harder for, especially when she bucks the conventional idea of how a mother should be. (Consider, by contrast, the expectations of the venerable male English teacher: to be a bit stern and ready with an apropos, if somewhat cryptic, Shakespearean quote.)

This point is not so much to equate McCullough and Chua, as to invite reflection on how identity does matter when we hear the messenger’s message.

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