Book Review Review: Little Soldiers

Little Soldiers is a book by Lenora Chu about the Chinese education system. I haven’t read it. This is a review of Dormin111’s review of Little Soldiers.

Dormin describes the “plot”: The author is a second-generation Chinese-American woman, raised by demanding Asian parents. Her parents made her work herself to the bone to get perfect grades in school, practice piano, get into Ivy League schools, etc. She resisted and resented the hell she was forced to go through (though she got into Stanford, so she couldn’t have resisted too hard).

Skip a decade. She is grown up, married, and has a three year old child. Her husband (a white guy named Rob) gets a job in China, so they move to Shanghai. She wants their three-year-old son to be bilingual/bicultural, so she enrolls him in Soong Qing Ling, the Harvard of Chinese preschools. The book is about her experiences there and what it taught her about various aspects of Chinese education. Like the lunches:

During his first week at Soong Qing Ling, Rainey began complaining to his mom about eating eggs. This puzzled Lenora because as far as she knew, Rainey refused to eat eggs and never did so at home. But somehow he was eating them at school.

After much coaxing (three-year-olds aren’t especially articulate), Lenora discovered that Rainey was being force-fed eggs. By his telling, every day at school, Rainey’s teacher would pass hardboiled eggs to all students and order them to eat. When Rainey refused (as he always did), the teacher would grab the egg and shove it in his mouth. When Rainey spit the egg out (as he always did), the teacher would do the same thing. This cycle would repeat 3-5 times with louder yelling from the teacher each time until Rainey surrendered and ate the egg.

Outraged, Lenora stormed to the school the next day and approached the teacher in the morning as she dropped Rainey off. Lenora demanded to know if Rainey was telling the truth – was this teacher literally forcing food into her three-year-old son’s mouth and verbally berating him until he ate it. The teacher didn’t even bother looking at Lenora as she calmly explained that eggs are healthy and that it was important for children to eat them. When Lenora demanded she stop force-feeding her son, the teacher refused and walked away.

Or the seating:

As Lenora hears more crazy stories from her son and friends, she keeps coming back to one question: “what does Rainey actually do in school?” Lenora tries to ask Rainey, but he always replies, “we sit still.” He also occasionally mentions painting and eating, but that’s it.

So Lenora goes to Rainey’s teacher one day and asks to sit in on classes to observe. Lenora is told that this is not possible. So she asks if she can know a little more about what the school is teaching Rainey. The teacher tells her that she is already told everything she needs to know, and that this is the “Chinese way.”

Since Lenora couldn’t get a look into Soong Qing Ling, she went to another local school and bribed her way into a classroom-observation post with some well-placed handbags. She discovered that Rainey was basically right. Chinese preschool really does seem to consist of sitting still. Unless given different orders, all students were required to sit in their seats with their arms at their sides, and their feet flat on a line of tape on the ground. This is not an easy task for three-year-olds.

There were two teachers in the classroom with a classic good cop/bad cop dynamic. The good cop stood in the front of the room with the desks splayed out before her. She would give simple instructions like orders to get food, water, or sometimes paint, though usually she said nothing at all. The bad cop was another teacher who prowled the classroom. Any time she saw a student remove a foot from the line, move arms from his side, or otherwise deviate from the instructions, she would yell at the student to fall back in line. Lenora spent about a week watching tiny kids get screamed at for trying to get water, shifting in their chairs, or talking to classmates.

Or art class:

When Lenora sat in on a kindergarten class, she witnessed an art lesson where the students were taught how to draw rain. The nice teacher drew raindrops on a whiteboard, showing precisely where to start and end each stroke to form a tear-drop shape. When it was the students’ turns, they had to perfectly replicate her raindrop. Over and over again. Same start and end points. Same curves. For an hour. No student could draw anything else. Any student who did anything different would be yelled at and told to start over.

The point of this exercise was not to teach students how to draw raindrops. Drawing raindrops is not an important life skill, and drawing them in a particular way is especially not important. Even the three-year-old students in the class seemed to realize this as many immediately created their own custom raindrop shapes and drew landscapes, all to be crushed under the mean teacher’s admonishment. The real point of the exercise was to teach students to follow directions from an authority figure. But more than that, the point was to follow pointless and arbitrary directions. The more pointless and arbitrary the directions are, the more willpower is required to follow them.

Chinese people presumably put up with this because it makes sense within their culture; why did Chu put up with it? Dormin half-jokingly suggests maybe she really wanted to write the book she eventually wrote, and this was her research. But Chu herself says it eventually got results:

After spending 75% of the book relentlessly complaining about her son’s Chinese education, with the occasional anecdote about how horrible her own culturally Chinese upbringing was, Lenora decides Chinese schools aren’t so bad.

After a few years in China, Rainey changed. Though Lenora constantly worried if Rainey’s creativity and leadership potential was being snuffed out, she couldn’t help but be impressed by his emerging self-control. He could sit still for longer. He always greeted people politely. He finished eating his food. He asked permission a lot.

Lenora didn’t realize what Rainey had become until she took him back to the US for a few weeks to visit family. There, the contrast between Rainey and his same-aged American counterparts become stark. Lenora’s friends’ kids ate junk food all day while Rainey asked for vegetables. They couldn’t read or do basic addition while Rainey was close to being bilingual and had started double-digit addition and subtraction by first grade. They wandered obliviously in their own worlds while Rainey’s Chinese grandparents were thrilled to receive respectful greetings every time Rainey entered the room […]

What really sold Lenora on Chinese education was that it apparently worked. At the time of writing the book, Shanghai was scoring first place in the world on the PISA exams, beating heavy-hitters like Norway and Singapore. Supposedly, education scholars and professionals all over the world were looking at China for wisdom. They all saw the bad, but they saw a lot of good too.

(before going forward, I should interject that China’s great PISA scores are kind of fake. China struck a deal with the OECD (the group that administers PISA) to let it conduct testing only in its four richest and best-educated provinces. Rich and well-educated places always do well on PISA. That China’s four best provinces outperform the average score of other countries is unsurprising. This article points out that if the US were allowed to enter only its best-educated state (Massachussetts, obviously) we would be right up there with China. So this probably isn’t as impressive as Ms. Chu thinks.)

This is just a sample of the great stuff in Dormin’s review of Little Soldiers, and I strongly recommend you read the whole thing. You should also read the comments, which point out that this may be more about a few elite Chinese schools than about an entire country. But I want to use these excerpts as a jumping-off point to talk about the US education system, unschooling, and child development in general.

I predict most of my Bay Area friends would hate the Chinese education system as Chu describes it. I predict this because they already hate the US education system, which is only like 10% as bad. I’m especially thinking of @webdevmason and @michaelblume, who often write about the ways American education is frustrating, regressive, and authoritarian. Bright-eyed, curious kids come in. They spend thirteenish years getting told to show their work, being punished for reading ahead in the textbook, and otherwise having their innate love of learning drummed out of them in favor of endless mass-produced homework assignments (five pages, single-spaced, make sure you use the right number of topic sentences).

People with this position usually make two claims. One, US public school as it currently exists is awful, basically institutionalized child abuse. Two, this is bad for the economy. I’ve been through too much school myself to feel like challenging the first, so I want to focus on the second.

Salman Khan, John Gatto, and other education rebels trace the current school systems back to the Prussians, who invented compulsory education to prepare children for a career as infantrymen or factory workers. It’s a great story. Like most great stories, it’s kind of false. But like most kind-of-false things that catch on, it has an element of truth. Children who can sit still in a classroom and do what their teachers say are well-placed to become adults who can sit still in an open office and do what their bosses say. So (according to this logic), even if our schools are awful, they were well-suited to the Industrial Age economy. Some hypothetical mash-up of Otto von Bismarck and Voldemort, who wanted the country to produce as much as possible and didn’t care how many children’s souls were crushed in the process, might at least endorse the education system on widget-maximization grounds.

But (these same people argue), the Industrial Age is over. The most important skills now are entrepreneurship and creative problem solving. Reinventing yourself, selling yourself, carving out a new niche for yourself. Figuring out what’s going to be the next big thing and pursuing it without anyone else watching over you. We’re in XKCD’s world now, where 900 hours of classes and 400 hours of homework matter less to your career success than one weekend messing around with a programming language in 11th grade. The Prussian model of education stamps out the kind of independent agency that could help people navigate the weird, formless 21st century world.

How might the personified Chinese education system respond?

What if it said “I don’t know what you 老外 are doing in America, but I’m not crushing anybody. I’m just telling kids to sit here drawing 1,000 raindrops in a row without moving or protesting. If after that you decide you don’t want to found the next Uber, that’s on you. But if you do decide to found the next Uber, I will have taught you the most important skill: discpline. Learning how to sit still and obey others is the necessary prerequisite to learning how to sit still and obey yourself.”

If it was really mean, it might go further. “I notice most of you Americans suck at this skill. I notice you’re always whining about how you don’t have enough discipline to pursue your interests. Some of you are writers who spend years fantasizing about the novel you’re going to publish, but can never quite bring yourself to put pen to paper. Others want to learn another language, but reject real work in favor of phone apps that promise to ‘gamify’ staying at a 101 level for the rest of your life. You don’t need to feel bad about having no self-control; after all, nobody taught you any. If you’d gone to 宋庆龄幼儿园, you would have spent your formative years learning to sit still and focus, having your natural impulse to slack off squeezed out of you. Then you could have pushed through and written your novel, or learned 官話, or if you wanted to start Uber you could start Uber. At the very least you’d be doing something other than lying in bed browsing Reddit posts about how adulting is hard.”

My Bay Area friends treat people as naturally motivated, and assume that if someone acts unmotivated, it’s because they’ve spent so long being taught to suppress their own desires that they’ve lost touch with innate enthusiasm. Personified China treats people as naturally unmotivated, and assumes that if someone acts unmotivated, it’s because they haven’t been trained to pursue a goal determinedly without getting blown around by every passing whim.

What evidence is there in favor of one education system or the other?

I can’t find any good studies directly supporting or opposing either of these claims. The best I can do is The Development Of Executive Functioning And Theory Of Mind: A Comparison Of Chinese And US Preschoolers. They find that on various tests of executive function, “Chinese [preschool-age] children’s performance was consistently on par with that of US children who were on average 6 months older” (other sources say 1-2 years). But lots of interventions change things in childhood; this isn’t interesting unless it persists into adulthood, and I don’t see any work on this. This study on racial differences in personality traits found weak and inconsistent white-Asian differences on adult conscientiousness, but the Asian sample was Asian-American and differences in education were probably pretty minor.

What about circumstantial evidence?

First and most important, since extreme cultivation of discipline vs. laissez-faire childrearing is a property of parents as much as schools, any claimed effect would run afoul of all the twin studies showing that shared environment has few long-term effects on any trait. For example, this meta-analysis of factors affecting self-control that finds “no or very little influence of the shared environment on the variance in self-control”. But we can always invoke the usual loophole in shared environment findings: maybe the US doesn’t contain anything as extreme as the Chinese education system, so US-only studies can’t capture its effects.

Second, both Westerners and Chinese seem to include some very impressive and some less impressive people. It certainly doesn’t seem wrong to say that Chinese people seem more diligent and Westerners seem more independent, but there are so many potential biases at work that I would hate to take this too seriously as evidence for or against one form of education. Also, Chinese-Americans who are educated in US schools also seem more diligent than white Americans, so maybe the education system doesn’t contribute too much to this. Maybe Chinese culture promotes diligence better in general, this causes diligence-focused school systems, but the diligence-focused school systems don’t themselves cause the diligence.

Third, we could try to find more extreme versions on both sides and see what happens there. Pre-industrial populations with no education were famously bad at the discipline needed for factory work. From Pseudoerasmus:

The earliest factory workers were lacking in what Mokyr & Voth call “discipline capital” — non-cognitive ‘skills’ like punctuality, sobriety, reliability, docility, and pliability. Whether they had been peasants or artisans, early workers were new to industrial work habits and they had a strong preference for autonomous work arrangements. They were accustomed to setting their own pace of work in farming, domestic outwork, or artisanal workshops, and disliked the time rules and strict supervision of the factories.

All this is consistent with colourful descriptions of the early history of the textile industry in the Global South, including Japan. Mills were described as places of chaos and disorder. They were supposedly filled with workers ‘idling’, ‘loitering’, ‘socialising’, smoking, tea-drinking, or just disappeared for the day. In Japan, “twenty percent of the female operatives…absent themselves after they receive their monthly pay check” (Saxonhouse & Kiyokawa 1978). In Shanghai, it was said female mill workers could be found breast-feeding infants during work hours (Cochran 2000). Or at Mumbai mills, workers “bathed, washed clothes, ate his meals, and took naps” (Gupta 2011).

But this could be as much about expectations as about abilities.

Which historical culture had the most authoritarian-instillment-of-virtue-focused approach to child-rearing? Surely the New England Puritans were up there – remember that eg Puritan parents would traditionally send children away to be raised by other families, in the hopes that the lack of familiarity would make the child behave better”. They certainly ended out industrious. But they were also creative and self-motivated, sometimes almost hilariously so. On the other hand, I’m not sure that the Puritans who ended up incredibly creative were exactly the same Puritans who suffered extreme strict child-rearing – there seems about a century gulf between the evidence of authoritarian parenting in the 1600s and the crop of geniuses born in the late 1700s – so I’m not sure how seriously to take this.

Fourth, we could look at US trends over time. Both US parenting and US schooling seem to be getting less authoritarian over time; 31 states have banned corporal punishment since 1970, and the teachers I know confirm a shift away from most forms of discipline. Over the same time period, children have gotten weirdly better behaved – less crime, less teenage pregnancy, more willing to jump through various stupid hoops to get into a good college. This seems to contradict the Chinese theory – the children are no worse at controlling their impulses. But there are other findings that contradict the Bay Area theory – entrepreneurship is decreasing; more top students are choosing to go work for a boss at a big bank rather than go do something weird. I think the better behavior is probably just caused by lower lead; I have no idea why people are more risk-averse. Secular decline in testosterone, maybe?

Fifth, we could look at research on the effects of preschool more generally. Some studies find that US preschools do not make children smarter, but still improve life outcomes like graduation rates, crime rates, and employment. Although there are lots of theories about the “noncognitive skills” that accomplish this (including that they don’t exist and the improvement is an artifact of bad experimental technique), this is certainly consistent with preschool teaching children discipline at a critical window. If this hypothesis were true, the effect of preschool would be much larger in China, but I don’t know of any Chinese studies on the topic.

Sixth, we could look at the research on meditation for very young kids. The Chinese theory casts preschool as a sort of dark-side form of mindfulness. In traditional Buddhist settings, monks would sit perfectly still and concentrate on the most boring thing imaginable, and the head monk would slap them with a bamboo stick if they moved. The resemblance to the school system is uncanny. So maybe school’s effects on self-control could be modeled as a sort of less-intense but much-more-drawn-out meditation session. Unfortunately, the studies surrounding mindfulness in kids are crap, so this doesn’t help either.

Really none of this seems very helpful and we’re kind of left with our priors. And maybe one of our priors is “don’t abuse children”, so there’s that.

But what about the Polgars? They turned all three of their children into chess prodigies through a strategy that seemed based around exposing them to absurd amounts of chess at a very young age. If we generalize, it does look like very young children might have very plastic minds that you can shape through out-of-distribution experiences. But Lazslo Polgar insisted that his technique didn’t use force; the point was to interest his children in the material so avidly that they inflicted near-Chinese levels of intensity on themselves in order to study it more successfully.

One problem with the physical universe is that even after you study a question in depth and decide more evidence is needed, there are still real children you have to educate one way or the other. I have no general solution for this, but the Polgar strategy seems like a good deal if you can pull it off.

452 thoughts on “Book Review Review: Little Soldiers

  1. Jay Searson

    I would expect a lot of the decline in entrepreneurship (risk-taking) to be a function of higher housing costs. It’s easy to take a risk if, in the case of failure, you think you can be comfortable on a low income; it’s harder if the case of failure is more painful.

      1. Aapje

        @DavidFriedman

        Higher income doesn’t necessarily mean more sense of security. If the things that make people feel secure get relatively more expensive or become unaffordable, while other things get relative cheaper, people may be able to afford more smelly Chinese stuff and yet feel less secure.

        Of course, this can be argued to be the sense of necessary goods (for security) outstripping increases in real incomes and thus a cultural failure.

        1. Roger Sweeny

          Perhaps some people with a high income feel secure. Others feel insecure because they have so much to lose.

          Perhaps the longer you’ve had the high income, the more you are accustomed to spending up to it and the more you fear losing it.

          Similarly, the more your present lifestyle is “on credit”, the more you have to worry. If you pay cash and have a lot of money in the bank, you feel a lot more secure.

  2. dogday

    Lenora quickly got over her shock of having the teacher stuff egg down her toddlers throat. It’s probable that she had not instilled too deep a sense of independence into the kid and neither wished to maintain any that she may have. Kid was good to go (with mummy and teacher providing approval)

    As for Polgar not using force and yet exposing the girls to ‘absurd amounts of chess’ thus sparking their creative interests. Mmm…

  3. dark orchid

    I work as a university teacher, and I have an opinion on this. I’ve been looking for good research on education for a while as the kind of things our education department is pushing on us has all the red flags for bad science that Scott has warned against in the past – one of the latest trends seems to be that we should focus more on power posing and growth mindset, because apparently “research has shown” that it works at p < 0.00 (sic!).

    I'm currently reading my way through the list at http://web.archive.org/web/20190711105051/https://thetraditionalteacher.wordpress.com/book-list/ (and keeping quiet about that at work). One of the viewpoints that comes up again and again from these authors could be summarised as: so-called progressive or anti-authoritarian education is the root of all evil and lands you with kids who eat junk food and browse "adulting is hard" memes on reddit all day and couldn't found the next Uber because they lack the self-discipline. For anyone who does have a bit of brain, it is also the cause of the neverending boredom at school.

    Then again, I wish that some of the schools I went to myself were just a tiny bit less authoritarian. In primary school my teacher once ripped up my homework in front of the whole class and made me do the whole thing again the next day because I hadn’t written my name one square down and two across from the top left corner on the page. I had a teacher much later on in the equivalent of high school and I hated every bit of her with a passion for how strict and uncompromising she was, but looking back now I realise that I learnt a lot more from her than anyone else at that school and without the discipline I had to get into to pass her class, I might not have succeeded at university. I do have to concede that her style of teaching worked and was probably worth it in the long run.

    I would recommend two of the books in the list in particular to any rationalist interested in the topic:

    Christodoulou's book practically opened a new front in the culture wars in the UK when it came out as it got all but endorsed by a Conservative government; the second edition with I have is full of "the first edition got criticised for not having enough evidence for this point, so here's more peer-reviewed studies in favour"; whether what she says is really true or not I don't know but she certainly has done her research and with my current state of knowledge I can't see any obvious points against her claims in the book. I'd love to hear a rationalist book review of that (or of Willingham).

    Willingham is a professor of cognitive pschology and in his introduction he says he's picked nine principles that have both direct impact on education and "an enormous amount of data, not just a few studies, to support the principle". Considering how much I hear at work about how THIS ONE STUDY WILL SOLVE THE GENDER GAP IN STEM AND ALL OUR PROBLEMS, I started to like Willingham before I even got to chapter 1. The principles themselves are not exactly surprising, but it's nice to see something I intuitively believe in is apparently backed up by a lot of science: you really do need to practice to get good at many things, sitting kids in groups and making them pretend to be experts at something doesn't actually teach them expertise, and subject-specific critical thinking does in fact require a lot of subject knowledge – the supposedly universally transferrable higher-order skills we're all supposed to be pulling out of a hat as teachers don't in fact exist. All Willingham's principles match my practical experience in teaching too.

    1. Viliam

      you really do need to practice to get good at many things, sitting kids in groups and making them pretend to be experts at something doesn’t actually teach them expertise, and subject-specific critical thinking does in fact require a lot of subject knowledge – the supposedly universally transferrable higher-order skills we’re all supposed to be pulling out of a hat as teachers don’t in fact exist.

      Yep.

      But also, as a former teacher… I would keep this opinion to myself, especially in presence of a school inspection.

      Speaking about “the supposedly universally transferrable higher-order skills”, maybe it is actually a misunderstanding of how IQ works. I mean, probably someone somewhere noticed that some students are generally better at large range of things… and mistakenly assumed that this ability was magically given to them by their teachers — if only we could find out which ones, and what method these miraculous teachers used to achieve this wonderful outcome.

  4. Manx

    Yikes. China is more of a dystopian hell than I imagined. No wonder the idea of destroying all of humanity and starting over is so appealing to them. (I recommend the Three Body Problem, if you have not already read it.)

    I think you are giving way too much credence to the idea that the chinese preschool is a good idea, and that is a problem. In the same way if you wrote an article explaining why you think Sasquatch is probably not real, would be giving way too high a credence to the possibility that it is. You are also massively under-emphasizing the whole *DON’T ABUSE CHILDREN* thing. Would it matter if child abuse lead to better test scores? DON’T DO IT. Hitting your kids hands when they hit the wrong key on the piano leads to learning piano. DON’T DO IT. When they grow up they will end up sobbing on the floor of my office addicted to xanax, saying how much they want to kill their father who now has dementia and will never understand how much they truly hate him in their heart… Don’t abuse children is all I’m saying…

    1. DavidFriedman

      When they grow up they will end up sobbing on the floor of my office addicted to xanax, saying how much they want to kill their father who now has dementia and will never understand how much they truly hate him in their heart…

      Is there good evidence that that’s true?

      Parents spanking kids, or nuns hitting hands with rulers, have been much more common patterns in some times and places than others. Is there evidence that that correlates with adults being more hostile to their parents? To other authority figures?

      1. Manx

        I don’t know what you’d take as ‘good evidence.’ Their are countless studies on the ill-effects of child abuse, that I don’t feel responsible for curating for you. It also seems completely true from everything I have heard people speak of their parents. And the most vicious take-downs of abusive parents I have heard are to date from chinese americans.

        1. eric23

          Child “abuse” has harmful effects pretty much by definition. If it did not have harmful effects, it would not be abuse.

          Does a specific method, such as spanking, have harmful effects? I know there are some studies that say this, but do they fully control for confounders? Would a study that found the opposite be able to find a publisher?

          I’d love to see Scott do an article on this subject. Or maybe see an adversarial collaboration (if those are still going to happen)

          1. Douglas Knight

            Sure, of course such a study is publishable. Here is a 30 year old paper warning that spanking is genetic, and that this upends the literature, though I’m not sure it reached a conclusion about the actual effects.

            Here (gs) is a recent twin study finding that the negative correlates of spanking are genetic.

            Incidentally, here is an unpublished paper by an economist with a different methodology to claim some positive effects of spanking.

      2. Tenacious D

        Is there evidence that that correlates with adults being more hostile to their parents?

        And I expect the secular trend in Xanax usage is negatively correlated with the prevalence of corporal punishment.

        1. Manx

          Ha! The problem is a lack of Confucian teaching these days. How else will the youngsters know not to commit patricide?

  5. Mark Atwood

    I’m kind of surprised that nobody has noticed that this is literally the background plot and the entire theme of “The Diamond Age” by Neal Stephenson.

    Stephenson reportedly was inspired into writing it by thinking hard about the educational environment he wanted his newborn child to have.

    1. John Schilling

      Good observation. And when the book that can turn an illiterate little girl into the next conqueror of China is tweaked to fit Chinese educational norms, it produces ten thousand capable but obedient minions to follow the conquering hero.

      Of course, that is just Neal Stephenson’s take on what could happen. But I still want three copies of the original Primer, to give to my nieces.

      1. Mark Atwood

        The trick is, who would you have Racter them? Remember, there were 3 copies of the original primer, and the 3 girls each turned out very differently, in part by who ractered each one.

        1. John Schilling

          I thought the difference was more with the girls and their very different environments; Nell couldn’t afford to be anything less than exceptional, while the other two could slack off. But you’re right that the book needs a talented real-time voice actor.

          But, IIRC, the book is smart enough to hire its own talent online, and comes preloaded with a budget for that sort of thing.

  6. AG

    ctrl + f suicide
    0 results

    (Okay, to be less glib, aren’t the suicide rates on the rise for the youths in countries with these kinds of education systems? If those who get broken in the worst way are removing themselves from the statistical pool, then yeah, the rates of success are gonna be skewed. Remember, the studies about the effect of shared environment showed that it doesn’t matter barring actual abuse being the difference in environment. A correlation between an increase in suicide rates seems to indicate a measure of abusiveness, which, in turn, might lead to a real difference in results! Which, in turn in turn, seems to indicate that growing up in a certain kind of abusive environment, apparently, helps one “succeed” in a particular kind of economic system.)

    1. gudamor

      aren’t the suicide rates on the rise for the youths in countries with these kinds of education systems?

      Are they? If we both go get data for various countries, why should we trust that data?

      1. AG

        Sure, we likely can’t trust a comparison of China data to US data, but we can compare China data to China data, because even if the number is dampened, they’d have to be running an analysis to prevent an increasing trend from showing through. At any rate, as of 2018 there are articles about Japan’s youth suicide rate hitting a 30-year high, and that suicide is the leading cause of death for adolescents in South Korea.

        1. Aapje

          suicide is the leading cause of death for adolescents in South Korea.

          Presumably, this is at least as much due to an increase in risk averseness, as an increase in suicidal tendencies. Young people are dying less of accidents and thus relatively more often of suicide.

          1. smocc

            It is also due to adolescents not dying of anything else. When I looked into it recently it was the leading cause of death for adolescents in ~40% of the states in the US, #2 nearly everywhere else, and no lower than 3 in any state. And if you look at the rates you see that adolescent suicide rates are roughly on par with adult suicide rates, even though suicide is much lower in the cause of death rank for adults. Rank in cause of death statistics just isn’t a useful statistic for discussing adolescent suicide.

            Especially if South Korean adolescents don’t drive cars!

  7. Neike Taika-Tessaro

    Quip from my primary, after I gave him the nutshell of the article and some of the comments, on the topic of China potentially maximising for diligence versus creativity:

    “Maybe the Chinese are soon going to automate creativity with AIs?”

    (This is not a serious submission to the debate. I just thought it was funny. Terrible on multiple levels, but also funny.)

  8. Spiritkas

    At one point Scott mentions a curiosity in the decline of entrepreneurship and the impact of these educational choices, but I would guess there is only a very weak link; though it is probably a minor factor.

    The dominent reason is structural and linked to monopoly. I think Scott considered this to an extent in his exploration of cost disease, but I am starting to think he underweighted the importance of the crushing effects of monopoly.

    I recently got into a new blog by author Matt Stoller and he has a couple of killer articles on these ideas. In one he talks about the effect of centralised monopolistic ownership in Hollywood. Basically some of the best and most creative films by not previously well known directors emerged during periods of chaos and less control in the film industry, in particular the period that gave us ‘back to the future’ and other popular but weird films which 1960s Hollywood would never have endorsed.

    The other very interesting one with huge implications is on private equity and its hatred of capitalism and love of price fixing and monopoly power. Creativity and new businesses are super limited due to large companies who have enormous market power which is focused on returns of money by owners who are proudly ignorant about the businesses they own for the purpose of extraction. This industrial mining through monopoly of otherwise productive businesses is killing competition and creativity.

    Even in the latest industry of tech we’ve seen insane levels of concentration of ownership and far more buyouts with far fewer small companies or independent IPOs than we did prior to the monopolistic concentration of the industry.

    https://mattstoller.substack.com/p/the-slow-death-of-hollywood

    I was thinking about this earlier as I might be a lazy person who didn’t start a business, but wanted to do so. I reframed the very popular and much cited numbers around wage growth and productivity into a more provocative description. Taking that wages have been flat for 50 plus years in the USA.

    For 90% of people the economy has not grown in 50 plus years. We live in a horrible economy for all the regular people. There has been zero economic growth in half a century! A few rich people made paper gains to create people who have ever more money they don’t need and can’t spend, but are essentially as rich as they would otherwise be in practical terms with a handful of new entrants into their ranks. At best for the vast majority of people we have kept pace with population growth in our economy. I find this rather shocking to think about as neatly every new dollar created over 50 years or more has gone to the wealthy and this concentration has accelerated and is a net negative vs more equal distributions of growth by every study on it I’ve ever seen.

    Perhaps our education is fine and working, young people can see the game is rigged and try to become courtesans to the wealthy as workers rather than trying their own business making. We are mired in the industrial age where our shopkeepers became clerks and artisans factory workers. Now in an extremely concentrated economy we want to demand entrepreneurial spirit in the middle and lower classes? In reality I see most businesses being started by the children of the wealthy. Bill Gates wasn’t a rags to riches story. Then we turn to schools as the issue? Monopoly is the central problem and it stagnates everything.

    1. The Nybbler

      For 90% of people the economy has not grown in 50 plus years. We live in a horrible economy for all the regular people. There has been zero economic growth in half a century! A few rich people made paper gains to create people who have ever more money they don’t need and can’t spend, but are essentially as rich as they would otherwise be in practical terms with a handful of new entrants into their ranks. At best for the vast majority of people we have kept pace with population growth in our economy. I find this rather shocking to think about as neatly every new dollar created over 50 years or more has gone to the wealthy and this concentration has accelerated and is a net negative vs more equal distributions of growth by every study on it I’ve ever seen.

      This simply is not true. Real median personal income is up. Real median disposable household income is up (despite household size going down). Real median weekly wages are up. Unemployment is at a peacetime low.

      In reality I see most businesses being started by the children of the wealthy. Bill Gates wasn’t a rags to riches story.

      No, he wasn’t. But Gates was an exception. Most of the Silicon Valley firms are “middle class to riches” stories. Apple. Google. Facebook. Amazon. And then there’s Oracle. Founded by Larry Ellison, born to an unwed mother who later gave him up for adoption by his aunt and uncle, and now the 4th richest man in the US.

    2. DavidFriedman

      For 90% of people the economy has not grown in 50 plus years. We live in a horrible economy for all the regular people. There has been zero economic growth in half a century!

      That is wildly false. I don’t have a convenient source back to 1970, but:

      Between 1979 and 2011, gross median household income, adjusted for inflation, rose from $59,400 to $75,200, or 26.5%. This compares with the Census’ growth of 10%.[19] However, once adjusted for household size and looking at taxes from an after-tax perspective, real median household income grew 46%, representing significant growth.

      (Wikipedia)

      1. thisheavenlyconjugation

        Why should we rely on that source rather than this one? That reports 6.1% median wage growth, which is entirely driven by wage growth in women — male median and below wages have decreased, by 13.3% at the 10th percentile. Quite possibly the answer is that “household income includes important things that wages don’t”, but do note that the original claim was “wages have been flat for 50 plus years in the USA” (I don’t think this is a wildly exaggerated description of 6% median growth).

        1. The Nybbler

          Even those more modest figures fail to support the original poster’s point. 90th percentile wages are up by a lot, which certainly contradicts “For 90% of people the economy has not grown in 50 plus years.”

          Median hourly wages, furthermore, are based on employed persons only. Unemployment in 1979 was roughly 6% (and at a local minimum — 1979 was also a local maximum in real wage, not to be seen again until 1999); unemployment in 2018 was at roughly 4%. Paradoxically, when unemployment goes up, it can cause median wage to rise.

        2. Mark V Anderson

          @THC
          Thank you very much for providing this source, which looks like where some folks may be getting their data that wages haven’t gone up in the last 40 years. I don’t believe these numbers for a minute. Just intuitively, I can see that the well being of the average person is a whole lot higher now than it was 40 years ago. Even the 90 percentile going up only 38% looks wildly wrong to me. But I am not sure what is wrong with the numbers. It is true that inflation has been understated for all those years, but I think there may be more to it that that.

          Edit: Oh yes, one more thing is the after tax perspective. The Earned Income Credit did not exist in 1979, whereas now families in the lowest percentiles make thousands of dollars from this program, so the average person up to about the 30 percentile has negative income tax.

  9. njnnja

    Isn’t the empirical study you are looking for the marshmallow study and its many descendants? I haven’t followed that back and forth and was actually hoping that topic of study would be given the SSC treatment.

  10. Well...

    I enjoyed this post a lot. Some thoughts…

    1. You mention Uber a few times. Uber was founded by a Canadian white guy and an American white guy, neither of whom so far as I can tell attended any Chinese schools, so…

    2. Yes, the Chinese preschoolers learn to sit still and be attentive, but whether there’s a decline in Western entrepreneurship or not, it seems like Western countries do most of the innovating and entrepreneuring, and China just copies them and brute-forces a way to sell the same thing cheaper. (With exceptions of course.)

    3. Learning how to sit still and conform might not be so much a skill that’s useful for living in a country that’s burgeoning with factories as it is for living in a country that’s big-C communist, and where dissent and deviance get you killed.

    1. Simon_Jester

      China was basically a pre-industrial country until the mid-20th century. They have strong incentives to play catch-up by emulating what already developed economies do. A lot of the things we’re saying about them now are the same things the Anglosphere has said throughout history about industrializing nations towards which it holds vague (or not-so-vague) prejudices.

      The Japanese were once seen as bucktoothed babblers who could only ape Western achievements; this notion became somewhat less credible after Tsushima, hardly credible at all after Pearl Harbor, and not remotely believable after the rise of Sony et. al. What changed wasn’t the racial makeup of Japan, or even really their educational culture as far as I can tell. It was that they caught up with the West in industrial development and started striking out on their own.

      1. Well...

        I don’t think it really works like this. It’s not like there’s a line of technological progress and the West is over here and China is over there and they have to do a bit of stealing to catch up before they can advance further.

        Yes, we can talk about the ways in which the West is technologically more advanced and the ways in which China is rivaling (and in some cases surpassing) those advancements. But it’s not like smart people in China are being told “You have to master the fundamentals, so please first produce a knockoff iPhone and Mini Cooper. Only then will you be ready to innovate beyond that.”

        As noted upthread, the Japanese had worries about their own lack of disruptive innovation.

  11. nobody.really

    But what about the Polgars? They turned all three of their children into chess prodigies….

    How about the Westovers? In Tara Westover’s book Educated, she describes growing up being homeschooled by mentally ill, paranoid parents–and six of the seven siblings go to college, with two getting PhDs. Perhaps this is a model we should emulate….

    1. InvalidUsernameAndPassword

      The respective accomplishments of the Polgárs and the Westovers are not remotely comparable, and I mean no disrespect to Tara Westover or her scholarship by this. Judit Polgár broke into the world chess top 100 at the age of 12, a record that I think still stands today. Tara Westover went to college at the usual age, and did amazingly well given the circumstances.

  12. Aftagley

    I’ll admit, I mostly just left the review (and attendant meta-review) with a highly negative opinion of Lenora. I get that the reviewer didn’t particularly like her, so there’s some bias, but I still see some common themes running through the narrative:

    Action: Her parents force her to study and have a non-fun childhood.
    Reaction: She expresses her displeasure by screaming at them, but ultimately does everything they say.

    Action: Her parents force her to go to college to study engineering
    Reaction: She expresses her displeasure by screaming at them, but ultimately goes to Stanford and gets an engineering degree.

    Jump forward to the plot of this book –

    Action: School imposes a series of bizarre rules and punishments on her child that she fundamentally disagrees with.
    Reaction: She expresses her displeasure (by screaming at them?) but ultimately completely complies with the bizarre school system and eventually turns around to support it.

    Could it just be that Lenora Chu is the kind of person who will just never stand up to authority and will fold/retoractively justify her decisions?

    (Also – look at her CV, she gets money from China-funded Committee on US-China relations. Of course her net conclusion would be “Oh wait, nevermind, of course the Chinese system is good.”)

  13. Amy

    But what about the Polgars? They turned all three of their children into chess prodigies through a strategy that seemed based around exposing them to absurd amounts of chess at a very young age. If we generalize, it does look like very young children might have very plastic minds that you can shape through out-of-distribution experiences. But Lazslo Polgar insisted that his technique didn’t use force; the point was to interest his children in the material so avidly that they inflicted near-Chinese levels of intensity on themselves in order to study it more successfully.

    If you take this and combine it with Rule Genius In, not Out – it would seem to imply that greater diversity in child-raising techniques is better. This is the closest thing to experimenting with AI designs that we have, and nobody can really tell which approach will create a new form of genius, on account of not having anything close to a complete model of human minds. The only approach is to invent and test out promising techniques (so long as they are ethical), and perhaps a few of them will yield genius kids.

  14. InvalidUsernameAndPassword

    My Bay Area friends treat people as naturally motivated, and assume that if someone acts unmotivated, it’s because they’ve spent so long being taught to suppress their own desires that they’ve lost touch with innate enthusiasm. Personified China treats people as naturally unmotivated, and assumes that if someone acts unmotivated, it’s because they haven’t been trained to pursue a goal determinedly without getting blown around by every passing whim.

    I find that very interesting, given that a major difference that’s often asserted to exist between China and the West is that unlike Abrahamic faiths, Confucianism doesn’t regard people as fallen.
    And yet, here we have pretty much the exact opposite.

    1. Randy M

      I was watching the documentary linked up-thread last night and found it ironic that the capitalistic western country (okay, it was Britain, but still) had schools that were more coddling, and the communist country China had schools that were fiercely competitive.

    2. Well...

      Well, “fallen” doesn’t necessarily map to unmotivated. It might even be the opposite. If Adam and Eve had just done what God told them…

      1. InvalidUsernameAndPassword

        That’s an interesting remark. I was (implicitly) mapping “fallen” to “in need of salvation by a more enlightened entity”, be that Christ, Muhammad, or the Chinese Communist Party.

  15. SCC

    I used to think Nabokov was a great writer, with access to a world that only great writers have access to.

    Then I read his mocking pastiche of Finnegans Wake, in which he exposed the fact, by writing a poorly-written pastiche of Finnegans Wake that he thought was funny but which was obviously clueless, and not funny at all, that he had no idea of what Joyce, the better writer, was trying to do in writing Finnegans Wake, and I realized that he harbored an awful lot of mediocrity in himself. And we all know that he is considered one of the great writers of the 20th century by many people, every year when the Nobels are awarded Twitter is full of people saying how unjust it was that he never got the Nobel.

    Einstein, who got every prize the flatterers of his day could think of, had conversations with approximately two or three people per year who were near his level of education, who had put in deep effort thinking about the same hard issues Einstein had thought about, and who were clearly almost as clever as him, even to outsiders in the physics world. Now, decades after he passed away, someone who is interested in the type of physics he was interested in can read about many of those exchanges in which he often came off as uninformed and lacking basic understanding of the relevant issues.

    The world is complicated and very very few people understand even a little bit about it.

    All education systems are a joke.

    My best guess is that every educational system is deleterious to someone who is capable of very original thinking, and the only real differences between educational systems are between those systems which are completely deleterious to originality (or to angelic inspiration, Proverbs 8) or just almost completely deleterious.

    If English is not your native language, deleterious is an easy word to say – it rhymes with very few words, but it has a musicality about it —– think about it ….
    deh-leh TEER ee yus
    izz-hee SEER ee yus

    I am serious, don’t get mad or indignant, bro.

  16. gleamingecho

    On the time-wasting issue:

    It seems that unless schools are willing to accelerate the pace of instruction and leave some portion of the kids behind, schools will always need to waste time. I would think that most parents would not want their school-age children’s de facto daycare centers to shorten their hours….

    To the extent that a school’s instructional and supervisory functions remain intertwined, it seems like the instructional function can never be truly maximized (not an argument for not trying to make instruction better, mind you–just an argument that there are constraints to the ability to optimize the instructional effectiveness given the context and constraints).

    1. Matt M

      +1

      This is a huge part of the problem. A lot of people object to school failing to efficiently educate students, while ignoring that education is only one part of what schools are intended to accomplish. For a non-trivial percentage of parents, the function of a school is to provide free daycare, and anything else it accomplishes is vis-a-vis education is just icing on the cake.

  17. MugaSofer

    I have no idea why people are more risk-averse. Secular decline in testosterone, maybe?

    I feel like it’s worth at least considering the most popular explanation for this I’ve seen, which is that it’s a result of “helicopter parenting” and generally giving kids less room to explore and take risks during their free time, on both an individual and legal (people calling child services because your kid is playing in the yard unsupervised) level.

    Of course, this could be reverse causation – maybe reduced testosterone or whatever is making people more risk-averse regarding kids’ welfare, and also making the kids themselves more risk-averse.

    But there are other possible causes; a shift from Farmer/Survive to Forager/Thrive values causing people to have less kids and value them more highly, or the Iron Law of Bureaucracies/ratchet effect (i.e. laws getting more restrictive and complicated but rarely the reverse) that libertarians are always complaining about, for instance.

  18. notpeerreviewed

    Note that “entrepreneurship is declining” statistics generally do not mean what people think they mean. See The Illusions of Entrepreneurship, by Scott A. Shane. Entrepreneurship statistics are dominated by extremely non-innovative businesses like tiny laundromats and restaurant franchises. No knock on the people who make their living that way, but it’s very much not the leading edge of technology or economic growth.

    Entrepreneurship numbers decline in all mature economies and it’s generally an indicator that many of the people who used to start small businesses instead have well-paying jobs at established firms.

    1. Matt M

      Great point. Founding Uber and opening a food truck are quite different activities, but show up in the economic statistics as basically the same.

  19. eigenmoon

    Prussians, who invented compulsory education to prepare children for a career as infantrymen or factory workers. It’s a great story. Like most great stories, it’s kind of false.

    I’m not buying this rebuttal article as it strawmans the theory. “Infantrymen” is the key word here. This is very important but the article doesn’t discuss that.
    ____

    Also about military:

    In the 1980s, 60 percent of CEOs had military experience; that number has plummeted to 8 percent now.

    Looks related to the decline of entrepreneurship.

  20. Markus Ramikin

    “Learning how to sit still and obey others is the necessary prerequisite to learning how to sit still and obey yourself.
    […]
    I notice most of you Americans suck at this skill. I notice you’re always whining about how you don’t have enough discipline to pursue your interests. Some of you are writers who spend years fantasizing about the novel you’re going to publish, but can never quite bring yourself to put pen to paper. Others want to learn another language, but reject real work in favor of phone apps that promise to ‘gamify’ staying at a 101 level for the rest of your life. You don’t need to feel bad about having no self-control; after all, nobody taught you any. If you’d gone to 宋庆龄幼儿园, you would have spent your formative years learning to sit still and focus, having your natural impulse to slack off squeezed out of you. Then you could have pushed through and written your novel, or learned 官話, or if you wanted to start Uber you could start Uber. At the very least you’d be doing something other than lying in bed browsing Reddit posts about how adulting is hard.”

    My copy-paste keys are tingling. I think I’m about to strain a few friendships…

  21. moridinamael

    Should we be less surprised that Rationalists don’t run the world, since apparently much stricter and more exacting human-molding protocols also don’t create a caste of people who rule the world?

  22. Liriodendron

    Speaking of authoritarian child abuse in China and its economic effects, I am reminded of foot binding. It was once thought to be an upper-class phenomenon for fashion value, but here’s another theory:

    “Our research shows that footbinding was widespread across China, not just among the elite, but among ordinary villagers. What has long been seen as a lavish waste of women’s natural capabilities in pursuit of an aesthetic ideal was at the same time a cultural practice that encouraged a highly productive specialization of women’s labor.”

    “How does one persuade a girl of seven to sit still and spin cotton hour after hour, from dawn till dark while mother weaves at the loom? Why does the child not run away from her task (an easy flight, considering that her mother was likely footbound as well)? Put this way, footbinding, supplemented by threats and beatings, was a compelling reason. As young children with growing feet, girls experienced years of painful deformation, passing sleepless nights with burning, swollen feet, and days when they might only be able to sit or crawl because their arches had been broken. From roughly ages five to ten, their mothers bound them, threatened them, and beat them if they tried to undo or loosen the bindings. Young girls had to relearn to walk, keeping weight on their heels, and leaning on walls to balance. After many months and years, when the adolescent girl finally stopped growing and binding achieved the desired shape (or an approximation), the feet would stabilize and the pain subside. In the interim, those years of relative immobility gave mothers the opportunity to instruct their daughters in the sedentary and crucial labor of household production.

    “Needing to fully mobilize their household labor force, mothers did what they felt they had to, employing a cruel tactic. For ordinary people, footbinding was labor discipline.”

    “As cheaper, machine-made cotton yarn and cloth infiltrated a region, mothers abandoned footbinding. Their daughters would continue to work under their supervision, but immobilizing girls was no longer necessary to the discipline of household production.”

    https://stanfordpress.typepad.com/blog/2017/03/the-hand-work-of-the-footbound-.html

    As a mother, I find it unimaginable to think of breaking my child’s feet or sending them away to an authoritarian preschool. I guess cultural and economic pressures were extremely strong several hundred years ago, strong enough that girls’ own mothers would do such a thing. Whereas in modern China, maternal bonds are compromised by 1) their national goal of 100% of childbirths being medication-altered (which interferes with natural hormonal bonding) as well as by 2) the current trend of mothers leaving their babies for the grandparents to raise in the country while the mother moves to the city to work. So it’s probably emotionally easier for mothers to go against their instinct and turn over their children to abuse now than it used to be. I think it was Germaine Greer who said something roughly to the effect of “If you rob birth and motherhood of its dignity and joy, no one will find it enjoyable and want to do it.” I guess that setup is a triple win for China’s goals: less population growth, more prime-age women in the workforce, and more disciplined future workers. Too bad it makes me utterly despair at the thought.

    Wouldn’t it suck if abusive regimes like China had an overwhelming competitive advantage over more maternal, nurturing societies? (You might say that’s the history of the world; see Scott’s review of Against the Grain.) I worry about that even between subcultures in the US where I live. I don’t think the US is the best country in the world as far as being great for children, parents, and families, so at least the US is not the last bulwark to defend against China. That’s probably the Netherlands, home to “the happiest children in the world,” where most mothers are encouraged and supported in experiencing natural birth, parents have about 17 months of paid leave between them, and schools deliberately teach children empathy.

    I hope that humanity can preserve family life like they attempt to in the Netherlands, and extend it as an option to more people, not fewer. Motherhood is the sort of thing where, if it proceeds normally, you get biologically transformed, as if by magic, into having an avid interest (one that needn’t have been instilled in you from childhood like the Polgars) in nurturing and caring for your children. My whole life, I’d been on the intellectually curious but somewhat procrastinating side of things, like many SSC readers. I was absolutely shocked to find that motherhood was more interesting, much easier to focus my dedicated efforts on, and more fulfilling than anything I’d ever encountered before. It’s a wonderful life experience.

    It is heartbreaking that China is arresting maternal love and childhood wonder, the best things in most people’s lives, so that it can redirect productive years to economic output and redirect family loyalty and approval-seeking to the state. Nor is China the first nation to do this. Nazi Germany did it too, partly as a result of their Prussian heritage and the traumas of WW1:

    “In 1930, Dr. Walter Birk and Dr. A. Mayer wrote that newborns call out in the night, but that nighttime feedings were unnecessary to the child and disruptive to the mother… The mother must absolutely enforce nighttime rest. The most ‘heroic method’ for a young mother, in their opinion, was to let the baby cry it out… Bergstermann notes that the influence of Nazi ideology here is unmistakable and that the need to portray the child as a problem in need of correction was definitely politically motivated.”

    “In 1934 physician Johanna Haarer published The German Mother and Her First Child. Her advice guided child-rearing in the Third Reich. In that book, Haarer recommended that children be raised with as few attachments as possible. If a child cried, that was not the mother’s problem. Excessive tenderness was to be avoided at all cost.

    “‘Children like this—who are easily seduced, don’t think and don’t feel—are fodder for a nation bent on war,’ says Karl Heinz Brisch, a psychiatrist at the Dr. von Hauner Children’s Hospital at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich. ‘In Johanna Haarer’s view, it is important to deny caring when a child asks for it. But each refusal means rejection,’ Grossmann explains. The only means of communication open to a newborn are facial expression and gestures, he adds. If no response is forthcoming, children learn that nothing they try to communicate means anything. Moreover, infants experience existential fear when they are alone and hungry and receive no comfort from their attachment figure. In the worst case, such experiences lead to a form of insecure attachment that makes it difficult to enter into relationships with other people in later life.”

    “This along with harsh discipline by fathers, is theorized to have played a key part in determining who followed the Third Reich without question, and who resisted. ‘Dicks found that Nazis had “particularly destructive mother images,” and the Oliners found German rescuers of Jews had families that showed them more love and respect than Nazi[s’] parents.'”

    http://www.integritycalling.com/blog/the-history-of-sleep-training

    Loving and respectful parents correlated to resisting Nazis and rescuing Jews. I can see why China wouldn’t want people to turn out like that.

    Even America got caught up in the new, mostly male-led “scientific parenting expert knows better than your biological instincts” culture through the mid-20th century:

    Ira Glass
    The psychological establishment, pediatricians, even the federal government were all saying exactly the opposite of…parents… Psychologists at the time [1960] actually saw loving behavior towards children as a problem, a menace. At one point, the head of the American Psychological Association declared, “When you’re tempted to pet your child, remember that mother love is a dangerous instrument.”

    Deborah Blum
    Yeah, that was John Watson. And he actually said there are serious rocks ahead for the over-kissed child, and then defined over-kissing as kissing your child more than once a year.

    Ira Glass
    Wow.

    Deborah Blum
    I mean, that was the message of almost everything.

    Ira Glass
    Yeah. At some point, there are government pamphlets, you write, that are warning parents not to touch their children, and you quote some. One says, “Never kiss a baby, especially on the mouth. Don’t rock or play with children.”

    Deborah Blum
    Yeah. Not to say that everyone follows what so-called experts do, right? But, certainly, you had an enormous effect of this affection is wrong, love isn’t real– trust us, we’re scientists– that greatly shaped those kind of perceptions.

    Ira Glass
    How is this possible? Well, first of all, psychology was still pretty young, and psychologists hadn’t figured out how to measure love, how to quantify it, talk about it in a scientific way. So the thinking about love’s role was incredibly crude.

    And at the same time– this is all at the beginning of the early 20th century– medicine was still figuring out how bacteria spread infections. And pediatricians had noticed that, in hospitals, the kids who were picked up a lot by nurses seemed to get more infections.

    Deborah Blum
    So doctors were saying, don’t pick up your child, don’t pick up your child, don’t pick up your child. So you had a kind of confluence going there. You had pediatricians saying, we’re telling you for health reasons that you should never cuddle your child or indulge them. And guess what? Psychology says if you follow those rules, if you show your child no affection, you will make them a better human being. So back off.

    Ira Glass
    And this is the way it was for decades, until about the 1940s. Health care workers started to notice that some children in hospitals, in orphanages, who were treated this way never picked up, never loved, would wither and die– literally die. But even this did not change the opinion of the psychological establishment.

    So enter Harry Harlow. He sets out to prove that love is important– in fact, love is a key to normal development in children– and that what bonds babies and mothers is more than just the baby’s need for food.

    https://www.thisamericanlife.org/317/transcript

    I know people over the age of 70 whose parents never showed affection. It really messed them up.

    To sum up, disciplinarian preschools are merely one piece of a larger puzzle of anti-family totalitarianism in China. I admire Scott’s open-mindedness to the potential counterintuitive benefits of disciplinarian preschools. But even if we decide there are some positive lessons to learn there, I think we need to be wary of its larger cultural and historical context, which is more clearly bad. In practice, it may be difficult to incorporate potentially beneficial aspects of disciplinarian preschools without drawing on or encouraging some of that harmful context, whether Chinese, Prussian, or American.

    1. Roger Sweeny

      Recently, I watched a LOT of Turner Classic Movies, Hollywood products of the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s. I was struck by how many of them seemed to believe, “all you need is love”. Not only didn’t the Beatles invent the idea in 1967 but they were following a well-trodden path. Child raising books may have downplayed it but I wonder how much they were followed. Besides, Dr. Spock’s The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care was first published in 1946, just in time for Baby Boom parents. It became THE authority, a runaway best-seller, and it certainly did NOT tell parents to withhold affection.

    2. galanx

      To think that Chinese society suffers from a lack of maternal love is to wave a big banner that says “I know nothing about China, but here’s my opinion.” No, Chinese people are not a bunch of mindless robots directed by the Party.
      “Loving and respectful parents correlated to resisting Nazis and rescuing Jews. ” Utter nonsense- the people who resisted Nazis and rescued Jews were the same generation raised under the same methods as those who supported Nazis and turned in Jews, and had been largely raised in pre-Nazi Germany.

      1. Well...

        the people who resisted Nazis and rescued Jews were the same generation raised under the same methods as those who supported Nazis and turned in Jews, and had been largely raised in pre-Nazi Germany.

        In his book “Originals” Adam Grant discussed some research to the contrary. IIRC there was a study on Germans who resisted Nazis and rescued Jews and it found they were, as children, often punished and rewarded in different ways from Germans who supported Nazis and turned in Jews. My memory’s foggy on this, but if a Nazi-resister did something wrong as a child (cheating on a test at school, let’s say) their parents would say “You shouldn’t be a cheater.” If a Nazi-supporter did something wrong as a child, their parents would say “You shouldn’t cheat.” The point was that the Nazi-resisters learned to link the morality of their behavior to their identity, whereas for the Nazi-supporters their behavior was just behavior and its morality could be considered independent of identity.

        So, I don’t know how much stock to put in this research, but I’d be interested to hear of research that counters it.

        1. nobody.really

          [I]f a Nazi-resister did something wrong as a child (cheating on a test at school, let’s say) their parents would say “You shouldn’t be a cheater.” If a Nazi-supporter did something wrong as a child, their parents would say “You shouldn’t cheat.” The point was that the Nazi-resisters learned to link the morality of their behavior to their identity, whereas for the Nazi-supporters their behavior was just behavior and its morality could be considered independent of identity.

          Interesting. On the other hand, we have Dorotheus of Gaza a/k/a Abba Dorotheus (505-565 CE), Eastern Christian abbot: “Never say, ‘he is a thief,’ but rather, ‘he stole,’ for otherwise you condemn his whole life.” In short, beware linking behavior to identity. Indeed, the linguistic school of General Semantics cautions against phrasing anything in terms of identity.

          Then there’s Kurt Vonnegut’s summary of the authorities:

          “To be is to do”—Socrates.
          “To do is to be”—Jean-Paul Sartre.
          “Do be do be do”—Frank Sinatra.

    3. The Big Red Scary

      “I hope that humanity can preserve family life like they attempt to in the Netherlands, and extend it as an option to more people, not fewer.”

      I also very much hope this, but I would add that although I have a very affectionate and “attached” relationship with my own child, and find the high modern breaking of familial bonds outrageous, I think that reductio ad Nazism is a form of argument to be avoided. It is not at all clear that Germany was taking this trend to greater excesses than, say, America. My own grandmother was given general anaesthetic and shaved before birth, and then injected with hormones to prevent lactation after birth. As far as I understand, this was standard procedure at the time.

      1. Liriodendron

        Yes, America was not exempt from the anti-attachment zeitgeist, as my third quote from This American Life begins to illustrate.

        Modern medicine gets a lot of things right and is certainly to be credited for lower maternal mortality rates, thanks to germ theory, improved c-sections, etc. But obstetricians – surgeons by trade, trained by a male institution divorced from the wisdom of millennia of female midwives – usurped authority over birth a century or so ago without really knowing what they were messing with. They were unprepared to support birth as a complicated hormonal dance, an active musculoskeletal task, and the most empowering quest of most women’s lives. Birth evolved to work more like climbing Mount Everest or having sex than like having someone else remove your wisdom teeth.

        Like my poorly-remembered Greer quote alludes to, it’s no wonder several generations of women decided to hell with childbearing after they were subjected to treatment like your grandmother and many others were. If you are misunderstood, unsupported, and abused during labor, whether unconscious or not; then discouraged from following your instinct to bond with your baby via skin-to-skin contact, breastfeeding, and affectionate interaction; then reprimanded for following whatever motherly instinct you have left; then denigrated as useless in society for anything other than joyless reproduction; of course you will revolt. I am a feminist and think women’s suffrage, birth control, Title 9, etc. were improvements. But I also hope women (in general; not every woman since it’s fine to be childfree) rediscover the joys of unoppressed birth and motherhood, or something increasingly closer to it.

        1. The Big Red Scary

          We are in agreement about the most important questions being discussed here, those of birth and caring for your children, and I’m glad that you have brought up these issues here in a way that I, as a man, could not do as convincingly. When my wife was pregnant, I read somewhere some very sound advice for fathers: don’t let anyone tell you to act against your mammalian instincts.

          For the record, I’m a feminist too: I support a uniform reduction of suffrage.

          As for Title IX, as Hilbert said of Emmy Noether: This is a university, not a bathhouse. On the other hand,
          eggs are precious, seed is cheap. It is an empirical question as to what the effects will be of a whole society prolonging adolescence, and the question is especially acute for young women. At our current rates of fertility, it might well lead to the end of our civilization.

          1. DavidFriedman

            On the other hand, eggs are precious, seed is cheap.

            Eggs are pretty cheap too, although extracting them for in vitro is costly. Consider how many a woman starts with.

            The scarce input is womb space.

          2. Lurker

            For the record, I’m a feminist too: I support a uniform reduction of suffrage.

            according to merriam webster dictionary, suffrage means the following:

            the right of voting; also : the exercise of such right

            so, personally I’m really against a reduction of (women’s) suffrage…

          3. The Big Red Scary

            From what I’ve read, at puberty a woman has a few hundred thousand eggs, but only tens can be extracted at a time, due to the great cost to a woman’s health. From first-hand accounts I’ve heard, even the level of hormone treatment necessary to extract 20 eggs can incapacitate a woman for at least a day. Anyhow, in vitro fertilization takes us in a completely different direction from that of the present conversation on the importance of natural birth and child-care to the well-being of both woman and child.

          4. ana53294

            Even in the hypothetical that we can harvest aborted foetuses and implant them on willing mothers, womb space will indeed be the limiting factor.

            Women who don’t have eggs but have a viable uterus can use somebody else’s eggs.

            Eggs go for something like 1000 euros. Just a thousand euros. A surrogate pregnancy costs upwards of 100,000 euros, you can’t do it in most countries, and it’s much harder to do legally (like Ukraine suddenly prohibiting the adoption of surrogate babies).

            So yes, wombs (and the sacrifices made during a pregnancy, avoiding alcohol, smoking, drugs) are the limiting factor.

          5. Lurker

            @The Big Red Scary
            You said

            I support a uniform reduction of suffrage.

            and

            Indeed, this is exactly the definition of suffrage I had in mind.

            how do these fit together? You’re feminist, so you’re for a reduction in voting rights? or is your argument that a reduction in voting rights for everyone would be better for women?

          6. The Big Red Scary

            I want N% percent less democracy, with 100>N >>10. In the presence of well-designed incentives for good government, a reduction in voting rights for everyone would be better for everyone, in particular for women.

            The bit about “I’m a feminist” was glib. Rather, I am a mammalian and a humanist.

          7. The Big Red Scary

            “Women who don’t have eggs but have a viable uterus can use somebody else’s eggs.”

            Inna May Gaskin, hippie midwife extraordinaire:

            There is no other organ quite like the uterus. If men had such an organ they would brag about it. So should we.

    4. Spiritkas

      Great post, I feel like you touched on it, but I wanted to share how I connected to your post. There is more to life than economics. It is shocking how often one must say this. Economists are literally the high priests of our day. To do anything at all without counting up dollars as though life were some accounting game is seen as radical. To even add a caveat or Co-factor to the ‘obvious, unquestionable, and overwhelming importance’ of economics in every decision and consideration is seen as radical.

      To begin with the idea of evaluating human existence without the use of the economic ideology is seen as total out group thinking not worthy of consideration. We use words like culture to describe authoritarian rule. If you get killed for speaking out against the government or King or president for life then a ‘culture’ of compliance grows. But even this is a narrow focus. As though the only elements or aspects or moments of human existence that matter or are worthy of consideration are the ones which matter to the state. What the government cares about and measures is your life, as if this state’s eye view is how to think about culture and is a valid yard stick of humanity… This is uterly abhorrent to me and I feel misses nearly the totality of qualia and experience of human existence. We live, breathe, feel, and exist first and foremost.

      Life is not a dollar earned by working, or how that is spent. It is a mother quietly breastfeeding her baby in a state of tranquility, creating the ultimate foundation of the pro social behaviour and emotional states which guide us through life as the big not so hairy cooperative familial tribal groups of apes that we are.

      1. Alexander Turok

        Great post, I feel like you touched on it, but I wanted to share how I connected to your post. There is more to life than economics. It is shocking how often one must say this. Economists are literally the high priests of our day. To do anything at all without counting up dollars as though life were some accounting game is seen as radical. To even add a caveat or Co-factor to the ‘obvious, unquestionable, and overwhelming importance’ of economics in every decision and consideration is seen as radical.

        I’ve never seen this. Rather, political thought rarely counts dollars, indeed, political thinkers rarely count.

      2. Liriodendron

        Thank you. I like your elaboration on some things I’ve been musing on too:

        As though the only elements or aspects or moments of human existence that matter or are worthy of consideration are the ones which matter to the state. What the government cares about and measures is your life, as if this state’s eye view is how to think about culture and is a valid yard stick of humanity… This is uterly abhorrent to me and I feel misses nearly the totality of qualia and experience of human existence.

        It is a mother quietly breastfeeding her baby in a state of tranquility, creating the ultimate foundation of the pro social behaviour and emotional states which guide us through life…

    5. memerboi

      The US does perpetrate one insane unforgivable crime on its children: routine neonatal circumcision, which inflicts permanent physical and psychological damage on its victims.

  23. Statismagician

    I can’t help but think of Seeing Like A State; read ‘adults’ for ‘the state’ and ‘superficial good behavior’ for ‘legibility.’ What has drawing a bunch of raindrops got to do with education? About as much as evenly-spaced rectangular grids have to do with Prussian forestry output.

  24. theodidactus

    I always largely viewed this as a “lift everyone a little”/”lift a few people a lot” kind of calculus.
    I taught for a few years in the “cram school” system in Taiwan, so my observations only pertain to that country, which is way more western than most of the East. They also pertain to that system, which by definition sees only the students that have the time and money to attend a second school on top of their “normal” school.

    …but my observation generally is that the whole system (even the parts of the “normal” schools I observed) greatly benefits “the best of the best of the best” by giving them a jump start on certain skills (general ones like mental discipline/focus, and specific ones like learning how to do geometric proofs) to the potential detriment of the vast majority of students (who really don’t get much out of the experience besides having to go to yet another school, on top of school). This isn’t all that different from how we approach education in general: most of us probably don’t get much out of mandatory Algebra II classes, but some tiny fraction of us benefit a great deal.

    I’m agnostic on whether this is a good idea. I think there’s a good argument that prior to sending people through said system, it’s hard to tell who will benefit from it, and the benefits truly are immense: If you want a future society of supergeniuses that can solve AI risk and the like, you’re going to need to identify and train those people early (Scott’s observed this before)…I don’t know if it’s worth it. I tried to make the experience as fun and enlightening for all my students as possible and on the whole I think I, and the school I worked for, did a great job… but the same can’t be said of other schools in the system.

  25. Erusian

    I’ve got fairly extensive experience with at least a part of China, including its educational aspects. The Chinese philosophy of education (at least among the elite) is basically that education is meant to skill as measured by a system of standardized tests which grant access to important institutions that ultimately grant success. Chinese teachers would never dream of complaining at being forced to teach to the test. They expect it. They believe the test, if well formulated, will require the person to develop genuine skills and there’s not much thought to the idea that the test environment is limited.

    Basically, it’s a product of authoritarianism. The teachers do not expect to have a say in techniques or methods like the US teachers unions. The parents do not expect to have a say like PTAs. The students do not expect to have a say. It is entirely imposed on them and this is how they perceive it. And like most Communist states, it’s good mustering lots of resources to hit goals but bad at optimizing for total value. So if you tell them to optimize for test scores, they will optimize for test scores and do pretty well at it. But more comprehensive education will get left by the wayside.

    Likewise, the idea of moving up in the system is the primary goal of everyone. People who optimize along other values are being extremely countercultural. Even Chinese entrepreneurs or artists need connections in the state and to work that system, which is best done if you can go to schools with other important people. And yes, this exists to some degree in the United States. But China is off the charts. You cannot even form a business or hire people without government approval. Additionally, there is a great deal of social prestige bound up in winning these academic contests. But it’s in winning the contests, not in actually being smart. Of course, some degree of intelligence is bound up in passing the tests. But, to give an example, I knew a guy who probably wasn’t neurotypical. Brilliant at mathematics, bad at most everything else. Ended up isolated because his total score wasn’t very high.

    I don’t know if this makes it better or worse. It certainly produces a much more intensive academic status competition than we have in the US. China’s equivalent of Harvard accepts less than 1% of applicants. And central control means it distributes rewards in a way even more optimized towards these graduates than the US.

    This is likewise part of why everyone is polite: the system involves appointment of successors, which means that gaining the favor of the currently powerful is much more important than in the US. Not that it’s unimportant here, but again, China’s much worse. And the powers that be are all in a unified structure so you can’t go from one to the other. Like, if you dislike politics you can’t go into industry: your boss is partly political too. As is the official who needs to approve many of your actions. And dealing with abuse from superiors is a pretty useful skill. I wouldn’t say that the people there were more abusive than the norm but they were obviously not afraid of reprisals for things like sexual harassment or striking subordinates. Many were simply not used to being told no.

    For all its many flaws, American education is democratic. Students expect a responsive administration. Students’ parents really expect it. Teachers expect a responsive ministry. Everyone expects to have a voice, even if that voice is ignored or there’s only so much money in the budget or the problems don’t get solved. That’s the biggest difference between the two systems. Chinese teachers would never dream of striking for higher wages or even complaining about a new curriculum. The moment this lady complained to a teacher the teacher absolutely went and gossiped about how she was such an American.

    So I don’t find their increased educational attainment all that surprising. More of their future rides on it and authoritarianism is pretty good at optimizing towards one value. Test scores, in this case.

    1. Bugmaster

      What you said does make sense, but in that case, wouldn’t we expect Chinese students to do poorly once they emigrate to America, since America has different tests ?

      1. Erusian

        Standardized test taking itself is a skill and the American tests aren’t really that different. Like, what subject do Americans test that the Chinese don’t?

          1. Clutzy

            Depends. Does “skill” mean “being a normal smart person” or “playing an obscure instrument”? Because being good at standardized tests is the first. Most modern “standardized tests” are fairly ‘G’ loaded.

            Its plausible to contrive “standardized” tests that reflect obscure learning, people have done it. The groups that win on ACTs, SATs, etc once informed of the change in testing, pivot and beat the groups that should have an advantage in the test. For example, the ACT could on Jan 1 announce it was replacing all of its categories with a spelling test of all the various Cheetos flavors. On Jan 2, they would get a distribution of scores that advantaged Cheetos-eating populations. But, by Jan 2 of the next year the Cheetos lovers would be washed out by people who study for such things (aka anyone who wants to get into college). So again, the test would become ‘G’ loaded.

    2. viVI_IViv

      Basically, it’s a product of authoritarianism. The teachers do not expect to have a say in techniques or methods like the US teachers unions. The parents do not expect to have a say like PTAs. The students do not expect to have a say. It is entirely imposed on them and this is how they perceive it. And like most Communist states, it’s good mustering lots of resources to hit goals but bad at optimizing for total value. So if you tell them to optimize for test scores, they will optimize for test scores and do pretty well at it. But more comprehensive education will get left by the wayside.

      It’s much older and culturally ingrained than Communism. The Chinese have pretty much invented standardized exams and bureaucratic credentialism.

  26. C.H.

    As a second generation chinese-canadian, I think there’s a lot of merit to the argument that, culturally, Chinese people are just more diligent/conservative etc. There’s literally millennia of Chinese culture backing the importance of education and Confucian values. And anecdotally, most of my Chinese friends growing up (born and raised in the west) shared the same kind of diligence relative to whites or even other non-chinese immigrants.

    1. The Big Red Scary

      I don’t know anything about Confucianism, but for what it’s worth, in the Abrahamic faiths man is believed to be “made in the image and likeness of God”. In Orthodox Christianity, this belief is taken to it’s logical extreme with the notion of theosis, which is “to become by grace what God is by nature,” as Athanasios of Alexandria put it.

  27. Etoile

    I’m of two minds. NOTE: The following is all from personal observation/intuition, not studies:

    On the one hand, you can see in softer ways – not in coarse metrics perhaps – the way lack of discipline reflects on children: how it reflects on politeness, maturity, pleasantness, neatness, and parental stress parenting them. Obviously there are tradeoffs: discipline and routine are hard, and can backfire in all sorts of ways.

    On the other hand, if you look at the Olympics, and science/math olympiads, the US does pretty well compared to Russia and China, and their coaches and methods are much softer, more positive-reinforcement oriented, and less brutal than the other countries are reputed to be. In other words, the kids who want and really dedicate themselves through intrinsic motivation, can do just as well as those raised through a more authoritarian system.

    if I had to take a choice of “strict nation-wide system that crushes everyone into polite submission” vs. “lackadaisical do as you please”, I’d choose the latter. But if you care about outcomes for your average kid without a surfeit of brightness and initiative, discipline and rules will probably give you a better outcome in terms of school performance, order, obedience. The other system may encourage outliers, but it also probably exacerbates inequality – because the bright and energetic and capable will generally climb out of any morass, but the average and lethargic have to be pushed.

  28. JoeCool

    My thoughts:

    In the absence of conclusive evidence one way or the other, going with the less oppressive route seems like a no brainier to me.

    I wonder though, like if I was a parent I might pay a software engineer who is good with kids to make my 7 year old think coding is the fucking bees knees (I feel like you could manipulate a young kid into at least giving considering a certain skill more than they otherwise would). Hopefully I’d increase the likelihood of the kid picking up software engineering (or whatever skill is most useful for making money in the future) up.

    Though if Chinese/Americans are equal, and china has wayy more pollution, perhaps thats suggestive of the Chinese system being better.

    Not suggestive enough though, I think if I had kids I’d “unschool” them.

    The whole self learning ethos of coding is interesting to me, boot camps in particular interest me, like it seems somewhat unique, in theory you could have “bootcamps” for a lot of other skills but coding is the one that has caught on the most.

    Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that coding was invented relatively recently, so public schools didn’t create a curriculum for it.

    Even if discipline was super important, I think once you force feed eggs into kids mouths for a couple years you can back off much earlier than the Chinese system does.

    Who knows though, we need more schooling variety and more studies.

    What I really don’t like is the perplexing systematic exaggeration of like 16-21 year old’s biological differences which is then used as a justification to restrict their rights (at least in the u.s) in a lot of important ways. This kind of rhetoric is most often used in school.

    1. Etoile

      The biological differences aside, but when you hear some of their opinions… I’ve observed a significant degradation in the quality of basic math, reading, writing, and social studies education, even just watching several siblings go through the same schools I went to. The responsibility that youth are expected to uphold decrease. If you’re going to be expanding the rights, the responsibilities need to go up too….

  29. Deiseach

    From the quoted extracts, I find it very hard to be outraged about “they are stifling the children’s creativity and leadership potential!” because it doesn’t sound a million miles away from when I went to school (granted, school has changed a heck of a lot since then).

    Unless given different orders, all students were required to sit in their seats with their arms at their sides, and their feet flat on a line of tape on the ground. This is not an easy task for three-year-olds.

    Well, we were taught to sit lámha i bhfolach (literally “hands hidden”) which was putting our arms behind our backs (and around the seat backs) and holding them like that with one hand clasped in the other. This was all about sitting up straight, quiet, and still, so the Chinese method sounds not too dissimilar. We were older (four to five) and there was no shouting, but the principle was the same. Betimes I’ve had my posture when seated praised, and it’s all down to being taught by nuns to sit up straight, back not touching the back of the chair, feet flat on the floor and together, no slouching or crossed legs, and holding still and quiet. I think my primary school teachers would have got on well in a Chinese classroom 🙂

    The raindrop copying sounds less like ‘teaching students to follow pointless and arbitrary directions from an authority figure’ and more like pre-writing practice. Copying exactly what the teacher writes is how you learn to write, and you have to do it over and over and over again (do they still do writing exercises with lined copybooks in schools today?). I imagine this is especially important for Chinese writing, since if you don’t follow stroke order correctly, you’re bunched. And since you’re dealing with logograms not learning letters that can be combined into words, then you have to start young and begin with ‘copying without understanding’.

    Shoving eggs into a child’s mouth is maybe not the thing, but at the same time it’s the attitude of “don’t encourage picky eaters” and “expose children to different types of food so they get a varied diet”. I find even the ‘force-feed them eggs’ preferable to modern ‘let them snack and graze so they’re always dipping into a packet of sugary cereal or snack foods’ that I see.

    It’s basic discipline of a very old-fashioned kind, and by the account of the book she seems to have ended up happy enough with having a polite, disciplined, and well-behaved child who was also intelligent. But as I said, this is how I was reared (and corporal punishment was still going strong in my day); I think maybe in the West the pendulum has swung too far from redressing the over-strictness now to teachers being unable to lay a finger on a disruptive student to move them out of class, and the worst elements taking full advantage of that. There has to be a happy medium! Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad the days of “throwing the duster at them” are gone, but the days of “kid can swear at you and be physically violent but if you so much as touch them that’s legal assault” are not great improvement.

    1. Bugmaster

      FWIW, in my middle/high school experience, disruptive students usually ruled the class. If they chose to act out, there would be no learning of any kind going on that day. The only exceptions were in classes led by teachers who were close to retirement, or substitutes, or who basically didn’t care about the PTA for some other reason. They’d just evict the troublemakers and keep going with the lesson.

  30. John Schilling

    But (these same people argue), the Industrial Age is over. The most important skills now are entrepreneurship and creative problem solving.

    Does anyone seriously dispute that the most important part of entrepreneurial success is prolonged, diligent, focused work on the enterprise?

    And, w/re “creative problem solving”, see Edison on the inspiration/perspiration ratio. That clever “Eureka!” moment where you see the general nature of the solution, is useless without the work to reduce it to practice, debug it, and document it well enough for other people to use it. The boring parts.

    I’ve seen enough clever ideas abandoned that if you gave me the choice between pressing the button that increases average creativity of Americans by 10%, and increasing the average diligence of Americans by 10%, I’m not even going to stop and think before mashing the “diligence” button. There are legitimate questions as to how externally-enforced diligence translates to self-directed diligence, and how much of any of this survives from early childhood to adulthood.

    But “we need more Creativity!” always gets a groan from me. We’ve got literally more creativity than we know what to do with. We need more ability to implement.

    1. LesHapablap

      Yeah, ideas are a dime a dozen. Even good ideas are in such a great supply that a great proportion will never get tested.

    2. Randy M

      But “we need more Creativity!” always gets a groan from me. We’ve got literally more creativity than we know what to do with. We need more ability to implement.

      In every creative industry, the mantra is “Ideas are easy. Execution is everything.” Basically, the Edison quote is dead on even for art.

  31. John Schilling

    Possibly there is a happy medium where children decide what they want to focus on, but are then required (punitively if necessary) to actually do focus for prolonged periods on that thing.

    Obvious problem is that this would be hard to implement at the one (or even two) teacher per class of ~30 students level. If you already have a society of mostly diligent and conscientious students you could outsource it by having the kids form small groups to focus on whatever they collectively chose, and trust them to internally motivate/punish the least diligent. But if you’re not already at least halfway there, you likely get a lot of groups “focused” on keeping the teacher from noticing that they are slacking off.

    1. Deiseach

      It’s what C.S. Lewis describes in The Screwtape Letters:

      Work hard, then, on the disappointment or anticlimax which is certainly coming to the patient during his first few weeks as a churchman. The Enemy allows this disappointment to occur on the threshold of every human endeavour. It occurs when the boy who has been enchanted in the nursery by Stories from the Odyssey buckles down to really learning Greek. It occurs when lovers have got married and begin the real task of learning to live together. In every department of life it marks the transition from dreaming aspiration to laborious doing.

      You need creativity and imagination and all the rest of it, certainly. But when you want to translate that creativity into actually doing something (instead of picking up and then dropping when bored half a dozen projects that meander off into nothing), then you have to settle down to the mundane boring plod and grind. And learning that at school – learning to sit down and grind away at a task to get it done – is important. In my case, it was maths; for someone else, it might be English or history or French or Art or any other subject that wasn’t their fascination. But learning to plough through something that is boring because it pays off in the end is a valuable lesson.

      That “weekend with Perl” in the xkcd comic only works, after all, not alone if you’re interested and fascinated with Perl, but if you’re interested and fascinated enough to stick with it and grind through learning it, which means putting in time and effort – an hour messing around with it won’t get you anywhere. You may put as much time in for the hobby as you would for the boring subject at school, and not mind because it’s fun and involving and something that suits you. But learning to tolerate the dull and boring stuff is also important because there’s going to be a lot of that in life, and the bands that didn’t bother with the dull and boring legal and financial stuff because they were making Important Art, man, are the ones who got fleeced by the managers and accountants and ended up with nothing.

      1. Bugmaster

        Like I said in my other comment, the “weekend with Perl” approach really does work — if one is extremely smart. I’ve seen people who could literally pick up Perl and totally master it over the weekend. I think that such people are perhaps over-represented on this site. By contrast, for ordinary mediocre people such as myself, hard work is the only way to learn anything substantive.

        1. viVI_IViv

          The problem is not so much learning Perl, the problem is that once you learned it, turning it into a profession rather than a fun hobby involves sitting many hours per day in a cubicle debugging code wrote by somebody else for getting the Taiwanese date format right in a database or some other boring stuff you personally couldn’t care less about.

          That’s what the 900 hours of classes and 400 hours of homework are for.

  32. Chris Phoenix

    I once heard a woman raised in China say “Choice is pain” as though it were a self-evident axiom of life.

    I recently heard a radio program on castrati. Parents of boys with especially good singing voices would crush their testicles. A small percentage became the rock stars of their day. The rest, who didn’t become stars, were treated badly by society.

    I’ve heard of a study which found that in an abusive authoritarian society, kids who had been abused did better in life than kids who had not been abused. (And of course, in a non-abusive society, kids who had not been abused did better.)

    On the other hand, I’ve heard that the Sudbury schools – the polar opposite of the approach described here – produce kids who are self-motivated and frequently accomplish what they want to.

    I’m sure the education approach described here has its upsides. But I don’t think it’s preferable either by results or by any form of humanistic morality.

    1. Well...

      crush their testicles

      I read that like 45 seconds ago and I’m still feeling sympathetic pain. I thought castrati were created by cutting, not crushing.

  33. An Fírinne

    The beauty of the Chinese system is that in contrast to the US system it does not see children as mere items to be squeezed of its economic value. Chinese schools teach character while US schools do not.

    This is why China will over take the US. The average US kid is an undisciplined fat kid who plays Fortnite, Chinese are so much more then that.

    1. Randy M

      Do you draw that conclusion from this analysis or other experience? I’m not sure I see strict compliance training as being at odds with molding economic tools or entirely aligned with teaching character.

      1. An Fírinne

        Chinese children are successfully taught to be focused and hardworking which no doubt are positive characteristics.

        Take the rain exercise for instance. You are teaching the children to be diligent in work and to work hard in their task.

        1. Randy M

          You are also teaching strict obedience, which could be the very antithesis of character in an authoritarian state. A little rebellion in the population is a good thing.

          And, focused and hard-working (while granted are positive traits) is exactly what you would want in your economic cog.

        2. LesHapablap

          ‘Teaching kids to be diligent in their work and work hard on their task’ sounds a lot like ‘squeezing economic value out of them.’

          Not sure whether it also builds character better or worse than US methods. Certainly the average American method does not value character-building. It might be more useful to compare Chinese methods to countries other than the US.

        3. Vergence

          What’s the evidence that it actually teaches diligence that carries over to other tasks? And even if it does carry over, couldn’t you teach it with a more meaningful task?

    2. FormerRanger

      Your definition of “character” is to obey authority, stay still and quiet, never show originality, never move without permission? Interesting concept.

    3. galanx

      If I was going to use an example of why kids in the U.S.are more undisciplined than Chinese kids, I would not pick “plays computer games” as an example.

    4. Well...

      The beauty of the Chinese Room is that in contrast to the US room it does not see symbols as mere signs to be squeezed of their meanings. Chinese rooms teach rote pattern-matching while US rooms do not.

      (Sorry, I think you’re trolling so I’m having a bit of fun with you.)

    5. Aftagley

      The average US kid is an undisciplined fat kid who plays Fortnite, Chinese are so much more then that.

      China is the world’s market for video games by revenue. The majority of that comes from the younger generations.

      Approximately 1 in 5 chinese children is obese. I’d imagine this number under counts the rural/poor countryside so in the developed regions of China (where these kinds of schools are likely to be found) this number is likely higher. These rates correspond pretty closely to US rates.

      Tell me again how they’re “so much more?”

      (I also think he’s just a troll, for what it’s worth)

  34. JulieK

    Does external discipline necessarily result in self-discipline?

    …one of the worst results of being a slave and being forced to do things is that when there is no-one to force you any more you find you have almost lost the power of forcing yourself.
    (The Horse and his Boy, C. S. Lewis)

    1. TracingWoodgrains

      No, at least for adults, but until we can figure out how to directly improve conscientiousness, figuring out effective systems of external discipline is probably our best bet. The effects evaporate once you’re out of the system, but you can still get good things done while you’re in it.

      For kids, I’m less certain, since they tend to have more flexibility along those dimensions.

      1. Matt M

        Well, good news for the Chinese then. They’re never going to find themselves lacking in externally imposed discipline…

    2. LesHapablap

      Having worked for years in tourism outside the US, the mainland Chinese are hardly a model of discipline or respect for authority.

      There is no actual evidence presented here that Chinese people are actually more diligent or disciplined or focused than anyone else. Surely that should be the starting point?

      1. glorkvorn

        That was my thought too. If you want to see a society of super well disciplined adults, we should look at Japan. Chinese adults seem broadly similar to American adults- they’ll follow all the important rules and work hard when someone is watching, but happily slack off and cut corners whenever they can get away with it.

      2. Well...

        Tangentially related: one of my favorite movies is “Quitting“, a Chinese movie about a Chinese actor and heroin addict who’s on the out and out. IIRC, he spends most of the movie sitting around doing nothing. (It’s a great movie for other reasons.)

  35. MaxDax

    Rich and well-educated places always do well on PISA. That China’s four best provinces outperform the average score of other countries is unsurprising. This article points out that if the US were allowed to enter only its best-educated state (Massachusetts, obviously) we would be right up there with China. So this probably isn’t as impressive as Ms. Chu thinks.

    I think that’s clearly wrong. It IS impressive that the four richest and most educated provinces in China do as well as Massachusetts. China is still a developing country.

    Do you think the four best provinces from Brazil or Thailand (roughly same level of GDP/capita in PPP) would outperform Singapour (which is basically just a highly selective sample from China and India) and every other developed country? Obviously not.

    Clearly the Chinese system is pretty good at teaching basic skills that are measured on the PISA test.

    Discipline is really important for most people to get ahead in life. It’s a basic skill that you have to learn early in life.
    Maybe not so much for highly intelligent, highly creative, highly driven Bay Area people. But they are only 0.01% of the population.

    1. ana53294

      But it’s not just the richest provinces. It’s the people who have residence in the richest provinces. And residence matters; it means they get to go to local schools, they get better jobs, etc. So it’s not just the richest province, but the richest people in the richest provinces (a way of getting hukou is to buy a house, AFAIUI).

      I guess if Massachusets had a school system which excluded all illegal immigrants, its PISA scores would be higher.

    1. Viliam

      I suspect that an important part of Polgár’s strategy was that he and his wife were chess players, and probably played against each other at home. Kids are more willing to do things they see you doing.

      To me it seems that computer programming is much better choice than chess. If you become super awesome, there are lots of competitions to prove that. Even without competitions, you can make computer games and impress people around you. And the worst case is that you “only” become good enough, which is still a way to a well-paying job. Or you could do your own projects and collect money on Kickstarter or Patreon.

      But it’s not obvious to me where to start, and what age is appropriate for that. Or what are the kindergarten-level prerequisites for programming. Math? Lego? Anyway, my wife is neither a computer programmer nor a mathematician, so we don’t discuss programming at home. And I spend most of my day at job, so I can’t give my kids the Polgár-level attention; I am too exhausted for that when I return home.

      So, as a result of this and that, I am not really using the strategy, despite being a big fan in theory. The only success is that I made my older daughter interested in drawing, and she now spends lots of time drawing (completely voluntarily). And she is quite good at it now, for a 4 years old. But she is also quite stubborn, and mostly refuses other people’s advice. So I can’t even help her advance there.

      1. eric23

        What exactly does a super awesome programmer accomplish in their life? Most likely, they will be absorbed into some large tech corporation and do valuable work there, but 99% of the rewards of their work will go to the corporation not to them. The alternative is a tech start-up, but that demands social as well as technological abilities, and these intense home-schooling strategies seem likely to hurt one’s social training as much has they help one’s technical training.

          1. nkurz

            I think you misread. eric23 claims that the corporation takes 99% of the rewards, leaving the programmer with only 1%. His exact numbers may be wrong, but the absence of a different field in which the “super awesome programmer” can retain 100% of the proceeds does detract from the argument that in the current system the programmer retains an unfairly small percentage.

        1. DavidFriedman

          but 99% of the rewards of their work will go to the corporation not to them.

          If so, wage costs for a corporation should be under one percent of revenue.

          Do you believe that is true? Anywhere close to true? Within an order of magnitude of true?

          1. Viliam

            If by “wage costs” you mean specifically “wage costs for programmers” (excluding management), I’d say that for a corporation in Eastern Europe, working for the government, on a project financed by European Union, it sounds about right.

            My friend is a contractor, working for a company that is a subcontractor of a company that is a subcontractor of … … … a company that works for the government, implementing a project financed by EU. Assuming that each company in the chain adds 100% to the cost, as a salary for their management, plus profit, in seven steps the costs would be multiplied by 100.

          2. DavidFriedman

            If by “wage costs” you mean specifically “wage costs for programmers” (excluding management)

            I am sure there are firms where the wages of the programmers alone are no more than 1% of revenue, indeed firms which have no programmers at all. So if your claim is that there are firms where less than 1% of revenue goes to programmers, it is surely true.

            The wages of other employees are a cost of production, as are the cost of other inputs. Without those inputs the programmers, even the super awesome programmers, produce roughly nothing, so it makes no sense to treat the firm’s revenue as “the rewards of [the programmers] work.”

            Perhaps I misunderstood your point — could you make it clearer?

          3. Aapje

            @Viliam

            Assuming that each company in the chain adds 100% to the cost, as a salary for their management, plus profit, in seven steps the costs would be multiplied by 100.

            That seems quite unlikely.

        2. Viliam

          What exactly does a super awesome programmer accomplish in their life?

          My idea of a programmer’s dream job is when I look on Kickstarter at people who made some successful computer game, and now they collect (from my perspective, insane amounts of) money to produce the sequel.

          The idea of working at your own home, at your own speed, without meetings and artificial deadlines and other corporate bullshit, without a manager that would give you random orders and second-guess all your decisions… when all that is required from you is at the end to produce more or less what you promised to produce… and for this you get enough money to pay your bills… well, this sounds like what I always wanted to have, but never will.

          A similar great thing would be just making apps and throwing them on various markets.

          When I was at high school, I wrote a few computer games… in Pascal, for MS DOS. I just gave them away freely to my friends, because back then there were no convenient distribution channels. And when selling the apps finally became super convenient, I was already burned out from my daily jobs. I imagine that in a parallel universe, where the teenage me would have an opportunity to simply upload the finished game somewhere and automatically get 70% of the sales, it is likely that by the end of university I already would have an independent income stream. (Not because the games would be individually great, especially the first ones, but because I would have made dozens of them, gradually increasing my skills.)

          So if I had a child capable of writing nice computer games in their free time, I would help them by doing the boring stuff for them and publishing the games on various platforms, giving them all the profit as pocket money. (Later at 18, I would tell them to now do the boring stuff for themselves. Hopefully the income stream would be motivating at that time.) With some luck, my child would never need to have a daily job. — The worst case is that they would end up with a daily job anyway, but at least would have an impressive portfolio to show.

          EDIT:

          To answer your question more directly, I know a guy who also started coding his software at high school, but was way more agenty than me and found a way to sell it. Then he wrote another useful program, then another… at some moment one of the programs started to be in demand, so he created a company to sell this software; first he continued implementing new features his customers wanted, then he simply hired another guy to do that. Then he made another software company; then another. Then he decided this was too much work and sold most of them. Now he has tons of money, never had to work for a corporation, and never will have to. And he is still quite young. This is what an awesome programmer (with good business skills) can achieve.

          My version with app markets or Kickstarter differs in the part that it doesn’t even need that good business skills. In other words, it is something I imagine I could accomplish if I were a teenager today, and didn’t have to spend most of my time and energy in a job to pay my bills.

  36. Adrian

    I realize that the main focus of this review review is on the effectiveness and efficiency of various school systems, but I’m surprised that the ethical aspect has not been brought up yet. Forcing three year olds to sit still, without moving their arms or legs for a long time, force-feeding them, restricting their intake of water (to the point that they have to resort to faking a cough to be allowed to drink more), making them repeatedly perform mindless tasks, shouting at and punishing them for failing to obey arbitrary rules? That’s close to torture, if not outright torture. Prisoners (in civilized countries) are treated better than that. Hell, some countries are starting to treat factory-farmed chicken better than that! (I’m being only slightly facetious)

    I don’t care if that treatment produces the perfect little worker drone, I find it ethically wrong to subject little children to it. Even from a utilitarian perspective, there’s no way that turning a person’s childhood into a living hell will ever be balanced out by marginally improved productivity in later life (and we don’t even know whether those improvements actually manifest).

    Note that I’m not arguing for a total lack of discipline, especially for older children. It is actually possible to teach a three year old to clean up after playing or not to shout at their parents, without resorting to draconian measures.

    1. Randy M

      I agree this is an important consideration.
      We can’t give deference to the goals and whims of someone with the experience and intellectual development of a young child. They lack the perspective to consider consequences of actions and knowledge of possibilities.

      But we as parents and society have a duty not just to the eventual adult, but to the present person as well, and should be obliged to search for the least miserable pedagogical methods.

    2. Well...

      I guess one takeaway is that people’s ethics vary quite widely. For instance, some people think abortion should be legal only until the third trimester, while others say it is permissible only until the child can display preferences for things. And others think that killing your kids shouldn’t be legal at all, from conception onward.

      OK, OK, that was a bit tongue-in-cheek. I yell at my kids, loud, but only if they’ve gotten really out of hand and need to be shocked back into the real world because they’re about to hurt somebody or break something valuable. I never hit them. They are strongly encouraged to eat everything on their dinner plates (and congratulated when they do), but never force fed. Compared to some parents I know, I’m pretty authoritarian. Compared to others I’m basically a hippie.

  37. Corey

    Re: decline in entrepreneurship – perhaps people are not actually more risk-averse.

    What we think of as ordinary employment has been steadily shifting risk from employer to employee for a long time. There are no safe jobs. And with technological change increasing in pace, the risk of one’s career becoming obsolete only grows.

    So the gap in risk between entrepreneurship and employment will likely continue to shrink. Consider shifts towards “gig economy” platforms, where the risk gap is zero.

  38. Matt M

    Not directly related to the topic at hand – but I just want to say that even though I have no idea who she is, what she does, or how I ended up following her in the first place, Mason is one of the most interesting and thought-provoking people I follow on Twitter. She also manages to very perfectly reflect the exact correct level of “righteous indignation” at prevailing societal systems without crossing the line into unhinged ranting.

  39. Freddie deBoer

    You know I think there may be a book coming out this year that addresses these kinds of questions…

    (spoiler: there is no such thing as school quality)

    1. EchoChaos

      I think it’s amusing that you and I fundamentally agree that intelligence is not a good way to judge human value and that “good school” is largely a meaningless description of “a school filled with smart kids”.

      Then we end up at completely opposite poles for what should be done about it.

    2. Watchman

      I can accept this from a positive point of view, but are you really claiming that a failing school is not harmful?

      1. Freddie deBoer

        I won’t try to distill the book’s argument here. What I will say is that your perception of which schools are failing is almost certainly the product of the selection effects that determine the school’s population, rather than an intrinsic quality of the school itself.

        1. Roger Sweeny

          “Good schools do not make good students; good students make good schools.”

          I’ve been saying that for years and get called a right-winger.

          1. Freddie deBoer

            I usually frame it this way: liberals believe students who struggle are struggling because they are systematically excluded from the best schools. But it’s a far simpler explanation to say that the best schools are so perceived because they systematically exclude the hardest to educate.

          2. Randy M

            It’s not either-or, though; if you exclude the hardest to educate, you are probably also excluding the most disruptive and improving the experience for the remainder.

            It’s not bigotry or naivette to not want your child in the class where kids walk in late, back talk the teacher without consequence, chatter loudly and incessantly, and contribute nothing to group activities. (Let alone start physical fights in the classroom, as I’ve seen). Even if those students are that way for otherwise quite understandable reasons.

          3. Roger Sweeny

            But it’s a far simpler explanation to say that the best schools are so perceived because they systematically exclude the hardest to educate.

            Of course, one way they do this is by having higher standards. High performing charters are often accused of “counseling out” students who aren’t doing well.

          4. Matt M

            The relevant thought experiment is probably something like this. Consider two schools: Good School and Bad School.

            If you swapped the Good School Teachers and the Bad School Teachers (for the purpose of this discussion, “teachers” includes administrators and everyone else) but left the students constant, would this have a bigger effect than swapping the Good School Students and the Bad School Students, but leaving the teachers constant?

          5. Roger Sweeny

            My thought experiment is, what if the students at Harvard College were transferred to Bridgewater State and the students at Bridgewater State were transferred to Harvard. In twenty years, who would be more successful? (Non-Massachusetts residents note: students at Bridgewater State aren’t stupid.) My immediate answer without question, the formerly Harvard students would do considerably better.

            During high school (some before) they had entered a very difficult competition: to get into Harvard. They discovered what they had to do and did it, took various courses and got good grades, did various activities, wrote a “personal essay” that told the admissions office what they thought it wanted to hear–and they won! Most of them will be successful.

          6. notpeerreviewed

            Freddie as well gets called a right-winger when I link to him on Facebook, for what it’s worth. Eventually ended up unfriending most of the folks who called him that, because coincidentally most of those folks gradually revealed themselves to be shallow and/or stupid.

        2. Purplehermann

          Gonna have to disagree, my 1-8th grade school was pretty bad for me. They didn’t know what to do with anyone smarter than ‘above average’. Stomped on my curiosity, piled on loads of busywork (in an advanced class they created because of me and a few friends for math) so they could tell us we weren’t ready to learn more yet, this was apparently a scheme to stop us from advancing too quickly. This killed off a lot of my enthusiasm for math.

          My (on topic, curious) questions in class were very obviously not appreciated.
          The very best classes were the ones where the teacher would let me read a book, one class where we were given problems to solve then mostly ignored by the teacher, and one class in 8th grade where the teacher actually appreciated questions on the subject and taught the material well.

          There were other schools that would’ve been much better academically imo.

          Besides my n=1, it seems pretty obvious that when choosing a school for your kid, the friends he’ll make there matter a lot. Most kids when put in a school will adapt to be similar to their peers (imo).

          I wouldn’t send my children to a school know for drug abuse, as I do believe that increases the chance of them using drugs for example

          [Edit: the disagreement is aimed at freddy]

          1. Clutzy

            Gonna have to disagree, my 1-8th grade school was pretty bad for me. They didn’t know what to do with anyone smarter than ‘above average’. Stomped on my curiosity, piled on loads of busywork (in an advanced class they created because of me and a few friends for math) so they could tell us we weren’t ready to learn more yet, this was apparently a scheme to stop us from advancing too quickly. This killed off a lot of my enthusiasm for math.

            It seems you are missing the posited problem: The theory would say that your school was bad FOR YOU because there weren’t enough kids like you for them to have set up gifted systems, etc. Instead, because it was filled with larger amounts of unruly and hard to educate students, that is where resources are directed.

            What this essentially means is you want your child to go to a school where he is well within the normal range of students the school gets. And a school with high deviancy rates is going to be very annoying for even mildly above average students.

    3. Roger Sweeny

      The book looks interesting. But it always bothers me when a book is ready on January 23 (I assume) but can’t be read (at least by ordinary people) until August 4.

      1. Freddie deBoer

        Oh, my God, it’s driving me absolutely batty. It makes no sense to wait so long and I hate it.

  40. TracingWoodgrains

    Two points stand out.

    Number 1:

    > the Asian sample was Asian-American and differences in education were probably pretty minor.

    I’m not comfortable asserting this so readily. There’s a pretty consistent pattern that, when you look for the schools in America that are most intensive or structured in the most rote/traditional ways, you find a massive overrepresentation of Asian students. In the much-discussed NYC specialized schools requiring the SHSAT admissions test, they’re famously around 60% of the student population. In Thales Academy Apex, one of the remarkably high-scoring (avg 99th percentile standardized tests) direct instruction-focused schools, the Asian population is 60%, with another 18% listed as “Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander”.

    As more anecdotal evidence in support of this, my last SO and my current boyfriend are both high-achieving second-generation Asian immigrants, and our schooling experiences looked dramatically different in stereotypical ways. For example, looking at SAT-English prep: My parents read to me and got me in the habit of pleasure reading, and I focused on that instead of paying attention in school and absorbed vocabulary that way. My boyfriend’s parents drilled him constantly on vocabulary questions, but he never really read for pleasure. My family didn’t really care where I went to school, his was Ivy League or bust. That sort of thing.
    Number 2:

    To back up Aella’s linked tweet about wasted time in schools and the possibility of completing a school day in 1-2 hours at home. I had a chance to run a direct experiment in this vein as a kid, jumping from regular school to an online homeschooling system from fifth to sixth grade. I never worked more than 1-2 hours a day and jumped through two years of the curriculum during that time. Then I went back to regular school and the pace went back to normal. You also have experiments like the DT-PI experimentation back in the 70s and 80s where skilled instructors pulled the stunt of teaching a highly selected cohort an Algebra I curriculum in one day. It’s almost impossible to overstate how much instructional time schools as they’re currently set up tend to waste.

    1. Matt M

      When I was in the military, I arrived at my “technical training” just as they were transitioning it from a typical in-class experience to a “self-paced” online training. The old classroom format took about two months of full training days. When they launched “self-paced”, the average student was completing it in about one month. I completed it in two weeks (and didn’t feel like I was pushing myself particularly hard, went at a relaxed pace, and still finished in the top 5% of the class in terms of final score).

      The problem was, they weren’t prepared for this, so there weren’t duty assignments ready for the volume of people who were graduating “ahead of schedule.” So what would happen is, you’d get to training, complete your training in one month, then spend a month in what they called “holding company” where you’d spend your days doing monotonous manual labor of questionable value. My understanding is that eventually this became common knowledge, and the “average time to complete training” slowly crept back up to closer to two months, as students naturally preferred staying in the classroom working on training at an even more relaxed pace to sorting dirty laundry in the barracks basement.

    2. DavidFriedman

      I’ve done some interviewing as an alumnus of applicants to the (elite) college I graduated from. The most interesting case was a Chinese-American applicant who, unlike most, struck me as having no intellectual spark. He had taken AP economics and gotten a high score, but when I asked him how much it was worth to me to be able to buy as much diet coke as I wanted at a price he had no idea how to think about the question. When I asked him what consumer surplus was, he correctly defined it. He knew words, not ideas.

      When I took a look at the pre-interview form he had given me, he turned out to have extraordinarily high paper qualifications —SAT, many AP classes with top grades, … . I concluded that he had spent enormous efforts on being able to get into an elite school.

      I ended up less skeptical about Harvard’s defense of its admission policies.

  41. ana53294

    What is school useful for? Even the usefullness of university for jobs is questionable, but university is marginally more useful than a school.

    I’d say I use about 30% of what I learnt at university, and 2% of what I learnt at school (I learnt the three Rs at home, before they taught them to us at school, so I don’t count that as part of a school education). So I would say that doing well in university is more important than doing well in school.

    It may not be like that in the US, where graduating from prestigious colleges is very important, but it is like that in Spain, maybe because none of our universities are world-class.

    What matters when getting the first job is, partly, grades, internships you did, English skills, and computer knowledge (excel/word/powerpoint, sometimes more advanced things). The type of university you studied in doesn’t matter too much. Grades don’t matter too much. It hasn’t been too much time since we’ve graduated, but by my estimate, the people in my class with solid Bs who spent more time on trying to get work experience, learn new skills, or just socialized, did much better than those with As in uni (anybody who doesn’t get straight As in a Spanish dumbed down school is not smart or conscientious).

    And university students in China are slackers, and seem to relax a lot after the meatgrinder of gaokao. That’s understandable; if my whole life was a source of misery inflected on me just so I could get to the end point, which is good grades in the gaokao, I would also relax after that. But because my life wasn’t miserable before university, the only thing that relaxed at university was my diet: way more pasta and salads now that I had to cook for myself.

    So students in China don’t seem to learn much in university. And wasn’t the whole point of school to prepare them for university/a job?

    So, all of that about discipline and being able to do the work to create an Uber and all that sounds good. But that system is miserable for both kids and adults, and it actually doesn’t produce people with the discipline to launch an Uber/Amazon/Google, considering they fail even at the much easier and clear task of studying university courses.

  42. NoRandomWalk

    Why is it rational to be an entrepreneur, instead of working at a bank, even if you have a crazy good idea.
    You can make $100k-500k/year as a mid-level cog at a high status machine, or you can have a 10% chance to make some number of millions.
    How much stuff do you actually need? Why would you take that risk?
    If you’re a single male, maybe. But if you want to start a family early it’s not even close.
    I’m glad someone started uber. But there’s like…a few thousands of people who end up doing that. And a few hundred thousand people who fail.

    1. Purplehermann

      What are your chances of getting to that level of income, how much work does it take? Median and average salaries don’t hit the low end of tips numbers.
      Being a cog seems like it would grind away at your soul, unless you felt you were doing something worthwhile (and not just because of the paycheck).

      1. notpeerreviewed

        Being a cog seems like it would grind away at your soul, unless you felt you were doing something worthwhile (and not just because of the paycheck).

        Apply this same standard to “entrepreneurship” too, though. Some of the most frustrated humans I’ve ever talked to are record label owners, festival organizers, and the like. They’re doing jobs that sound fun but in practice require crushing, thankless physical and emotional effort.

        For most people, most of the time, working a normal job is way better than running a small business. When we see “entrepreneurship” declining, that’s mostly a sign that more people have access to professional careers, not a sign that people are risk-averse or lack creativity.

      2. Well...

        What are your chances of getting to that level of income, how much work does it take?

        I thought NoRandomWalk was saying (and I basically agree) the amount of intelligence and discipline needed to get my entrepreneurial success chances to 10% are roughly the same as would be needed to get my mid-level corporate cog chances to 99.9%.

    2. notpeerreviewed

      What you said is correct but it’s not the half of it, when it comes to official “entrepreneurship” statistics. The modal small business owner runs a laundromat. They’re not looking at a choice between a shot at becoming Uber or a $100k-$500k professional career; they’re running a laundromat because they’re a talented, hard-working person with limited access to traditional job markets. Much respect, but that’s not the bleeding edge of technological or economic development.

      For the most part, when smart, ambitious people are running laundromats or roofing companies, that’s a sign of economic weakness, not strength. As economies mature and labor markets become more efficient, the people who used to run laundromats and roofing companies find opportunities as – yes – mid-level cogs in high-status machines, and the official numbers make it look like “entrepreneurship” is declining. That says nothing about how innovative the economy is, how risk-averse people are, or anything like that.

  43. NostalgiaForInfinity

    Maybe the US system is discipline-focused enough to be unpleasant and objectionable for many people, but not sufficiently rigorous to produce the outcomes of the Chinese system? An unsatisfying compromise with the worst of both worlds and neither set of benefits.

  44. maxjmartin

    If we believe that extrinsic motivation (shouting, discipline, rules, public student rankings, etc.) hurts intrinsic motivation, we would expect to see good performance from the Chinese education system as long as the pressure is kept high, then a drop as they go to Univeristy and beyond (University in China seems much lower pressure, and once you are ‘in’ you will generally complete the course).

    Anecdotally this seems to match reality, which suggests that school should do its best to avoid hurting intrinsic motivation to learn, and not much else. The autocratic Chinese style is only good for PISA scores, not the long term success of its citizens.

  45. Saint Fiasco

    Every time Chinese education is discussed, it is always by smart wealthy people. I’m curious about how children with poor families or below average intelligence fare in that system.

    Maybe they do better than gifted children because they don’t need as much intellectual stimulation. Maybe an emphasis on discipline is actually desirable if your child is not naturally well-behaved. Maybe the pressure to perform well in tests is less for students who don’t expect to go to the fanciest universities anyway.

    1. pressedForTime

      Yes, the mother here is a Stanford graduate who enrolls her child in the “Harvard of Chinese pre-schools”.

      At most, this tells us only how the most elite of the elite raise their children.

      I bought a pair of socks from a young street vendor in Shenzhen once. How long was he in school? What was his academic experience like?

      Well, I suppose we have to start somewhere. But beware of extrapolating to the entire Chinese educational system.

      I do recall the Japanese often lamenting their roughly similar “rigid, rote” education system in the 80’s, to which some of them attributed their inability to generate entrepreneurs who create whole new industries.

  46. renato

    The raindrop anecdote made me think about how it happens in our school system.
    Ideally, a teacher let the children draw any shape the student wanted, and that would allow the children to experiment with different things and develop their creativity, but in the end they would still suck at drawing anything.

    I’m not sure if the framing used in the review,a scale from authoritarianism/discipline to free range/slacking, is appropriate for discuss education.
    It seems that the Asian system has an intentional effort to cultivate discipline but lack creative/leadership, while the western system has kind of the opposite problem, but in the end both still fail to cultivate a good student.
    It is like both are trying to get a different hedgehog, but a fox is who would really succeed.

    The big problem caused by this framing in the western context is that it sees any suffering imposed on the children as a negative/bad experience, even if the suffering is because the kid still don’t know what it wants and prefer to stick with what they already like to do.
    It is good in the short-term, but fails at the long run.
    It also ignores that some frustration is still necessary for the kid development, even if it makes them sad and cry, but the alternative is to coddle the children from any harm, but crippling the development of new things.
    On the other side, the authoritarian system also fails to see the diminishing return for more discipline, and that it could benefit by switching to other things.

    It might be that neither of the systems are really doing something intentional, and a merely following the current dominant ideology to educate the next generation.
    Maybe it is too hard to inject intentionality when you have a ton of classes with too many students, and all the teachers can do is fall-back to the cultural norm to have an excuse for the failed students.
    This might explain why the Polgars succeed, they made a conscious effort to decide what to do and how to adjust the teaching strategy to handle different problems that appear if they were caused by lack of discipline/creativity.
    But, I don’t accept that they weren’t also directly cultivating discipline in the children, they probably had a lot of punishments available even if they weren’t physical or a verbal abuse.
    For example, not giving praise or a displeased expression are also forms of punishment, and it causes suffering, but it is also hard to notice that you are doing it (maybe they could be even more intentional), and it is not seen as a form of punishment.

    Then, I can’t see why we can’t have a mix of both, which, unsurprisingly, is the way people are taught a lot of skills, such as martial arts, sports, drawing and music, with very good results.
    You need a good discipline base and a lot of drill to get the basics until you are at a level where you can try to do things by yourself, fail, and learn how to integrate the small parts into the global picture.
    Remove any of those and the learning will not be efficient and produce only subpar knowledge.

    1. DavidFriedman

      It also ignores that some frustration is still necessary for the kid development

      I think there is a substantial difference between experiencing frustration when you are trying to do something you want to do and you find it difficult and experiencing frustration when you are trying to do something someone else told you to do. The different experiences teach different lessons.

  47. James Miller

    “He compared Cantonese babies with babies of Northern European origin. The division of sexes was the same, the mothers were the same age, they had about the same number of previous children, and they had been administered the same drugs in the same amounts during labor.

    White babies started to cry more easily, and once they started, they were more difficult to console. Chinese babies adapted to almost any position in which they were placed; for example, when placed face down in their cribs, they tended to keep their faces buried in the sheets rather than immediately turning to one side, as the Caucasian babies did. They briefly pressed the baby’s nose with a cloth, forcing him to breath with his mouth. Most white (and black) babies fight this maneuver by immediately turning away or swiping at the cloth with their hands, and this is reported in Western pediatric textbooks as normal. While the average Chinese baby would simply lay on his back, breathing through the mouth, accepting the cloth without a fight.” From Greg Cochran.

    1. Watchman

      “Most white (and black) babies” and “the average Chinese baby” are doing a lot of work there. A cynical observer might suggest that these are rhetorical framings to disguise the fact that the differences were not significant.

      Reading a bit of Freedman doesn’t reassure. He is surprisingly quick to criticise Mead’s work whilst reluctant to accept findings that suggest genetic differences between races were not replicable. I’d hazard to suggest his interest in technology and his initial work on puppies might have given him a very strong nature rather than nurture bias. Certainly these sort of studies (where n=20 for a subgroup is high (especially for a study which basically says ‘hi, we’d like to suffocate your baby’)) had issues with replication that Freedman does note, and look very much like the sort of thing you’d see in a less ethical version of the replication crisis. I think he had a set of ideas he was looking to substantiate, and was probably openly biased towards this position. His scientific ethics seem fine for the 70s though, and there’s no reason to suspect his bias was making for anything more than motivated reasoning in his work.

      What my quick scan of some of his work doesn’t show is whether the influence of what happened immediately after birth was taken into account. We know that neonatal experience is essential in determining the relationship with the mother, and is culturally and temporally different (so if you have a baby in the UK at present expect them to attach it to a nipple before dealing with the bleeding wounds for example). Since you won’t get to test a newborn baby at this point there’s a fairly important point of cultural impact before Freedman’s tests.

      So interesting, but I’m sceptical that the original research is strong enough to be used. I’m certainly sceptical of Greg Cochran’s presentation of it.

      1. caethan

        Here’s the journal article: https://sci-hub.tw/10.1038/2241227a0

        In an item called defensive movements, the tester placed a loosely woven cloth firmly over the supine baby’s face for a few seconds. While the typical European-American infant immediately stuggled to remove the cloth by swiping with his hands and turning his face, the typical Chinese-American infant lay impassively, exhibiting few overt motor responses (P=0.0001).

        The second paragraph in James’ comment is not from Greg, it’s a quote from Dan Freedman’s book Human Sociobiology, page 146, where he talks about these results in general terms.

        As far as cultural/temporal differences: these babies were all Americans of different racial backgrounds, mostly from the same hospital (Kaiser Hospital in San Francisco) and were examined while still in the nursery (i.e., at most a few days post-birth).

        Take a look at the video of infants responding to these tests: https://www.dailymotion.com/video/xz2jjx#.UW7ho8rkef0

  48. mcscope

    It’s not a chinese/US comparison, but I think you have a natural experiment you can use to tease out some elements of socialization /schooling differences in East vs West Germany. Before the division, those areas had pretty similar cultures, but then they were divided and some of the children are socialized in a socialist state, the others are socialized in a western capitalist/individualist state. Then after 40 years or so divided, they are reunified.
    There are so many interesting stories from that time, and some are apocryphal. I lived in east Germany for a short time in college while studying abroad. My host mother told me she could identify west vs East raised Germans from observing them on the train for just a few minutes. She would look at how much they gesture, the volume at which they speak, etc. She said in school groups, if you had East and west children together, the west children would try to take leadership of the group, whereas the East children would all be really good at cooperating with each other but uncomfortable with leadership or speaking for the group. So sometimes the East children would do all the work and then send a West child up to present it to the class.

    I find what she told me to be very interesting but it never occurred to me to look at any research about this or pursue it beyond the anecdotal until I read your review.

    It would be interesting to see if anyone studied the cultural differences after reunification. From what I know they would have been strongest then but the difference in personality may still exist 30 years after the wall fell.

  49. johan_larson

    But (these same people argue), the Industrial Age is over. The most important skills now are entrepreneurship and creative problem solving. Reinventing yourself, selling yourself, carving out a new niche for yourself. Figuring out what’s going to be the next big thing and pursuing it without anyone else watching over you.

    I question this. I have seen obedience and consistency rewarded among the people around you. I don’t think I’ve ever seen going your own way rewarded. At best, it strikes me as a high-risk move, and I have to wonder whether its payoff is high enough to actually be worth it in the final analysis. In the end, most of us spend our working lives in hierarchies, and there’s always someone to answer to. By far the most important thing is making the boss happy. And typically the best way to do so is to accomplish the asssignments he gives you, no fuss, no mess.

    1. mcscope

      I know plenty of people who are “going their own way” in the modern economy and most seem to be very happy with it.
      Some are startup founders and became very wealthy, others are startup founders who failed and seemed to experience no negative consequences from this other than wasted effort. A others are consummate travelers and are able to piece together enough income for themselves to live a preferred nomadic lifestyle. I know a lot of nomads and everyone seems to do it differently.

      1. aristides

        From what socioeconomic class/IQ background did they come from? I know plenty of people who “went their own way,” after my poor high school, and those that did, had failed businesses and ended up back with their parents working minimum wage, in jail, or dead. The success stories from my high school went college, master’s, then industry working for a boss. Maybe the lesson to learn is that poorer children need more discipline and rich children should get more freedom, which is a very depressing notion, even if it is accurate.

      2. Butlerian

        Ah, survivorship bias.

        The ones you know are the ones who were successes because the ones who aren’t successes are dead.

    2. unreliabletags

      In high-end knowledge work, for example, key skills include:

      a) Reading between the lines of overly prescriptive requests to figure out what the client actually needs, and then meeting that need your own way.

      b) Negotiating scope of work; convincing clients that they’re better off with a cheaper subset of what they asked for.

      c) Executing your own initiatives, at the expense of the client’s direct requests, to do what you know to be necessary.

      Conformity is still required on some axes, but a totally obedient engineer, doctor, or lawyer is a recipe for disaster.

    3. Well...

      Not only have I seen “going your own way” rewarded in my field (generally, we can call this “workplace technology” — so, not exactly buggy whip manufacturing), I think it’s crucial for ethical outcomes.

      Yes, my boss rewards me for original insights, and sometimes for questioning premises of my assignments, but also in my field we need people who instinctively push back on assumptions about others and themselves.

      1. xenon

        At the elementary where my mother teaches, there are now fidgets built into the desks themselves, with more available around the classroom, and desks can be changed between sitting and standing if the student asks (due to their age and the potential for crush injuries, the students aren’t allowed to do it themselves). Most of the teachers whose rooms I’ve been into no longer do assigned seating and instead provide multiple seating areas besides desks where kids can choose to work. They’re allowed to move around the classroom at will, with the caveat that they aren’t annoying other students or being disruptive. I’ve been told this is the current best practice, although I can’t say how widespread it is–my mother’s district is in a wealthy area, so they have more pressure from parents to be on top of trends.

        And this is elementary, not preschool. Preschool/kindergarten is likely even more loose.

    1. Rachael

      I’m pretty sure USA schools don’t require kids to sit “in their seats with their arms at their sides, and their feet flat on a line of tape on the ground”, they don’t yell at students if they “remove a foot from the line, move arms from [their] side, or otherwise deviate from the instructions”, and kids don’t “get screamed at for trying to get water, shifting in their chairs, or talking to classmates.”
      Especially not from the age of 3. 3-year-olds in western preschools mostly run around and play with whatever they want, with occasional short periods of being asked to sit down and listen, but with nowhere near that level of expectation of perfect stillness.

    2. Randy M

      They certainly prefer it. They often request it. The enforcement falls somewhat short of the reported Chinese methods, for better and worse.

      edit: And Rachael is more right, US preschools & kindergartens involve lots of movement frequently. And I don’t think teachers care if kids fidget if it isn’t distracting.

      1. Matt M

        Keep in mind that some people, even as children, actually prefer order and discipline. My biggest complaint about school wasn’t having to sit still and be quiet… it was that my classmates refused to do so. I couldn’t learn anything because I couldn’t understand the teacher because everyone around me was chatting loudly about unrelated topics, and the teacher was powerless to stop them.

        This sort of behavior is common, even as an adult. Even at work in a large, bureaucratic company, every staff meeting starts with the same ritual. The presenter kicking off the meeting 5 minutes late because nobody is on time, and those who are present aren’t paying attention, but are loudly chatting with those around them, even as the presenter politely pleads with them, “Okay, it’s ten o’clock, let’s go ahead and take our seats and get started…”

        1. Randy M

          Oh, aye, indeed.
          I recoil at the Chinese system (as described in particular passages here) but American students are often ill served by the chaos.

          1. Matt M

            Although if the point of modern schooling is training children to become compliant white-collar workers in the modern-day open office, then perhaps immersing them in an environment of utter chaos with constant distractions and no opportunity to concentrate is, in fact, appropriate?

          2. Randy M

            Ah, then we’ve hit upon the optimum method.
            Force one child to be still and calm while all others around them are uncontrolled chaos! What could go wrong?

          3. DavidFriedman

            The discussion seems to assume that sitting in a classroom being taught something, whether sitting still or not, is a sensible model for education.

            Prior to the invention of the printing press it well may have been.

          4. Randy M

            @DavidFriedman, I’m not sure what you are citing as “this discussion” but I think all Matt M and I have established in all seriousness is that there exists an improvement over the current model where teachers try ineffectually to impart knowledge and skills to children who can barely pay attention.
            “Go get a book you like” may be a superior model in some cases.

          5. Nick

            @Randy M

            Ah, then we’ve hit upon the optimum method.
            Force one child to be still and calm while all others around them are uncontrolled chaos! What could go wrong?

            Hmm, if I were a Chinese education czar, I think this is how I’d do it: condition a whole array of nice things kids would really want on being able to sit still amid chaos. Make sure the kids are introduced to these things first, then add the rules to sit still. The rules begin by applying to only one or two kids at a time, rotating among the class, before slowly scaling up to the whole class. By the end, any distraction risks taking everything they want away from them, so the kids will police each other.

  50. benf

    In an authoritarian country learning obedience is not just a life-skill in some abstract sense: if you can’t follow absurd instructions from authority figures you are very likely to end up in prison or dead. It reminds me of what my older East German students told me about their time in primary school learning about what they called “Patriotism and Citizenship”; if you can’t figure out how to wax rhapsodic about Lenin with a straight face you’re in deep shit.

    Teaching American children how to survive in the Communist Chinese system seems to me to be about as useful as teaching them Chinese.

    Also, I’m reliably informed that the reason Chinese children are better at arithmetic is that the way number words are used in Chinese lends itself more intuitively to arithmetic operations.

    What we really need to see is if different cultures with similar social regimes exhibit the same sorts of differences. Taiwan and the US would be an obvious example.

    1. BlindKungFuMaster

      “Also, I’m reliably informed that the reason Chinese children are better at arithmetic is that the way number words are used in Chinese lends itself more intuitively to arithmetic operations.”

      That’s at best a minor factor. Especially compared to English.

      The main difference is drill. Arithmetic responds very well to drill. In fact, I would drill arithmetic if I ever were inflicted as a math teacher on some kids. Seems excellent ROI.

      1. andrewducker

        Agreed. I’m not generally a fan of rote techniques, but times tables seem to be very-much the exception.

        1. DavidFriedman

          How useful is knowing the times table, now that we all have computers in our pockets?

          Our kids were unschooled. The nearest thing to an exception was pushing them to learn the multiplication tables. Their opinion, as adults, is that it was a mistake.

          1. Matt M

            A popular meme on social media goes something like: “Remember when your teacher told you that you weren’t always going to have a calculator in your pocket?” accompanied by a picture of a smartphone.

          2. LesHapablap

            Being able to do basic math in your head is a lot more convenient than pulling out a phone every time you want to compare prices of something, calculate a time from a speed and distance, adjust a recipe, make any kind of plans, really.

            And then on top of that, knowing basic math allows you to do ‘sanity checks’ on figures that a calculator or computer has spit out, or that you have been given. In many industries those sanity checks save a lot of time, money or lives.

          3. eelcohoogendoorn

            As a professional applied mathematician, I second that. The years of multiplication tables stands out to me as one of the most bizzare things that happened to me in my childhood. I remember it being a daily thing, for years on end. Drawing raindrops seems sane by comparison.

            Leaning multiplication by memorisation is an exercise in… memorisation; and is arguably the diametric opposite of any notion of ‘leaning mathematics’.

            This awesome essay comes to mind: https://www.maa.org/external_archive/devlin/LockhartsLament.pdf

            ‘What we really need to see is if different cultures with similar social regimes exhibit the same sorts of differences.’

            If you will permit me to nitpick your use of the word ‘we’; my response there would be a resounding ‘meh’. There would have to be some pretty monstrous empirical beneficial effect to justify compulsory education of any kind really in my mind, so hunting for some percentage point differences in the margin while we are pretty sure those monstrous effects do not exist, isnt really a shared interest of mine.

          4. Adrian

            How useful is knowing the times table, now that we all have computers in our pockets?

            Moderately useful, at least. Performing a (simple) multiplication in my head is much faster than pulling out my smartphone, unlocking it, opening the right app, waiting for it to load (rant: why do dead-simple apps need several seconds to load on my “supercomputer”?!), and entering the numbers. Especially for single-digit numbers, learning multiplication tables is worth it in my opinion, given that you only have to do it once and reap the benefits your entire life.

            Then again, I suspect I’m above average when it comes to calculating or approximating products and ratios in my head.

          5. John Schilling

            +1 on being able to do multiplication in your head being a valuable life skill. Probably only needs ~1.5 digits of precision, but I’m at a loss for how you get even that much without memorization of the 10×10 table at least. How much farther beyond that we want to go, and how useful pencil-and-paper exercises are to mental arithmetic, is debatable.

            Same goes for division.

          6. smocc

            As a high school physics teacher I am beginning to suspect that knowing basic arithmetic operations reflexively is very important to being able to comprehend more complex mathematics. One theory goes something like: working memory is limited, and understanding and solving complex problems requires holding multiple concepts in working memory at once. If you have to stop and compute something like addition or multiplication every time it shows up it will be much harder to understand the larger problem. I think I see the same thing with students and memorizing physics equations. The students who can reflexively pull Newton’s 2nd law from memory are far more likely to notice when it is necessary in the solution to a problem.

            That doesn’t justify drill and only drill, but it does suggest that Lockhart’s dream world (a dream I share) isn’t free of memorization.

          7. MugaSofer

            As the opposite, I successfully resisted learning times tables and now regret it. It’s annoying needing to actually concentrate re-deriving them from scratch or pull out my smartphone, for tasks I could presumably do in an instant otherwise.

          8. Rebecca Friedman

            To clarify: being able to do multiplication in your head is awesome and very useful. Memorizing the times tables is IMO not. What you need is not to have a lot of points locked down, it’s to have enough practice deriving points that when you need to multiply fractions or three-digit numbers, it’s all there. Most problems I run into as an adult are not of the form “integer between 1 and 10 * integer between 1 and 10”. Memorizing the times tables may be a way of getting the relevant practice, but I am not convinced it’s the best one.

          9. EchoChaos

            @Rebecca Friedman

            I never memorized the times tables. I was also homeschooled. Nearly unschooled, as we had a curriculum for math and nothing else.

            What I did instead naturally is memorize difficult touch points that I could process the rest from. So I memorized 8×7, which always tripped me up for some reason and a few others. Now that I’m an adult, I have de facto memorized them from repetition, but I never actually “memorized my times tables”.

            We’re homeschooling our children in much the same way I was homeschooled, and they aren’t memorizing their times tables either.

          10. Matt M

            As a high school physics teacher I am beginning to suspect that knowing basic arithmetic operations reflexively is very important to being able to comprehend more complex mathematics.

            I have no doubt this is true. But what percentage of people will ever actually need to “comprehend more complex mathematics?”

          11. eelcohoogendoorn

            @smocc:

            Id like to reiterate that I really dont see the point. Note that I was at the top of the class in doing this in elementary. Maybe i made a mistake once in years of filling out multiplication tables and it made me feel terrible. I used to be really quite emotionally invested in the whole affair, at that age.

            Despite being a professional applied mathematician (that is I am not a theoretician at all; billions of numbers get multiplied in my team every day), I have more or less completely lost the ability. Even single digit number manipulation I prefer to do on a computer when possible. And I dont miss it one single binary digit.

            Sure, I was also the kid that was good at doing physics problems. But id like to think I still am, despite losing my number crunching abilities. Isnt it much more likely that there is a common cause for the correlation you observe, like say, a general quantitative interest, rather than a causation?

          12. Mark V Anderson

            I don’t see how anyone can consider themselves numeric without knowing pretty well the times and addition tables by heart. As an accountant, I use this knowledge constantly as sanity checks. If I mis-key in a number, the ONLY way I notice that is because my brain says “that doesn’t look like the right answer.” I have had people working for me that did NOT have a real good number sense in that regard and they constantly made mistakes they didn’t catch because they had no internal sanity check.

            And I don’t think this is just useful for workers that constantly use numbers. When I look at car prices or clothing prices or restaurant tips, or when I am reading about gov’t budget numbers in the paper, I would understand much less if my head wasn’t constantly multiplying and adding numbers.

      2. benf

        The review explicitly mentions “two digit addition and subtraction”, not multiplication. If you’re trying to teach two digit addition by memorizing tables then I REALLY feel sorry for your students.

        This particular type of elementary arithmetic is SPECIFICALLY singled out by researchers as a concrete case in which the Chinese counting system and the technique taught in East Asian schools is demonstrably easier for young children. You can’t simply say “that’s at best a minor factor” and then suggest that a clearly inferior strategy, not the strategy practiced by East Asian students, is somehow obviously responsible for the difference, and then leave that on the table as somehow demonstrated, all with that too-familiar air of oozing condescension.

        If you’d like to read more about what I’m actually talking about: https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-best-language-for-math-1410304008

        1. markus

          If you try to teach two digit addition and subtraction without memorizing all additions and subtractions between 1-19 first I feel sorry for your students.

          1. Watchman

            Why? I was always good at arithmetic and I never remember using memorized equations above about 10, and none at all for subtraction. If you’re teaching how to add and subtract by teaching set equations and not through just repeated practice you seem to be ignoring those who can pick the theory up easily and apply it in favour of those who need rote learning. Children do learn differently you know.

          2. DBDr

            I don’t get this.

            Might be my brain, but it seems impossible that you can do addition or subtraction at all by memorizing.

          3. Sandpaper26

            For the people who don’t understand this: what’s 2+3? What’s 15-7? If you knew the answer without pulling out a calculator or literally counting it out, then you have those memorized. Memorizing the single-digit additions and the subtractions from numbers less than 20 seems like the fundamental skill for doing multiple-digit addition and subtraction without a calculator.
            How you accomplish this memorization is left as an exercise for the reader.

          4. thisheavenlyconjugation

            @Sandpaper26
            Those aren’t the only possibilities; you might also think something along the lines of “15 – 7? Well, subtracting 5 gets to 10 and then 2 gives 8”.

          5. Majuscule

            DBDr- Might be my brain, but how do you not refer to things you memorized when doing any kind of math? The only reason I can subtract one three-digit figure from another is because I memorized all the single-digit combinations when I was six. Do you mean we just typically stop thinking of these things as memorized, or is your brain really doing something totally different that I can’t imagine?

        2. BlindKungFuMaster

          Look, I know that some languages and techniques make it easier to become proficient at arithmetic. I think, Norway actually changed how numbers are constructed to get that benefit.

          But I also have relatives in China and I know kids currently in the system and many people who have been through the system and compared to the effort they have to put into perfecting this stuff, differences in technique or language are virtually irrelevant.

          Also, I didn’t mention memorization of addition tables or any other memorization. Just drill. Anyway, I gonna stop oozing now.

      3. anonymousskimmer

        Arithmetic responds very well to drill. In fact, I would drill arithmetic if I ever were inflicted as a math teacher on some kids. Seems excellent ROI.

        It’s fucking hell man. I say this as a person with TOCD, or something like that, who (especially during my teenage years) compulsively runs digit-sum sequences through my head, frequently seeding them from counting letters in words.

        The primary reason I did not work ahead in math in the gifted program in elementary school was the potato page (4th and 5th grade math each had a page of double-digit multiplication or long division, one of said pages had pictures of potatoes on it, of 100+ problems, of which we had to do half of them). I ‘got it’ within ten problems, and could have moved on, but the tedium was positive incentive to not move on at the pace I could have.

        1. Edward Scizorhands

          Sometimes I think I have a form of Tourette’s. When I am alone, or only with my wife, I will sometimes blurt things out. Never in public or in the workplace.

  51. Ketil

    BOOK REVIEW REVIEW: LITTLE SOLDIERS

    Aargh, he did the the thing again! Here’s how my brain processed this:

    1. read title, click on link
    2. read first sentence, notice the part where “I didn’t read it”
    3. think the post should be titled “review review”, rather than “review”
    4. double check, realize it was, and that my stupid brain missed it

    Sigh.

  52. Seppo

    I remember watching this documentary about teachers from an elite Chinese high school being invited to do things their way in an English school.

    One big takeaway: the Chinese teachers were at a complete loss as to how to handle unruly students, because they had never seen one before. They came in expecting that they would get students to be quiet and listen by, you know, telling them to do that. Maybe going as far as to tell someone “You are being rude!”, if things got really out of hand. The extent to which this did not work on English teens was… great television.

  53. localdeity

    I’m just telling kids to sit here drawing 1,000 raindrops in a row without moving or protesting. … I will have taught you the most important skill: discipline.

    This echoes a common argument. Sometimes it is put as “In (most) people’s adult lives, they will have to put up with the following: stupid rules, callous authority, boredom, busywork, bullying, etc., etc. Forcing them to experience these in school helps prepare them for these evils.” Notice how it’s a very general argument for inflicting evil on children. That doesn’t make it false, of course, but it should make us very cautious.

    My rebuttal is: Even if we accept that these evils will happen to adults, and that preparing them for the evils is a valid thing to do with education, the question becomes: How do we best prepare them? I mean, drowning them in those evils 180 days per year for 12 years is one way to do it, but is that actually the best way?

    If discipline were a “skill” like most others school claims to teach, then it would be taught for one hour per day for maybe a few weeks, with a test at the end, and then it would never be brought up again. If it were more of a core skill like arithmetic or reading (one that is used in later classes), then there might be some focused teaching at the start (usually with some pre-exercises to ease into it), but then it doesn’t show up any more than necessary later on. Scott doesn’t explicitly say if this cruel hyper-discipline lets up after, say, the first month, after which they relax it to “enough discipline to quietly pay attention to the teacher and do in-class work”—but I’m guessing it doesn’t.

    And, of course, “putting up with busywork/callous authority/stupid rules/bullying/other evils” should not be a “core skill” necessary to teach other classes, and hence any teaching of it should happen at most once (if I take this seriously, I would have to stipulate that this would be an optional class)—perhaps with occasional, scheduled practice like once a year.

    1. Bugmaster

      I agree with your “raindrops == evil” sentiment, but I think your reasoning is flawed. Adults don’t just need to overcome “stupid rules, callous authority, boredom, busywork, bullying, etc.” in order to be effective; they also need the discipline to pursue their own goals. When you are your own boss, you can circumvent stupid rules and callous authority, but you cannot get away from boredom and busywork, because they are required in order to accomplish anything substantial. For example, you can imagine all kinds of awesome algorithms in your head, but if you want to build any kind of useful software, you’re going to have to sit there and debug off-by-one errors for hours on end… unless, of course, you’re one of those one-in-a-billion geniuses who can get everything right the first time.

      Even if we accept that these evils will happen to adults … the question becomes: How do we best prepare them?

      This is an empirical question; right now, the answer seems to be, “whatever China doing is working” (if I understand Scott’s meta-review correctly). There’s no need to randomly guess the answer; we need evidence, and currently we have at least some of it.

      If discipline were a “skill” like most others school claims to teach, then it would be taught for one hour per day for maybe a few weeks…

      I’m not sure what you’re basing that on. Ultimately, it is very difficult — if not outright impossible — to pick up other skills without at least a little bit of conscientiousness. The more of it you have, the easier it becomes to learn and accomplish anything else. That doesn’t necessarily mean that we should maximize conscientiousness at all costs, since it’s not the sole factor contributing to success. But, once again, we arrive at an empirical question: how much discipline training is enough ? Once again, random guesses based on emotion alone are unlikely to get us to the right answer (assuming there even is one).

      1. localdeity

        but you cannot get away from boredom and busywork, because they are required in order to accomplish anything substantial … you’re going to have to sit there and debug off-by-one errors for hours on end

        I agree that it is natural to encounter boredom here and there. But not busywork: busywork is by definition “work” that accomplishes nothing except keeping you busy. (Google’s first supplied definition: “work that keeps a person busy but has little value in itself.”) Debugging off-by-one errors is not busywork unless someone is making you debug a program that no one is actually going to run. School is, from my experience, full of busywork by the above definition: requiring everyone to do 20 problems (and “show their work”) every night, instead of something like “do 6 problems and keep going only if you feel you need the practice”; assembling a family photo album with a “border or decoration on each page” in a French class; gluing every assignment and handout into a “science notebook” that I, at least, literally never consulted for notes during my school career.

        And no, the skill of “putting up with boring stuff that’s needed to achieve a desired goal” is not necessarily practiced by having adults tell you to do something that has no valid purpose and yelling at you if you don’t do it; what happens when there are no longer adults who will yell at you for it? I don’t know how other people’s minds work, but it seems to me that the way to accomplish such things is to focus on the goal and let it motivate you through the dull work; but the more you want to think that way, the more painful it is when the “goal” you’re told about is obviously fake or not applicable and the only real “goal” is to not get yelled at, so it actually discourages having the right mentality! This is one of the ways in which I think school actively harms people beyond just wasting their time.

        Even if we accept that these evils will happen to adults … the question becomes: How do we best prepare them?

        This is an empirical question; right now, the answer seems to be, “whatever China doing is working” (if I understand Scott’s meta-review correctly). There’s no need to randomly guess the answer; we need evidence, and currently we have at least some of it.

        Some people have mentioned that Chinese who grew up in America do better than Chinese who grew up in China, which would appear to indicate that whatever China is doing works less well than what America is doing. It is mentioned that American immigrants are a sample biased towards capability, but it is also mentioned that China’s PISA test-takers are also a sample biased towards capability, so I’m not sure where the balance of evidence lies.

        Moreover, do you think Chinese schooling is the result of one coherent strategy, designed solely with the students’ best learning outcomes in mind, informed by good knowledge of human children, and adjusting smoothly as culture and technology change? First off, any institution’s policy (except possibly the most high-level parts) is probably a patchwork of changes made over time, and the longer it’s existed, the more changes have likely been made. Those changes will tend to be in the direction of whatever favors the interests of whoever makes the changes. At a school, the children’s interests generally don’t matter to the decisionmakers except to the extent that their advocates (probably parents) successfully advocate; from the reviewed post, it looks like Chinese school has successfully cowed the parents as well as the students, so the only interests that matter are teachers’ and school administrators’.

        It looks like objective #1 in the Chinese schools described is to crush the students into unquestioning obedience and treat them all the same with no exceptions, which is maximally convenient to the teachers and administrators and is thus predicted by the above theory. (Some people complain that American schools have the same objective; well, yeah, any school finds that convenient, so they at least have an incentive pushing them that way; I think the difference is that American parents have a lot more power to push back, so it hasn’t gotten as bad.) I’ll say here that I think any educational strategy that assumes every student at a certain age learns at the same speed in every subject must be very far from optimal. (If you ran a school of clones of one person raised in identical pods, that might work…) Anyway, it looks like “evolutionary optimization in directions other than student outcomes” has probably shaped Chinese schools as much as others. The reviewed post says “China apparently spent 2,700 years perfecting its education system, and this is the result”, which would actually suggest the evolutionary process has had a lot longer to do its work, although I might guess that all the upheaval from Mao’s era could have reset things (for better or for worse).

        Given how much time American schooling wastes, I would say it can’t be achieving more than, say, 20% (very arbitrary guess) of what could be done. If Chinese schooling were anything close to optimal, say >90%, then it should be more than 4 times better. I’ve only seen assertions that Chinese students were maybe up to 6-24 months ahead; if we call that “up to 20% better”, that would correspond to an efficiency of 24%.

        That doesn’t necessarily mean that we should maximize conscientiousness at all costs, since it’s not the sole factor contributing to success. But, once again, we arrive at an empirical question: how much discipline training is enough ?

        There’s another question: Does training kids into unquestioning obedience to adults in authority (who are often deliberately asking them to do something pointless) actually increase their conscientiousness in general? Does it make them more able to discipline themselves, or make them dependent on discipline from others? Scott says “Chinese-Americans who are educated in US schools also seem more diligent than white Americans, so maybe the education system doesn’t contribute too much to this”; you can’t simply say “Chinese schools inculcate one type of discipline; Chinese adults are more disciplined in general; therefore the inculcation is successful at increasing discipline in general”.

        Once again, random guesses based on emotion alone

        I am rather offended by the implication.

        1. whereamigoing

          but the more you want to think that way, the more painful it is when the “goal” you’re told about is obviously fake or not applicable and the only real “goal” is to not get yelled at, so it actually discourages having the right mentality!

          This matches my experience in that school didn’t help me develop discipline for accomplishing long-term goals I actually want to accomplish, because the attitude I needed to (with minimum effort) reach an arbitrary goal someone else set and enforced was very different from the attitude I need to do something I actually want to accomplish (as well as possible).

      2. Bugmaster

        Debugging off-by-one errors is not busywork unless someone is making you debug a program that no one is actually going to run.

        Yes, but how do you know if something is busywork ? For example, one pattern I see often with developers — including myself ! — is that when they implement a feature or fix a bug, they run a few tests, then check it in and mark the bug as fixed. They (and like I said, I am them !) are absolutely sure that any further testing would just be busywork. By contrast, QA people will meticulously test every little edge case, no matter how trivial. Quite often, they find bugs that developers missed. The same applies to your example: if you just “do 6 problems and keep going only if you feel you need the practice”, how would you know if the 7th problem would’ve stumped you ?

        …is not necessarily practiced by having adults tell you to do something that has no valid purpose and yelling at you if you don’t do it; what happens when there are no longer adults who will yell at you for it?

        Like I said, I am not 100% convinced that anyone, especially a child, can correctly discern what has purpose and what doesn’t. Additionally, I think that a major part of this discipline training is needed to familiarize the child with the feeling of boredom and drudgery. Yes, it’s boring and pointless to check 10 separate edge cases, tighten every screw, add up each purchase, etc. — but you should do it, anyway, even if the adult who’s yelling at you is yourself.

        That said, I don’t have any evidence for this ready at hand, so it’s exactly the kind of guess that I decried in my previous comment…

        Moreover, do you think Chinese schooling is the result of one coherent strategy, designed solely with the students’ best learning outcomes in mind, informed by good knowledge of human children, and adjusting smoothly as culture and technology change?

        No, but to be fair, I doubt that any other country’s educational system fits these criteria, either. I think that China started schooling their kids in a specific way, found out that it sort of works, and then just kept doing it out of pure inertia… kind of like Western schools did.

        It looks like objective #1 in the Chinese schools described is to crush the students into unquestioning obedience and treat them all the same with no exceptions

        They’re a totalitarian dictatorship, so I wouldn’t put it past them by any means. That said though, in the USSR obedience was the primary objective, but by no means the only one; they were also quite serious about producing students (and adults) who could win international science Olympiads, chess tournaments, and even sports matches. They were also quite serious about beating America in the nuclear race. China might be different, though, I don’t know.

        If Chinese schooling were anything close to optimal, say >90%, then it should be more than 4 times better.

        That depends on what proportion of total achievement is genetic. For example, if 80% of your educational attainment or general performance is genetic, then doubling the efficiency of your education would only get you an extra 20%, at best.

        Does training kids into unquestioning obedience to adults in authority (who are often deliberately asking them to do something pointless) actually increase their conscientiousness in general? Does it make them more able to discipline themselves, or make them dependent on discipline from others? Scott says “Chinese-Americans who are educated in US schools also seem more diligent than white Americans…

        Yes, but how much of that is due to the culture of discipline that their parents are instilling in them ? It would be interesting to see a breakdown by generation — direct immigrants, vs. their 1st-generation children, vs. their grandchildren, etc.

        I am rather offended by the implication.

        Well then, please be offended on my behalf as well, since my comment applies to both of us 🙂

        1. localdeity

          if you just “do 6 problems and keep going only if you feel you need the practice”, how would you know if the 7th problem would’ve stumped you ?

          It is easy to tell at a glance when one problem is identical to the next except the numbers and maybe some names or objects have been swapped out for others. This is often the case. IIRC the assigned problem set would often not include any, or include just one, of the textbook’s several more complicated, interesting problems at the end (usually the problem section of a chapter has problems sorted by difficulty). If you want to demonstrate mastery, you should probably do one problem from each of the easy groups, then focus on the hard problems. I suspect they tend not to include many of the hard problems because (a) they tend to be harder to grade and (b) the teachers would be inconvenienced if they gave more students lower grades for not being able to do the harder problems.

          They (and like I said, I am them !) are absolutely sure that any further testing would just be busywork. By contrast, QA people will meticulously test every little edge case, no matter how trivial. Quite often, they find bugs that developers missed.

          A reasonable developer should be open to the argument “Many developers in your position have been confident that there were no bugs and were proven wrong. We instituted the following procedures because they would have caught x, y, and z bugs with fairly minimal effort. Surely you agree that it’s reasonable to ask everyone to follow these procedures.” There is then room for argument about costs and benefits—I could spend all day listing out extra procedures and tests you could run, and surely not all of them are worth the effort; I think the heuristic “this is a small effort and it would have caught bug x which did bite us hard” is a decent Schelling point. Also, a rational company will try to add automation and such to minimize the cost of the tests.

          If the developer remains unconvinced and refuses to run certain tests, there are a few ways for the workplace to respond. Outright disciplinary action is one option—ultimately, the developer is paid by the company to do work the company asks for. Another option is to say, “Ok, use your judgment, but if we ever get bitten by a bug you checked in that would have been caught by a procedure you refused to run, then on your head be it.”

          Fundamentally, I would say that testing policies are (in my experience) reasonable—and, perhaps more important, the enforcers can be reasoned with. (I’ve also heard that studies have proven checklists save lives in medicine and aviation; I have great respect for that.) This is not the case with the “Over the course of this year, we’ll give you a thousand or so problems in homework, and we expect you to check your work like your life depends on it for every single one. If you think this is unreasonable, feel free to STFU” approach. More on that later.

          Like I said, I am not 100% convinced that anyone, especially a child, can correctly discern what has purpose and what doesn’t. Additionally, I think that a major part of this discipline training is needed to familiarize the child with the feeling of boredom and drudgery. Yes, it’s boring and pointless to check 10 separate edge cases, tighten every screw, add up each purchase, etc. — but you should do it, anyway, even if the adult who’s yelling at you is yourself.

          For what it’s worth: I have a reputation for meticulosity at work; several people have used that precise word for me. I have a kind of compulsion to make sure that every line of code I write (error-handling code in particular) gets run at least once before I check it in; if I test some code and then just change a string, I still feel a need to run it again. (On rare occasions I haven’t tested—usually when testing was difficult or inconvenient—and I have sometimes regretted it.) When I analyze data and logs, I constantly ask things like “Is that really true?” or “So I’m saying it looks like x is true; I could probably check that by looking at y; well, before acting on this information, someone should check y, and it would be stupid if I posted my comment and five people read it before anyone checked y, so I’ll check that too, and paste the command I used to check it”. Several people have told me my writeups are awesome for their thoroughness—and occasionally people complain about the same attribute.

          I also did very well on math contests; on the subject of meticulosity in particular, I got a perfect score in 7th and 8th grade on the AMC-8 test (a feat achieved by 30-60 kids in the U.S. during each of those years), and on a couple of lesser-known contests. (I’ll also mention that I wrote most of the HTML tags in this post by hand (because the comment-typing window is kind of borked), and we’ll see if I made any mistakes.) So I’m going to call myself an authority on meticulosity, at least how my brain implements it.

          Despite all the above, I was not meticulous on school tests; I made plenty of simple math mistakes on them, in some cases getting Bs despite understanding the material perfectly.

          Why the difference? I think that, on the contests, I simply cared more, cared enough to seriously check my work. (Stupid mistakes like flipping a sign are sometimes called careless errors; the name is apt.) Doing a problem a second time to maybe catch an error takes effort and is unpleasant; if I have a good reason to do it, like trying to beat the best math students in the country, then it’s worth it; doing it all day every day on repetitive homework, quizzes, and tests for no obvious gain is not worth it, and I’d rather just turn in my test as soon as I’m done with it. (Since I’ve been employed for several years and have never shown my school grades to any authority, I can definitively say there was no gain to checking my work more.)

          I think I can say that: (a) meticulousness is a skill, one I can choose to exercise in some places and not in others; (b) competitive instincts and pride are excellent for motivating me to be meticulous; (c) school giving me “lots of practice doing problems” neither taught me meticulosity (if anything, it probably encouraged the opposite habit), nor did my grades accurately measure that ability; and (d) I am evidence that meticulosity can be developed to a very high level simply by applying it in a few extracurricular pursuits (i.e. math contests and, before that, chess, where a single blunder will usually lose the game). Maybe growing up using the meticulous, unforgiving beasts known as computers contributed to that too—although I didn’t study programming until 9th-10th grade, so programming wasn’t the cause.

          What I’m trying to say is, the busywork was a goddamn waste of time and I cannot believe how much people try to justify it. 😛 Moreover, if you actually want to teach meticulosity, I’m pretty sure the best approach would be to expose the child to a bunch of activities where meticulosity is essential (e.g. chess, academic contests with harsh grading, certain kinds of puzzle games, any automatically-graded programming challenge…), find one the child likes and sticks to, and encourage them to do better and better at it.

          My overall thesis stands: Inflicting this particular evil on children is not necessary. If you think this evil helps produce some desired quality, try making a serious effort to find other ways to produce that quality, and you’ll probably find at least one that seems it would be much more effective, take way less time, and cause much less misery.

          in the USSR obedience was the primary objective, but by no means the only one; they were also quite serious about producing students (and adults) who could win international science Olympiads, chess tournaments, and even sports matches.

          For chess in particular, I think Botvinnik ran a chess school that trained many of the USSR’s chess greats. Wiki says its graduates included world champions Karpov, Kasparov, and Kramnik, plus several others whose names I recognize. Let’s be clear about the meaning of this. As a country, yes, the USSR did well at helping develop their talent. However, this was accomplished by taking them out of a normal school (where, you say, totalitarianism reigns) and putting them into a specialized elite school.

          Come to think of it, regarding Russian math olympiad people, I remember reading a bit about Perelman (Fields medalist)… An article says this: “The young [Perelman]’s talents were noticed before he had reached the age of 11. He was enrolled at an élite school specialising in maths, was pushed hard to excel, and as a school child in the 1980s won two nationwide maths competitions. “In 1981, he became the best of his age-group in the Soviet Union,” recalled Sergey Rukshin, the director of the élite maths school where he studied.” http://www.beyond-the-pale.uk/hero.htm

          Hah! So it seems that the pattern continues. Well, I would call this evidence that specialized schools for the elite are good for promoting top talent. It is not evidence that Russia’s normal schools were good at anything—kind of the opposite, really.

          For example, if 80% of your educational attainment or general performance is genetic, then doubling the efficiency of your education would only get you an extra 20%, at best.

          I do believe genetics play a large role for individuals, but I was saying that I think perhaps 80% of the time people spend in school—averaged across the range of abilities—is wasted. Forgetting things over summer and spending weeks re-teaching stuff is a waste; the one-size-fits-all approach to lectures is inefficient, too slow for some students and too fast for others who must then review on their own; the one-size-fits-all study schedule dictated by homework is inefficient, compared to children being taught to figure out their own personal optimal study method; all the extra rules and enforcement optimized for dealing with unwilling, uninterested children and not for curious or determined children is a waste; I could go on. 80% is my arbitrary estimate of what all those wastes add up to.

          I don’t think genetics explain much of any difference between Chinese and American students; IIRC the difference is about 5 IQ points; I don’t know about the relative conscientiousness, but one would have to be careful to separate genetics from culture there.

          I am rather offended by the implication.

          Well then, please be offended on my behalf as well, since my comment applies to both of us 🙂

          Ah, ok. It sounded like you might be dismissing my entire post with the accusation that it’s based on nothing but emotion, an accusation that I try very hard to make false.

      3. Vergence

        This is an empirical question; right now, the answer seems to be, “whatever China doing is working” (if I understand Scott’s meta-review correctly).

        Does it? I think Scott’s conclusion was that none of the evidence he cited is very informative, and I have to agree with that. It’s all informal case studies, non-experimental comparisons, and questionable measures.

    2. Cerastes

      Drawing from my own experience, I think it may be possible to test teaching discipline without schools via the same place I learned most of my discipline: martial arts, particularly “traditional” schools. Lots of kids from varied backgrounds go to martial arts schools as an after-school activity, and the traditional style schools (for lack of a better term) have a very Asian school focus on discipline, respect, obedience, etc. Do kids who take martial arts after school have higher discipline etc than kids from the same school (controlling for as much as you can of other stuff) who do other things? Does havings a little bit of that style of education help just as juch as total immersion?

      Personally, my experience supports this – I did martial arts after school almost my entire educational career, and even as a kid I was quite disciplined. Of course, n=1, how do I know I wouldn’t have turned out similarly in other circumstances, etc., but I think it’s a tantalizing hint and an interesting area to look into.

      1. Thomas Jorgensen

        Problem here – Martial arts are a large physical skill set, and schools that teach those… tend to do very well on academics, too. Every year, the school that aces all the rankings in my city is not some fancy new private school or the school that the city is focused on. Without fail, it is the Royal Ballet Academy – which is a school that teaches Ballet and a couple of other dances, and oh, also, I suppose even a ballerina needs the RnRs. Hilariously, it always, always scores at least a full standard deviation above the rest on.. such core ballet skills as “Math” and “Science”. And it does so *after* correcting for the socio-economic status of the kids. (Not that the kids are much of an outlier in this regard. Because Denmark) Got two theories about this:
        Theory one, it is just a health thing. Any kid which makes the cut has the constitution of a proverbially very healthy animal, and rock solid kinestesia, which is a much more accurate measure of your gray matter being in proper working order than any IQ test you can shepherd children of the age of 8 through.

        Theory 2: Still a mostly a health thing. Spending 6 hours a day dancing keeps you fit as a very fit thing, and the curriculum of a primary school does not actually require all that many hours per day to cover, so cramming it all into the occasional hour here and there just works better, because you now have a class of healthy, alert kids focusing, not a class of very bored sloths.

        1. Tarpitz

          Theory 3: genetic predisposition for co-ordination, athleticism and whatever else is required for ballet correlates with genetic predisposition for academic intelligence.

          Theory 4: ballet school children are selected for parents with traits which in whatever way contribute to their academic performance even within their socio-economic group, so controlling for background in that way is insufficient to eliminate the selection effects.

        2. Purplehermann

          Theory 5: kids learn diligence in similar fashion to the 3 tiny chess wonders, they have something that captures their interest and makes them want to work hard, and their excellence in ballet bleeds into everything else

        3. Cerastes

          I was more thinking of the traditional American model, where schools typically only have a limited array of official sports (usually football, basketball, soccer, and baseball, sometimes lacrosse or tennis too). Instead, martial arts is typically pursued out of school time as an after-school activity, allowing you to decouple school population from dojo population.

    3. Roger Sweeny

      I can’t help thinking of toilet training. The muscles and nerves required aren’t mature enough until 18 months at the earliest and some times not until three years (36 months). American parents used to try to do it too early, which led to cultural traditions that it was difficult and frustrating and time-consuming. It used to be a BIG DEAL. Several decades ago, the pediatrician advice changed and toilet training is now later, shorter, and easier.

      I wonder if forcing 3-year-olds to sit still is like forcing 18-month-olds to “use the potty”. Maybe Chinese schools are doing the right thing but doing it too early.

    4. MugaSofer

      Scott doesn’t explicitly say if this cruel hyper-discipline lets up after, say, the first month, after which they relax it to “enough discipline to quietly pay attention to the teacher and do in-class work”—but I’m guessing it doesn’t.

      The original review says it’s the opposite; Chu eventually chose to leave her son in for just a few years, until the pressure would (in her opinion, based on talking to other parents and research presumably) escalate too much, and then move him back to the US.

  54. bucket of kets

    What’s your prior on “School doesn’t teach people anything”?

    This is false in a vacuous sense—we memorize (some) times tables, are given things to read, etc. But the vast majority of things we’re exposed to in the US public school system are forgotten.

    Considering my education, most of the things I “remember”—most of the artifacts that still remain of me actually *doing* *anything* were pieces of deliberate practice at some skill that I thought valuable at the time—i.e., whichever fascination lottery I’d won. Practically, these are some essays I wrote, and a whole bunch of practice at algebraic manipulations that made my STEM degrees easier to get.

    Realistically, school didn’t teach me these things. It provided a context for me to become convinced that they were important, and I taught myself. And I forgot all the other stuff. And suffered a great deal of mental trauma along the way.

    After spending similarly far too many years in academia, this seems like the only pattern by which *anything* is legitimately learned: passive fascination lottery stimulation. Everything else was just yelling at kids in a room.

    1. Bugmaster

      Depends on what you mean by “school”. I don’t remember my middle school all that well, but high school taught me a lot of useful things — such as the basics of algebra and calculus, basic experimental procedures for physics, a few core ideas in statistics and biology, and maybe some common literary tropes. It also exposed me to many fields of study that I intensely disliked at the time (and still do); however, many years later I still find those lessons valuable. You can’t dislike something until you try it.

      I have learned nothing new about my passion — computer programming — since I knew more about it in middle school than my teachers in high school. By the time I went to college, I thought I was pretty good at it… at which point I learned that I knew next to nothing, all of the awesome tricks I’d picked up over the years didn’t amount to much, and all the problems that I couldn’t handle on my own had obvious and simple solutions, assuming one knows a little theory.

      So, high school taught me what to study and how to do it (as well as supplying me with the basic tools that are needed to pursue whatever discipline I’d choose), and college allowed me to evolve from a script kiddie into an actual programmer. Obviously, my experience wasn’t totally positive, there was mental trauma and angst, but overall it was quite beneficial.

      I think the difference between me and most people on this site is that I actually have a fairly average IQ. I can’t just go and learn whatever I want on my own over a weekend (though I wish I could); I need someone to teach it to me gradually in three months. I think commenters here sometimes forget that there are lot more people like me than people like them.

      1. Murphy

        By the time I went to college, I thought I was pretty good at it… at which point I learned that I knew next to nothing, all of the awesome tricks I’d picked up over the years didn’t amount to much, and all the problems that I couldn’t handle on my own had obvious and simple solutions, assuming one knows a little theory.

        “Universities are truly storehouses for knowledge: students arrive from school confident they know nearly everything, and they leave five years later certain that they know practically nothing. Where did the knowledge go in the meantime? In to the university, of course, where it is dried and stored.”

        ― Terry Pratchett

      2. xenon

        I think the difference between me and most people on this site is that I actually have a fairly average IQ.

        I wouldn’t be sure about that. My IQ puts me around the 95 percentile but I still found school very valuable. Part of that is likely upbringing–my mother is a teacher and obviously valued school highly–but school helped push me out of my comfort zones. My verbal IQ is sky-high and thus I was very happy to stay in the realm of reading and writing. I was good at it and it wasn’t difficult–I could churn out good essays on any topic with little difficulty, and I still find theme and symbolism easy to parse and discuss. School pushed me to explore areas I wasn’t so automatically confident. I would never have touched math or hard science without external compulsion, but I’m very happy with my career in computer science and I find math and science worthwhile, even if they’re not easy.

        I think the more salient variable is likely to be quality of the school and the “schooliness”, for lack of a better word, of the person. I was a socially adept, precocious girl who could sit still and read for hours. I had the perfect temperament for school and my teachers adored me. That’s not going to be everyone.

        1. bucket of kets

          Both you and bugmaster seem to have latched on to part of my point that I’m much less interested in, which is probably my fault.

          When I say “school doesn’t teach anything”, I don’t consider “but I learned Things in school!” to be an acceptable answer. If you had both been put in a room with a pile of video lectures for 12 years, I suspect you would have learned a similar number of things.

          If you disagree, and argue that it was important that you be *made* to pay attention, then fine. I’m (hyperbolically) claiming that if you had been forced to sit in a room and watch video lectures for 12 years (of your choosing), your outcomes would be similar-to-better than they are now. If you think that’s even a little bit true, then the way public school is currently structured in the US should horrify you.

          1. Bugmaster

            if you had been forced to sit in a room and watch video lectures for 12 years (of your choosing)

            …Then I likely would not have learned much about literature, art, biology, and a bunch of other subjects that I’d found quite useful (and even interesting) later in life. I would not have chosen to watch those videos. I also would not have developed the skills needed to transition from video-watching to solving practical problems.

          2. xenon

            I would dispute that.

            Personal attention from a teacher was very important to me. For me, being able to discuss things with the teacher and my peers was important. Being able to explore, to run experiments, to think aloud and hear feedback, to see my teacher’s passion for a subject and their excitement when we responded–none of those can be replicated by simply watching a video. I would also say I went to a very good school, so that probably helped.

            For fun comparison, I’ve been taking an online Masters course and I have found it nearly unbearable learning from a video with little/no class interaction. We may be in different strokes territory–I struggle to learn from a video.

          3. Lord Nelson

            +1 to everything xenon said.

            The other thing school taught me, arguably one of the most important things, was how to improve my social skills. I’m autistic and was a really weird and off-putting kid. Forcing me to interact with 30 other kids and half a dozen teachers every day taught me how to make friends, how to hide the weirdness when necessary (to avoid getting bullied, for instance), how to work alongside people who I really didn’t like, how to deal with team members who slacked off, how to deal with authority figures whose teaching / management style drove me crazy, how to get up in front of the class and present even when it made me physically ill from severe anxiety (miserable, but a useful life skill), and in general pushed me out of my social comfort zone.

          4. John Schilling

            @Lord Nelson: I would have liked it if school had taught me any of that, but it didn’t. I’m not sure which of our experiences is more typical.

          5. demos

            Many commenters here are highly atypical and have no concept of the extent to which most kids are motivated by the incentive structure in schools. I was a very bright kid but was (and am!) quite low in conscientiousness. There were a few topics about which I was interested (dinosaurs, Vikings, mythology, stuff like that) about which I consumed material voraciously, but without the incentives provided by school I would have learned very little about other topics – like basic math and literature – I would have spent the time with sports, TV, and video games without the prodding.

            I was an abysmal student in some ways, frequently late for school and class, hardly ever completing homework, but I was very competitive and couldn’t stand to have another student out perform me on a test or quiz. This forced me to do the minimum amount of work to master the material, instead of ignoring the material all together. I also thrived on the respect and praise of my instructors. This wasn’t enough to get me to do my homework or show up on time but I often paid attention in class and tried to craft impressive answers to the teachers questions, competed in and won math competitions and scholars bowls, etc.

            Also, some commenters here seem to assume that kids will be seeking to maximize future utility. But I assure you that many kids, even smart kids who are far more conscientious than I am, do not think about future utility at all. My parents are educated, but they were extremely laissez faire, they would never have corrupted their children by directing us toward future status or employment.

            I have many criticisms of the school system, and I homeschool my many children, but there are real trade-offs.

        2. whereamigoing

          I seem to recall that women in general tend to do better in school, though I don’t know how much the effect varies by country.

          1. xenon

            I did mention my sex on purpose. Girls generally do better in a school environment than boys, for a variety of disputed reasons from girls generally being more social to girls generally being more obedient and less oppositional.

      3. moridinamael

        Did school teach you those things, or did school create a structure of threats and rewards sufficiently motivating to cause you to teach yourself those things?

        Let’s take two idealized end-member scenarios.

        Call one the Learning Pod, a machine that you sit within for a few hours a day and then after a few weeks you just somehow can do algebra. Perhaps it shoots the knowledge into your brain Matrix-style, perhaps it’s just a fine-tuned automated tutoring system, we don’t really care.

        Call the other the Prison, which is a horrible gulag that only allows you to leave each subsequent torture chamber after you’ve managed to pass an algebra test, given access pile of books and papers that are in the chamber.

        School has both Prison and Learning Pod qualities. I think the relative magnitude of each might vary from class to class and from teacher to teacher. I also think that most schools mostly look like Prison with the rare really good teacher managing to provide small doses of Learning Pod.

        There is perhaps another axis orthogonal to Prison and Learning Pod which would be Holding Pen. The Holding Pen is just an environment where you exist with other kids, with no particular influence on learning one way or another.

        A lot of peoples’ negative valence toward school is wrapped up in how aversive they found the Prison aspect, and then, separately, how aversive they found the Holding Pen aspect.

    2. zzzzort

      To me that sounds very lonely. Most of the important things I learned in school were very much in the social context of school, either interacting with teachers or with other students (hell, social interaction was one of the important things I learned). I might have listened to a taped lecture on physics and received all the same information, but I wouldn’t have learned it until I explained it to the kid sitting next to me, and I wouldn’t be doing that unless we were assigned a problem to do, and yes, threatened with vague consequences if we didn’t do it. You could argue that ‘school’ didn’t teach me, that I taught myself by working through the explanation I was giving, but that’s what school is. It is precisely those sorts of interactions that differentiate school from a set of taped lectures.

    3. DBDr

      I am on the spectrum, so this is probably not a useful anecdote, but here it is:

      The most important thing I learned in school is that effort is not rewarded, skill is not rewarded, and performance exists in a nebulous state that can be influenced by many other factors.

      The thing that is rewarded is the appearance of the above. Usually in order to convincingly perform skill you must be skilled, but being skilled and failing to give the impression of a skilled person is the same is not being skilled at all.

      Likewise with effort. I’ve gotten a lot of millage out of looking busy skills I learned in school.

      The biggest thing to learn was that perceived performance is greatly enhanced by skilled promotion. All the math and CSIT skill I learned I could have figured out over a couple long summers of self study; I cant imagine where else one would pick up the social aspects of being judged by varyingly strict and lose / defined and vague criteria.

  55. BlindKungFuMaster

    Steve Sailer pointed out that Asian American do better than Asian Asians, White American do better than Europeans, African Americans do better than Africans and Hispanic Americans do better than Hispanic Hispanics in PISA.

    Given that Asian Americans are a diverse bunch with Chinese top-performing even within this group, and given that the Chinese PISA results are biased, it is pretty likely that Chinese Americans outperform Chinese Chinese in PISA.

    So:
    A) Half of the positive assessment of the Chinese education system is likely dead-on-arrival.
    B) The US system seems to be pretty damn good in getting results.

    1. bulb5

      This ignores massive selection bias, though, especially among Asians. It’s mostly the best and brightest Chinese/Korean/Indian people moving to America.

        1. eric23

          In general immigrants are more talented and/or motivated than the ones staying behind. Not just Asian immigrants.

          African-Americans (the descendants of slaves) may be an exception because the slaves did not choose to come, however they live in a much richer and disease-free environment than do African Africans, which presumably helps their scores.

          1. Wency

            You have a combination of effects.

            Immigrants will tend to be people whose lives were not going that great in the old country, for one reason or another. But who, conversely, managed to pick up their things, make it to the new country, and survive.

            And then again, some portion will be members of an intellectual elite who hit a ceiling for advancement in their old country — engineers, entrepreneurs, scientists.

            Then again, there are people hoping for an easy fix, prepared to believe tales that the streets are paved with gold in the new country, underestimating the challenges and risks of migration compared to neighbors who are more level-headed. They might even be attracted to welfare systems more than the opportunity to work, or hoping to land a native “sugar daddy/mama”. But historically they might have been attracted to conquest and exploitation, underestimating the risks of death from war and disease.

            The relative strength of all these effects will differ from population to population and time to time.

            But there doesn’t seem much reason to think that white Americans form either an intellectual elite or underclass compared to English and Germans, their two largest ancestral groups. Some would argue there’s some effect in one direction or the other, but in any case it has to be small. So I think it’s fair to say a lot of these effects tended to cancel out within that population at least, and also that reversion to the mean plays a role.

      1. EchoChaos

        It’s mostly the best and brightest Chinese/Korean/Indian people moving to America.

        Perhaps true for first generation, but long-time Korean-Americans are mostly just refugees from the Korean War at random and long-time Chinese-Americans are coolie labor for the railroads, not the “best and brightest”, who mostly stayed in the court of the Qing Emperor.

        1. Simon_Jester

          Random coolie laborers still have to meet certain standards of physical fitness, willing to take rational risks, and ability to establish one self in a very foreign country. For every Chinese coolie who came to America to work on railroads for absurdly little money, there’s probably several more Chinese people from the mid-1800s who’d have worked themselves to death, collapsed, or mismanaged the bureaucracy dedlocked inself aorund “just trying to cope.”

          1. EchoChaos

            Sure, and selection effects among immigrants are real. Despite having poorer early life healthcare and not as much wealth as white Americans, immigrant Hispanic Americans live longer, for example.

            But it’s a big stretch from “immigrants have some selection advantage in a few areas” to “mostly the best and brightest”.

            Neither Korean-Americans nor Chinese-Americans meet the second criteria. Indian-Americans might, I don’t know as well there.

          2. baconbits9

            There isn’t much pattern to US immigration. You have waves of Irish immigrants fleeing the famine, and you have waves of African Immigrants who were forcibly enslaved. That both groups would outperform their peers left behind is an argument against selection bias.

            For every Chinese coolie who came to America to work on railroads for absurdly little money, there’s probably several more Chinese people from the mid-1800s who’d have worked themselves to death, collapsed, or mismanaged the bureaucracy dedlocked inself aorund “just trying to cope.”

            So the Indian populations in areas that were hit with famine after famine with massive loss of life should be selected for people smart and crafty enough to survive. As would many Chinese people whose ancestors navigated WW2 and then the Communist regimes be selected for.

          3. eric23

            That both groups would outperform their peers left behind is an argument against selection bias.

            It’s a very weak argument. Just two data points, with massive confounders.

          4. baconbits9

            It’s a very weak argument. Just two data points, with massive confounders.

            No it isn’t, the claim made by Sailer (or in his name) is that every racial/ethnic group he looked at (I think) preformed better, not that just one or two did. What I noted were examples of very different types of immigration, not a pair of data points, which makes the ‘selection bias’ theory look far weaker, which is different from an argument supporting the other case.

      2. baconbits9

        This ignores massive selection bias, though, especially among Asians. It’s mostly the best and brightest Chinese/Korean/Indian people moving to America.

        It is? Australia and Canada are directly trying to draw the best and brightest with highly (for immigration policy) selective standards on who they let in. The US has much lower standards and is often seen as a refuge for persecuted minorities.

    2. Steve Sailer

      Here are the 2018 PISA scores:

      https://www.unz.com/isteve/the-new-2018-pisa-school-test-scores-usa-usa/

      US Asians would come in 3rd in the world, behind the 4 Chinese provinces and Singapore. US whites would come in 7th, behind also Hong Kong, Macau, and Estonia. US Hispanics outscore Latin American countries and US blacks have always outscored black countries.

      In fact, Americans do so well on the PISA that I’m a little skeptical of these high scores.

      1. Steve Sailer

        Here’s my 2013 review of Amanda Ripley’s book “The Smartest Kids in the World” in which she track three American high school students who are exchange students in high-scoring Finland, South Korea, and Poland.

        https://www.takimag.com/article/pisa_piece_by_piece_steve_sailer/

        South Korea’s school system seems ridiculous in Ripley’s book. Many students nap during schooldays so they can go to cram school late into the night.

        In contrast, Finnish education is famously laid-back. It’s the anti-Korea. This Nordic country is the closest thing to a real-life Lake Wobegon, where all the children are above average. Students don’t start first grade until age seven, aren’t given enormous amounts of homework, aren’t tested often, and don’t test-prep much at all. Finland doesn’t pay schoolteachers all that much in money, but they are respected, both in the culture and (crucially) in the classroom.

        Finnish teachers are instructed to keep the left half of the bell curve up to speed so they don’t drag down the class, while the smarter kids are expected to read ahead in the textbook on their own. Whether this would work in the US, where the bell curve is wider and the students less disciplined and cooperative, is another question.

        But the Finns have a system that works well for Finns, and good for them.

  56. ocluf

    more top students are choosing to go work for a boss at a big bank rather than go do something weird.

    This is probably because of the rising costs of university and the fact that you can’t default on your student loans. It entails way more risk these days to do something weird

    1. MugaSofer

      Those only apply in the US, though.

      EDIT: for example, I know people comment on the same trend here in Ireland, where college is much cheaper and government grants more plentiful, and student debt is unheard-of (but I assume if you did go into debt it would not have any special status.)

      1. Matt M

        You could be seeing the same issue, playing out in terms of the sunk cost fallacy. Something like “Well, since college is provided to me for free, I’d be a complete fool not to take advantage of this generous offer and go!”

        I was in the military, which meant I had access to the Montgomery GI Bill (free college, with some restrictions), and heard basically that exact pitch from all kinds of people (both military and non-military people)

  57. eelcohoogendoorn

    ‘more top students are choosing to go work for a boss at a big bank rather than go do something weird’.

    Is decreased authoritarianism the most likely factor here though? I would say that elite US school systems are also becoming ever more ‘tracked’ over time. They may not force eggs down your throat, but they sure are not shy about tying up a kids sense of self worth with their ability to go along with their 80 hour a week busywork programme.

    Also, broader economic developments may play a role here. The cost of housing and healthcare or education for instance have been in upward trends relative to wages; and supporting your crazy startup activities with your side gig while simultaneously not literally being homeless, has been easier in past decades I think.

    But yeah im biased; i cant imagine justifying such a system on any utilitarian grounds. My 2yo ecstatically greets her grandparents. Thats awesome. Maybe one day she will be a sulkier person. Id hate for any drill sergeant to influence that process in any way whatsoever.

    1. Majuscule

      I think a bigger issue here is that 20 years ago young people watched “Office Space”, shuddered at the idea of a dystopian desk job, and wanted to avoid that. Founding a startup was this exciting path of freedom and passion where nobody knew what the rules were. Kids in 2020 have a pretty good idea of what being an entrepreneur might mean; massive competition, financial precarity, 80 hour weeks potentially being a conservative estimate, high likelihood of failure and potential fiscal ruin. Suddenly that desk job working for someone else looks better on balance, and any kid who openly mulls the idea has plenty of cautionary tales now.

      There’s also the issue that American students now graduate with hilarious amounts of debt and simply can’t take any more personal or financial risks after graduating.

      1. John Schilling

        There’s also the issue that American students now graduate with hilarious amounts of debt and simply can’t take any more personal or financial risks after graduating.

        That’s not generally the case in STEM fields, so if it’s specifically “tech” entrepreneurship that you are thinking of, this probably isn’t a big part of the answer.

        For that matter, are there any common forms of entrepreneurship that require advanced non-STEM degrees? Starting a restaurant or opening a laundromat certainly doesn’t. There’s some high-level new business formation that at least benefits from an MBA, but not sure how big that sector is.

      2. Matt M

        Uh, at the end of Office Space, the main character’s next available alternative isn’t to go found Uber. It’s to become a construction worker.

  58. broblawsky

    Pre-industrial populations with no education were famously bad at the discipline needed for factory work.

    Most pre-industrial populations had no concept of time discipline as we understand it; they may well have been disciplined in other ways. From How We Got To Now:

    For the first generations living through this transformation, the invention of “time discipline” was deeply disorienting. Today, most of us in the developed world—and increasingly in the developing world—have been acclimated to the strict regimen of clock time from an early age. (Sit in on your average kindergarten classroom and you’ll see the extensive focus on explaining and reinforcing the day’s schedule.) The natural rhythms of tasks and leisure had to be forcibly replaced with an abstract grid. When you spend your whole life inside that grid, it seems like second nature, but when you are experiencing it for the first time, as the laborers of industrial England did in the second half of the eighteenth century, it arrives as a shock to the system. Timepieces were not just tools to help you coordinate the day’s events, but something more ominous: the “deadly statistical clock,” in Dickens’s Hard Times, “which measured every second with a beat like a rap upon a coffin lid.”

    Naturally, that new regimen provoked a backlash. Not so much from the working classes—who began operating within the dictates of clock time by demanding overtime wages or shorter workdays—but rather from the aesthetes. To be a Romantic at the turn of the nineteenth century was in part to break from the growing tyranny of clock time: to sleep late, ramble aimlessly through the city, refuse to live by the “statistical clocks” that governed economic life. In The Prelude, Wordsworth announces his break from the “keepers of our time”:

    The guides, the wardens of our faculties

    And stewards of our labour, watchful men

    And skillful in the usury of time

    Sages, who in their prescience would control

    all accidents, and to the very road

    which they have fashioned would confine us down

    like engines …

    I’d argue that creative ability doesn’t require strict time discipline; it may well be negatively impacted by it. Michelangelo created the sculpture of David – one of the greatest pieces of sculpture in human history – over a two year period with no time-keeping technology more advanced than a water clock, or perhaps a very poorly constructed spring-driven clock.

    1. Randy M

      To be a Romantic at the turn of the nineteenth century was in part to break from the growing tyranny of clock time: to sleep late, ramble aimlessly through the city, refuse to live by the “statistical clocks” that governed economic life.

      Nice gig if you can get it.

      Agreed with you that a there probably are trade-offs to this kind of strict moment to moment discipline.

    2. TJ2001

      Work is different in agricultural societies vs industrial plants…

      When you work – often it’s 24 hr/day x 7days/week until the work is done… It’s nothing for farmers to be planting all night long when the weather/season is right… It’s the same at harvest time – Ripe crops rot – so you have to get them out of the field/vine when they are ready – not when you are ready…. Tomatoes only last a few days and 1-field gives you several tons all within 1-week… You have to get them picked and processed NOW!!!! I knew several men who made their entire year’s salary in 3-months picking oranges (they worked 24×7 only taking off a single shift here or there to sleep) – they would then work odd jobs for “walking money” as the opportunity arose through the rest of the year.

      The converse of this is the “steady” pace of Industrial work… It’s the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow… Rain or shine… So you work your 8-hrs and go home… The work is the same tomorrow….

      But this still exists for the most part….. “Jobbers” work intensely when there is work available – and “Lay around” when it isn’t…. I know a lot of men who live this way – and they can get paid a surprisingly large amount of money for being available “Right Now!!!”

  59. Alexander Turok

    One problem with the physical universe is that even after you study a question in depth and decide more evidence is needed, there are still real children you have to educate one way or the other. I have no general solution for this, but the Polgar strategy seems like a good deal if you can pull it off.

    Incentives generally work pretty well in the economy. So I say if you want children to learn more, give them incentives. Imagine taking every high school class and doubling its size. If one teacher costs 55,000$ and the new class size is 45, you’ve got more than 1,000$ per student to dish out according to performance. Pretty sure it would work, though we wouldn’t do it, as education is not the primary purpose of schooling.

    1. Murphy

      There’s being RCT’s done.

      Turns out paying kids large amounts for good results is close to useless. (think “$X000 and car if you get A’s in your exams!!!!”)

      Paying kids small amounts for instrumental steps like reading books or behaving well is highly effective.

      In a big experiment, paying kids a dollar or so per book read was spectacularly effective, far beyond any other intervention or any other financial or staff intervention trialed.

      Tiny sums of money and the teacher simply asked a few questions to be reasonably sure the kid read it.

      The cost for paying kids to read books was also the cheapest intervention. In terms of the national level education budget, if it was rolled out nationally it would be petty-cash level.

      It’s sad that it never seems to have filtered out into education policy.

      1. Konstantin

        Pizza Hut has a similar program where kids get free pizza for reading a certain number of books. According to Wikipedia, studies have shown it to have little effect, and parents have justifiably criticized it for being a way to advertise in schools.

        1. Simon_Jester

          Children don’t respond linearly to increasing amounts of money.

          Partly this is irrational but understandable- most children don’t have a concept of what it even means to have five hundred dollars; almost no parent will give a child that kind of money.

          Conversely there’s a rational reason: the larger a cash prize is, the less likely the child is to get to spend it autonomously. Even if the parent doesn’t outright take the money away from them, they may take it away for practical purposes (it goes into a college fund and won’t be coming out for a period about as long as the child’s entire living memory to date). And certainly the parent is likely to try to exercise control over how the money is spent.

          So expect the effectiveness of this intervention to grow with, oh, the square root of the amount of money you spend on it.

          Meanwhile, the difficulties of teaching a class tend to increase with the square of the class size, because there are N(N-1)/2 possible interactions between students and some fixed percentage of those interactions are a cause of trouble at any given time. There are linear terms, but for large class sizes the square term tends to dominate.

          So it’s a losing game to ‘save money’ by increasing class sizes (loosely speaking, reduce student educational benefit proportionate to square of amount of money saved) to reward students large sums financially (loosely speaking, increase benefit proportionate to the square root of the amount of money saved).

          Another problem is that the logistics of running a class (grading, calling Timmy’s mom because he keeps throwing things, et cetera) get significantly more difficult with class size, until you realistically cannot find teachers capable of maintaining the classroom environment singlehandedly- there are only so many hours in a day and human capacity for work is finite.

          I’ve long theorized that one thing that might work well would be to have large classrooms with 2-3 teachers each who specialize as “disciplinary,” “instructional,” and “support” or something… but outside special education this is rarely if ever even vaguely attempted, and in SPED it tends to be done along very different lines and with less specialization.

          1. Alexander Turok

            Bring back corporal punishment and running large classes becomes easy-peasy. Any kids who keep misbehaving get sent kicked out of the classroom, sent to detention.

            Of course, that doesn’t signal well…

          2. Dynme

            @Alexander Turok

            That…isn’t what corporal punishment means. I mean, I’m not particularly against teachers being allowed to spank kids, but the term you used doesn’t match the examples you used.

          3. Roger Sweeny

            Of course, if you send out kids who are misbehaving, the remainder are behaving.

            If the misbehaving kids keep misbehaving and never come back, it’s very Darwinian. The class without them would be very different and a lot better.

            Depending on the school and the teacher, this could happen to quite a few kids. But American education believes in Mathew 18:12.

          4. Simon_Jester

            The big problem is that we’ve found that a higher high school dropout rate has problems all its own. Because it turns out that most of the kids who chronically misbehave in school and don’t stop even when you call their parents or give them detentions? Yeah, they don’t stop doing that when they get kicked out of school. And their misbehavior tends to start early enough that kicking them out puts them at a crippling disadvantage in the workforce; no one wants to hire a 18-year-old who got kicked out of middle school at the age of 13, even if they’ve reformed their behavior.

            Furthermore, a lot of student misbehavior is the consequence of something that frankly isn’t the child’s “fault” in a moral-judgment sense, such as abuse, an unstable home life, or other such problems. Which makes it seem desirable to address these issues on a level higher than “you are the weakest link goodbye,” if nothing else so we’re not quite so swamped by maladjusted loonies twenty years down the road.

            This is especially true in a country like the US, where the school system is as close as a lot of children ever get to having easy access to a psychiatrist or a social worker.

          5. Alexander Turok

            @Simon_Jester,

            Agree with everything you write. My question is simple: is our current system helping with any of those problems? I think it’s a costly signal: we care about those kids, and putting them in a room they don’t want to be in and teaching them things they don’t want to learn is costly for us to do, thus a signal we care. I don’t think it does anything to actually help them.

          6. Alexander Turok

            Conversely there’s a rational reason: the larger a cash prize is, the less likely the child is to get to spend it autonomously. Even if the parent doesn’t outright take the money away from them, they may take it away for practical purposes (it goes into a college fund and won’t be coming out for a period about as long as the child’s entire living memory to date). And certainly the parent is likely to try to exercise control over how the money is spent.

            You could put pressure on parents not to do this. Most parents don’t seize their 16-year olds incomes from working, and this would be of similar size. Some do, and some would, but these parents would be incentivized to replace incentive with direct pressure on their kids.

          7. Simon_Jester

            Agree with everything you write. My question is simple: is our current system helping with any of those problems? I think it’s a costly signal: we care about those kids, and putting them in a room they don’t want to be in and teaching them things they don’t want to learn is costly for us to do, thus a signal we care. I don’t think it does anything to actually help them.

            Everyone directly involved, myself included, believes, down to at least a meta-layer or two deep, that it helps.

            You can argue cost/benefit, mind.

            The basic idea is that it makes a fairly major difference whether someone has, say, a 7th grade, 10th grade, or 12th grade education when they leave high school. If you let a kid ‘nope nope nope’ out of high school by being an unruly little shit at the age of fifteen, you’ll get a lot of unruly little shits leaving high school with that 7th grade education.

            But if you keep them in for another three years, you get some mixture of still-unruly-larger-shits and now-ruly-larger-less-shitty types, with something like a 10th grade education on average.

            It’s still not great, arguably not even good, but abandoning the whole idea is likely to cause problems as bad or worse. I think the real priority shouldn’t be “sigh, we have to try to educate all those inferior bozos,” because the reasons for bozo-ness are so complicated that trying to attribute them all to personal inferiority is absurd.

          8. Roger Sweeny

            I completely agree that we should try to educate these kids. We shouldn’t just throw them on the streets. But

            1) We should try to educate them with things that they will find useful. Don’t bore them and turn them into failures by saying the only thing that counts as “education” is college prep.

            2) If their behavior problems are bad, they shouldn’t be in classes with people who will lose out if they are around. It really isn’t fair to the better behaved kids.

          9. Alexander Turok

            I completely agree that we should try to educate these kids. We shouldn’t just throw them on the streets.

            What do you mean by “on the streets?” Are you aware that there exist jobs they could get? Worse case scenario they don’t and aren’t earning any income, which would also be the case if they were forced to attend school. If the mentality is “we need to do something to show we care,” that’s the problem. Perhaps a universal income could solve it.

            We should try to educate them with things that they will find useful. Don’t bore them and turn them into failures by saying the only thing that counts as “education” is college prep.

            Vocational ed has the same problem as higher ed. When you subsidize something, you overproduce it. If there were a need for certain skills, the market would pay to train them. Maybe there’s a failure of credit markets, in which you could solve it through subsidized loans.

          10. Roger Sweeny

            Are you aware that there exist jobs they could get?

            There are damn few jobs you can get at (the rapidly increasing) minimum wage if you have the skills of a 15-year-old. You can say, “Oh, well, we shouldn’t have a minimum wage” but we do, and we have to work within what’s possible.

            If there were a need for certain skills, the market would pay to train them.

            Need? What is this “need” you speak of? Was there a need in 1600 for a machine to pump out coal mines? The people who wanted to mine coal certainly thought so. But the Watt-Bouton steam engine didn’t come to market until 1775.

          11. Alexander Turok

            There are damn few jobs you can get at (the rapidly increasing) minimum wage if you have the skills of a 15-year-old.

            We’re at 3% unemployment. That may change if Bernie and co. send it to infinity, but for now there’s plenty of jobs.

            Need? What is this “need” you speak of? Was there a need in 1600 for a machine to pump out coal mines? The people who wanted to mine coal certainly thought so. But the Watt-Bouton steam engine didn’t come to market until 1775.

            Cutting edge innovation is hard, few could do it. Eventually someone(not employed by the government) did. This isn’t a conversation about to what degree government should subsidize cutting-edge research. We’re not talking about inventing something new, we’re talking about subsidizing something we already know who to do. If the machine had already been invented but miners weren’t using it unless the government subsidized its manufacture, I’d say it isn’t too useful.

          12. The Nybbler

            We may have plenty of jobs, but 15 year olds aren’t allowed to take most of them. Even 17 year olds aren’t allowed to take many of them. And even if it were legal, there probably aren’t plenty of jobs for people too unskilled or too undisciplined to get through high school.

          13. Roger Sweeny

            There are a limited number of full-time jobs where an unskilled 15-year-old is worth $15 an hour plus the employer’s social security tax, unemployment insurance payment, etc. Those jobs are already filled. More would not magically open up even if the unemployment rate went from December’s 3.5% down to zero.

            As you know, the Bureau of Labor Statistics actually calculates six unemployment rates (U-1 to U-6; the above is the canonic U-3). They also report a labor force participation rate and an employment-population ratio, which stood at 63.2% and 61.0% for last December.

      2. Roger Sweeny

        In a big experiment, paying kids a dollar or so per book read was spectacularly effective

        Effective at what? Getting them to read more books? And if so, what kind of books? If it’s getting third graders to read another Berenstain Bears or Arthur book, I’m not sure how useful that is.

        The reason paying kids lots of money for big results doesn’t work is probably that those big results are simply impossible. The kids may really really want the money and the car but just can’t pull off lots of As.

        1. Alexander Turok

          Having kids reading is high-status. Having them play video games or throw rocks in the streets is loss status. If a group can get its kids to read more, it raises its status in the eyes of distant observers. That’s really what this is about.

          If you want economic efficiency, the education budget should be drastically cut and kids who don’t want to learn should be encouraged to leave school at age 15 and enter the workforce.

          1. Simon_Jester

            @Alexander Turok

            If you want economic efficiency, the education budget should be drastically cut and kids who don’t want to learn should be encouraged to leave school at age 15 and enter the workforce.

            The big problem is that the workforce doesn’t want the kind of kid who doesn’t want to learn; they won’t really want to learn to do their job, either. And in many cases the desire to not learn is caused in part by external factors that you can’t really purge from your society without making sure everyone gets an education.

            It is something of a dilemma.

          2. Alexander Turok

            The big problem is that the workforce doesn’t want the kind of kid who doesn’t want to learn; they won’t really want to learn to do their job, either.

            Sure it does, it just won’t pay them very well. We’re at 3% unemployment right? The “skills gap” and “structural unemployment” memes should be tossed in the trash.

            And in many cases the desire to not learn is caused in part by external factors that you can’t really purge from your society without making sure everyone gets an education.

            How’s the effort to do it by giving everyone an education working out?

          3. Simon_Jester

            Sure it does, it just won’t pay them very well. We’re at 3% unemployment right? The “skills gap” and “structural unemployment” memes should be tossed in the trash.

            We’re at 3% unemployment when you count a lot of hilariously underemployed people and don’t count a lot of people who have given up trying or otherwise dropped out of the ’employable’ pool.

            I don’t know how you feel about immigration, but deliberately embracing the creation of a native-born pool of low-cost extremely undereducated labor to drive down labor prices in my own country sounds like a worse idea than deliberately importing foreign low-cost labor. At least the foreign laborers had the gumption to walk 500 miles to get here instead of just crashing on their parents’ couch or something, so you’re likely to get more labor per dollar spent on them.

            How’s the effort to do it by giving everyone an education working out?

            Hence my characterization of the phenomenon as a ‘dilemma.’ We can’t fix the roof while it’s raining, when it’s not raining we can’t find the leak, there’s a hole in the bucket, there is a crack in everything.

            My point is that kicking out 20% of your student body to improve the educations of the other 80% is a recipe for excitingly different problems than we have today, not for no problems.

            My own favored solution is, essentially, reform schools for chronic misbehaving students, with the option of being transferred back to general education schools if the student, well, reforms. The catch is that you have to recognize that educating the reform-school kids is a difficult and important job whose workforce legitimately has cause to ask for more money, not something to shuffle off on teachers you don’t like.

          4. Alexander Turok

            We’re at 3% unemployment when you count a lot of hilariously underemployed people.

            You shouldn’t count underemployed people, except in the case where they are only working 20 hours a week and want more. If underemployed means they just want a better job, well, don’t we all?

            a lot of people who have given up trying or otherwise dropped out of the ’employable’ pool

            If they aren’t back in it now with 3% unemployment, the problem’s with them, not the economy.

            I don’t know how you feel about immigration, but deliberately embracing the creation of a native-born pool of low-cost extremely undereducated labor to drive down labor prices in my own country sounds like a worse idea than deliberately importing foreign low-cost labor.

            I’m an immigration skeptic. It’s a flawed comparison because the “native-born pool of low-cost extremely undereducated labor” is already here. It’s just a question of whether they spend years 16-18 working or doing nothing productive while costing the education system a lot of money. I don’t see mandatory education at ages 16 to 18 doing much to improve their productivity thereafter.

          5. Simon_Jester

            You shouldn’t count underemployed people, except in the case where they are only working 20 hours a week and want more. If underemployed means they just want a better job, well, don’t we all?

            The “only working 20 hours a week and want more” cases are among the ones I’m talking about- they count as “employed” when someone says “we have a 3% unemployment rate,” but they work the kind of jobs you need two or three of to make a living.

            If they aren’t back in it now with 3% unemployment, the problem’s with them, not the economy.

            I mean, yes, the problem often is with them- though it’s often something a differently organized society could have fixed. The practical problem is that the more deliberately we embrace the idea “if you aren’t fitting our template gracefully you can just fuck off and become an extremely impoverished drone at the margins,” the more starkly we find ourselves developing a self-perpetuating underclass.

            And the more talent we’re going to just plain waste. Because “Kids who don’t want to learn at 15” are extremely hard to tell apart from “kids who badly need psychiatric care but have parents too thick-headed to realize that.”

            The former may be better off entering the workforce; the latter most likely are not.

          6. Alexander Turok

            The practical problem is that the more deliberately we embrace the idea “if you aren’t fitting our template gracefully you can just fuck off and become an extremely impoverished drone at the margins,” the more starkly we find ourselves developing a self-perpetuating underclass.

            In a society which strongly pushes everyone through high school, a high school dropout will be harshly stigmatized. Employers won’t want to hire them, even where knowledge learned in school is not relevant to the workplace.(To those who’d say it is: how do you explain why employers don’t care about high school GPA? If “skills” matter, why don’t employers care about the degree to which you learned them?) But in a society which doesn’t push everyone through high school, it will carry no special stigma. Just look at history.

            As to extreme poverty, it’s pretty hard to suffer it if you work full-time and don’t engage is certain behaviors. I’m not proposing abolishing free high schools. I’m just saying that if a fifteen year old doesn’t want to go, he shouldn’t have to. Those who take advantage of it are highly unlikely to see it as an insult.

        2. Majuscule

          I’m still mad at Michael Hughs for winning the 5th grade book reading contest by reading 50 Berenstain Bears books when I had foolishly refused to submit anything I’d read with less than 100 pages, because I didn’t think it counted as a book.

          If anything, school taught me to ask the right questions and read the fine print.

      3. xenon

        It hasn’t “filtered out” because it’s more-or-less useless. Not directly related, but this article is one of my favorites for explaining some of the issues with the “Easy One-Study Fix!” for [whatever problem plagues society]. They’re almost always unsuccessful, for a variety of reasons.

        (the below discussion is coming from growing up surrounded by educators at various levels, as my mom is a very engaged teacher who’s constantly trying to keep up on the latest research and methods, and both of my roommates are teachers currently working toward Masters in their field)

        Is kids reading more books an end to itself? Probably not, by most people’s approximations–generally people want kids to read books so that those kids, somehow, become better people when they grow up. We have an embedded idea in our culture that knowing the classics and the like produces better people (‘better’ being frustratingly defined a million different ways), probably because the upper classes in bygone eras were the only ones who had the time to study classics as everyone else was too busy being illiterate.

        This idea is somewhat under siege, as part of a larger attack on the classics. Children who read more books generally perform better on a host of criteria, but (as my mother constantly laments) children who don’t read generally have parents who don’t read. Kids who love reading generally learn to love reading from their parents, not their teachers. So “children who read more books” might simply be a proxy for “children whose parents are better educated” or “children whose parents are wealthier” or “children whose parents have higher IQs”. I admit I know what I know through osmosis, not careful study, so possibly this debate is settled.

        Paying children to read more books may indeed cause children to read more books, but does it also garner the benefits we see in children who read more? If “kids who read more” is a proxy, paying kids to read more will cause kids to read more but won’t garner them the advantages we want. This is a general problem with using proxy endpoints to calculate success/failure.

        There’s also the question of whether “read more books” is a worthwhile goal. One of my roommates teaches a remedial high school English class. She inevitably has one or two students who are simply trying to do the bare minimum necessary to get their diploma, because these students already have careers.. She has students asking why the fuck they need to study English because outside of basic literacy they see no value in studying it. They’re already successful mechanics or good at a construction trade. So…what value does reading books have for them? They’re unlikely to get much economic benefit from it. I’m not sure “so they’re not a boor” is a valid reason to make them study Shakespeare.

        I’m an avid reader, so I’m partial to the argument that reading is its own reward and it has spiritual/non-tangible benefits, buuuuuuuuuuut I find it’s a lot harder to argue for that, especially for people who don’t enjoy reading. I don’t really like movies, but many of the same claims about the consciousness-raising of books gets used for movies, especially arthouse ones. So it seems likely I feel benefits from reading because…it’s an activity I enjoy doing.

        And then there’s the whole extrinsic motivation/intrinsic motivation debate, which last I checked was an enormous clusterfuck.

        1. anonymousskimmer

          I’m an avid reader, so I’m partial to the argument that reading is its own reward and it has spiritual/non-tangible benefits

          I’m an avid reader who wished the skills necessary to read boring texts for knowledge was taught in school. Reading for pleasure uses fundamentally different skills that do not translate well to studying.

        2. Simon_Jester

          if an English class’s curriculum is well-aligned, it’ll be teaching skills that are genuinely useful like:

          1) Provide a coherent written explanation of something.

          2) Interpret a written text, extract key pieces of information from it, understand why the author thinks what hey think, and be able to speculate on how the author’s perspective influenced their conclusions.

          Both of those are pretty useful general skills for things like “avoid being cheated in your business life” or “participate in politics effectually, so that your interests aren’t ignored and massively fucked over forever.”

          There’s a reason that Common Core English curriculums have increased the emphasis on nonfiction relative to fiction; those are important life skills and if you don’t learn them in an English class you’re pretty much stuck picking them up by osmosis.

        3. Edward Scizorhands

          When I was in elementary school, there was some contest to read the most books, and I slammed out 100 books, far and away the most, and would have read a lot more if my parents had been willing to take me to the library every day.

          . . . But the books were mostly below my grade-level, because I was optimizing on “number of books.”

          . . . Now, had I been forced to read from a certain shelf, I probably would still have won, but a big part of my motivation was that I was blowing away the competition already.

      4. echidna

        Monetary incentives can improve exam scores by quite a lot, particularly in poor minority areas. You tell kids before the exam that you will pay then if they do well, and they try a lot harder, and do a lot better. Unfortunately, this is just short run effort in the exam room. It does suggest, though, that a significant part of the racial gap in exam performance is how hard kids work in the exam itself, as opposed to what they learned.

    2. Freddie deBoer

      Performance will only scale with incentives if there is no such thing as natural talent for school – and of course there is, and of course this is the single most salient fact about education, but we are absolutely adamantly against confronting this fact.

      1. Alexander Turok

        Performance will only scale with incentives if there is no such thing as natural talent for school

        I don’t understand. There’s natural talent for the labor market, yet incentives work pretty well.

        1. Freddie deBoer

          And yet no matter what incentives you put in front of certain workers they will never achieve success at certain jobs. In the labor market those workers can simply forgo trying to compete for those positions. At school students are forced by policy and by law to attempt to learn even in those fields where they have no natural facility.

          1. Roger Sweeny

            And thus they learn that they are failures and don’t deserve to make as much money as the people who do well in school.

          2. Alexander Turok

            They do a lot more than they would if they were asked to work for free. Just look what happens when you replace a system with weak incentives like communism with a system with strong(er) incentives like capitalism. Massive increase in output. There’d still be a bell curve, it’d just be shifted to the right.

          3. baconbits9

            They do a lot more than they would if they were asked to work for free. Just look what happens when you replace a system with weak incentives like communism with a system with strong(er) incentives like capitalism. Massive increase in output. There’d still be a bell curve, it’d just be shifted to the right.

            The bulk of the gains is the alignment and reward portions not necessarily the incentive portion. If one person is better at organizing and utilizing resources then giving them more resources will increase efficiency (up to a point arguably). You don’t reward Bill Gates with $100 billion dollars because that is the incentive he needed to start microsoft, its because by eating out other competitors he proved himself and giving him more control maximizes his impact in the economy (from this top down view).

        1. IvanFyodorovich

          I mean, there’s a fatalist argument on education policy which runs to the effect that if you have a school, a minimally competent teacher, a non-crazy curriculum, and nobody is starving the children or firing mortar shells into the school, that’s enough. Genetics and complex sociological factors outside the classroom will determine everything else. Any education intervention that shows potential is either fake, p-hacked or not scallable.

          I’m not quite on board with extreme fatalist position, but whenever I read about some new result showing BLAH is the secret to improving school performance, my inclination is to assume fatalist in the absence of strong contrary evidence.

          And I think Freddie is largely correct on education incentive. The incentive to do well in school is enormous, and kids lacking book smarts know this and struggle anyway.

          1. Alexander Turok

            The incentive to do well in school is enormous

            Not for everyone. If you’ aren’t going to go to college then there’s pretty much no incentive except to do the bare minimum to graduate from high school.

          2. IvanFyodorovich

            Alexander, that’s true, but a little pre-determined. The kid who will not even bother applying for college still had a strong incentive to be smart enough to get into a good college and become an investment banker or neurosurgeon or whatever.

            Perhaps it’s true that once he decided that was not remotely an option, his incentive dropped a lot. But even here I wonder a little. There are some positives to math acumen, literacy etc. even outside of credentialing. Banerjee and Duflo argue in Poor Economics that many people in the developing world think that education is worthless unless you can advance very far and get a professional job, but that in fact a farmer with an 8th grade education seems to do better than a farmer with a 5th grade education, even when you (try to) adjust for confounders. It’s possible that they are just wrong, or that this is less relevant to the United States, or that the kid does not appreciate this.

            Randy’s objection is fair, which gets back to the “does it work to pay kids to read” question which I don’t really have an answer for. The only thing I can say is in addition to the kids who don’t seem to care, there are lots of kids struggling in classes who are very unhappy about it and clearly wish they were doing better. Furthermore, I think a lot of the don’t-care kids started out as unhappy strugglers.

          3. Matt M

            The kid who will not even bother applying for college still had a strong incentive to be smart enough

            But we weren’t talking about being smart, we were talking about getting good grades. The two have some correlation, but it’s far from perfect.

            In some cases, the difference between an A student and a C student is that one gets a 95 average across tests and homework, while the other gets a 75.

            But in many cases, the difference between an A student and a C student is that one gets a 95 average across tests and homework, while the other gets a 95 average on tests and doesn’t bother doing the homework at all.

          4. Alexander Turok

            The kid who will not even bother applying for college still had a strong incentive to be smart enough to get into a good college and become an investment banker or neurosurgeon or whatever.

            Not if his innate intelligence is such that he concludes it isn’t a realistic goal.

          5. IvanFyodorovich

            Matt, that only proves the point further. All that kid had to do was turn in some damn homework and he would be on the meritocracy gravy train which everybody knows about and which his parents probably constantly entice/threaten him with. And he still doesn’t do his homework. He has totally failed to respond to incentives.

            To be clear, I’m not saying incentives are meaningless in education, only that they are probably already pretty maxed out as a motivator. If we had a system where good jobs (or good grades) were assigned randomly, lots of kids who work hard now would slack in school.

          6. Matt M

            Matt, that only proves the point further. All that kid had to do was turn in some damn homework and he would be on the meritocracy gravy train which everybody knows about and which his parents probably constantly entice/threaten him with. And he still doesn’t do his homework. He has totally failed to respond to incentives.

            At that point it isn’t a meritocracy gravy train, it’s an obedience gravy train.

            Although I think we’re just misunderstanding each other here. My point is that if the student in question has already decided they aren’t going down the prestige college route, then there no longer is any incentive to get good grades. That’s literally the only thing grades are good for.

          7. Alexander Turok

            Matt, that only proves the point further. All that kid had to do was turn in some damn homework and he would be on the meritocracy gravy train which everybody knows about and which his parents probably constantly entice/threaten him with. And he still doesn’t do his homework. He has totally failed to respond to incentives.

            Debatable. Eventually a dumb but hardworking kid will run into a brick wall in college. If he does get through with an easy major, he may find no prospects after graduation. I’d still recommend it but wouldn’t count it as a gravy train. You’re neglecting time orientation here, and you overestimate the number of people who know that work in school is rewarded and hear it from their parents. A woman I know works in a school mainly made up of poor Mexicans, most of whom tell her they can make more money as manual laborers.

          8. Roger Sweeny

            If you’ aren’t going to go to college then there’s pretty much no incentive except to do the bare minimum to graduate from high school.

            For a lot of students, that bare minimum is damn hard.

          9. Roger Sweeny

            Banerjee and Duflo argue in Poor Economics that many people in the developing world think that education is worthless unless you can advance very far and get a professional job, but that in fact a farmer with an 8th grade education seems to do better than a farmer with a 5th grade education, even when you (try to) adjust for confounders.

            Maybe, just maybe, those who finish 8th grade are smarter and more conscientious than those who only finish 5th grade. Unless they have controlled for that, the implication that those farmers who only finished 5th grade would do better if they stayed another three years is unsupported.

            And I very, very much doubt they controlled for both of those–hell, either of those. They would be in good company; almost no education research tries to do that. Or perhaps, because it doesn’t, those who do it aren’t good company.

          10. Randy M

            Can’t you get Cs at most schools by showing up and not chucking things at he teacher?

            For a lot of students, that bare minimum is damn hard.

          11. Roger Sweeny

            Can’t you get Cs at most schools by showing up and not chucking things at he teacher?

            Not in any of the schools I’ve taught at (eastern Massachusetts).

          12. IvanFyodorovich

            A reflection: we’re getting into some of the same arguments in the SSC/Caplan debate over mental illness, except here we’re talking about poor academic performance. Is the kid who gets good grades on tests and doesn’t turn in homework rationally deciding that he wants to be a welder, or does he suffer from lazy and/or oppositional urges he can’t control well? The ones I’ve known have been in the latter category, although admittedly these are upper middle class kids. I even knew kids so oppositional that they would do homework and not turn it in.

            Roger, I think they tried to control for the farmer who finishes 8th grade probably being smarter and more diligent, unfortunately this is an audiobook I listened to four years ago and I can’t vouch for the study. I’ve had good luck in the past citing half-remembered studies on SSC comments section and other people knowing them and chiming in. Come on people.

          13. The Nybbler

            Is the kid who gets good grades on tests and doesn’t turn in homework rationally deciding that he wants to be a welder, or does he suffer from lazy and/or oppositional urges he can’t control well?

            Sometimes he just really hates homework and finds it painful. This is typically called laziness, of course, but I’m not so sure it’s the same thing; it’s avoiding pain, not just effort. Both aversions can be overcome with discipline, but it takes rather more for the former.

            Of course if he’s spending the time that he should be doing homework by welding things instead, it might be that he really does want to be a welder.

          14. Matt M

            Even “wants to be a welder” is taking it too far, imho.

            In my own example, it wasn’t that I wanted to be a welder. It was that I wanted to go to local State U and get a degree in whatever studies, and I could do that by acing tests and doing basically no homework.

            Sure, local state U was no Harvard. It wouldn’t give me access to the top law firms, consulting firms, or investment banks. But it was a perfectly respectable institution that was thought of well in my home state, and offered access to a perfectly respectable standard of living in a variety of different disciplines.

            Could I have, with a bit of effort, raised my GPA from a 3.3 to a 4.0? Sure. But if I had already decided that I didn’t want to go to Harvard and that Local State U was good enough, what possible motivation would I have to do so?

    3. Dacyn

      Do we want the children to just “learn more”, though? What about the effects of an education on discipline and creativity, as discussed in the OP?

    4. anonymousskimmer

      Pretty sure it would work

      My father offered me a one ounce gold Krugerrand if I ever got straight As. I never did.

      I even told this to one of my teachers, and he basically offered to bump my B+ to an A-, and I told him “that’s okay, I’ll take what I earned”, and that I believe I was getting a B somewhere else, anyway. It turned out his was the only B I got.

      So be careful what you incentivize, and who you incentivize. Because the only children incentivized by money are going to be those who are incentivized by money (whether needed or unneeded), or dystopically those whose parents will come down on them hard for ‘losing’ the money, in which case the incentive isn’t money, it’s avoiding punishment.

      (In my teenage and young adulthood years I became incentive-adverse. I saw praise especially as manipulative, and literally fled it. It wasn’t until I was actually working in my chosen field of biotech/biology that I could tolerate being praised, and it took years more for me to appreciate praise. Kids can recognize manipulation. Do you want them to become cynical this young?)

      1. Alexander Turok

        Because the only children incentivized by money are going to be those who are incentivized by money

        Everyone is incentivized by money.

        Kids can recognize manipulation. Do you want them to become cynical this young?

        Yep. If you want other people to behave in a certain way, you incentivize that behavior. Children should learn this. I’m not proposing deceptive manipulation. I’ll stand up in the auditorium and give this speech:

        “My children, we adults have a problem. Adults in other parts of the world look down on us because you do not do well enough on tests. We want you to do better. We understand that ninety-five percent of you will not end up using the material we are teaching, and most of you don’t care that other adults look down on us. Thus, we will pay you to do better. You don’t have to like learning. You just have to like money.”

        1. Simon_Jester

          I think your candor will cancel out the benefits of the incentive system by teaching children that it’s all a big sham.

        2. Orion

          Everyone is incentivized by money.

          I’m not at all convinced that this actually holds when applied over children. Some children don’t really have any way to spend money. Some children know that their parents will just steal any money they earn anyway. Young children vary in how much they even understand what money is. Also, some children intensely resent bribery.

        3. Lurker

          Everyone is incentivized by money.

          I think this is only true as long as that extra money gets you something you want. Assuming the child in question has all their needs met (I’m assuming normal middle class level of toys/hobbies/trips for Europe/the US), the money is only an incentive if they want something specific they need it for.

          Granted, I don’t have any studies for this, just a personal anecdote: when I was in 10th and 11th Grade, I went to a pretty good US high school. I was absolutely not interested in school (one of those kids who know all the material at the first half explanation and refuse to do pointless homework and really just want to be somewhere else). My mother tried to solve this by tying my grades to my pocket money. Every grade went on a list, good grades got +$, bad grades got -$ and at the end of the month we tallied it. My grades went up and down like a seesaw depending on if I wanted something specific. I don’t actually remember when/why we stopped that system and I asked my mother a while ago why we stopped and she was like “you completely lost interest” – I suspect I ran out of things I wanted.
          nowadays I’m glad I never had to apply with those transcripts/GPA anywhere. This is one situation where I like the system in Germany much better: the nonsense you get up to at the heights of puberty matters much less if the goal is university.

      2. baconbits9

        My father offered me a one ounce gold Krugerrand if I ever got straight As. I never did.

        My parents offered $100 for straight As (4.0? I don’t remember), I never came close and my oldest brother who had lower SAT scores than I did managed it regularly, as did both of my sisters I think. Of the 6 of us I doubt the extra $100 made much difference between the three regular attainers and the 3 regular missers. In fact I would say that the sibling who was most incentivised by money, and who ran a small side business buying candy/soda by the case and selling it at school (blue blow pops were HUGE at one point) was one of the regular missers.

    5. TJ2001

      Right – except we do the opposite…. We punish kids who do well by grinding them through vastly harder work and more and more of it instead of making a big high-status reward out of it…

      Want to double the number of kids earning high grades in High School? Offer a free “Skip” day every month for kids who maintain an A average! I bet the Honor Roll numbers would double….

      One of the incentives that has shown to REALLY work well in schools is to allow kids to skip final exams if they have an “A” average…. Kids will work twice as hard just for the privilege of having those days off…

      I mean consider also that most companies fill management and Executive ranks with people who couldn’t do math while Engineers are treated like deadbeat technicians…

      What does that “Signal” to students who work extra hard to grind it out? Right – all the extra effort put into education is worth basically nothing….

  60. meh

    Some of you are writers who spend years fantasizing about the novel you’re going to publish, but can never quite bring yourself to put pen to paper.

    I was under the impression that China has low pop culture output.

        1. broblawsky

          I’ve found at least some people (Liu Cixin) suggesting that Chinese science fiction is currently going through a golden age, but I’ve never seen any work from anyone other than Cixin himself. And, of course, Cixin has said himself that he couldn’t get away with publishing the Three-Body Problem today, due to its criticism of the Cultural Revolution.

          1. Erl137

            There is definitely a Chinese SF boom, with a bunch of great writers. If you don’t read Chinese, your best bet is to check out the anthologies Ken Liu has edited in translation, Invisible Planets and the follow-up Broken Stars. Some of the authors in there have longer works available in English as well.

            I’ve heard the rumor that at least part of the SF boom is that CCP officials who went to the west and interviewed high-tech workers found out that a lot of them had grown up as SF fans, and so is interested in promoting domestic SF for its knock-on effect on (post-)industrialization, but I can’t confirm this.

    1. DavidFriedman

      I’ve seen some discussion, a few years back, of the puzzle of why China, with a very large number of educated people, scientists, and the like, doesn’t seem to be producing a corresponding number of really top level people, Nobel winners and the like.

      1. Bugmaster

        I think the draconian censorship coupled with total command economy and the resulting culture of corruption might all contribute to the issue.

        Command economy ensures that the Party officials decide how much science, and of what type, must be completed before the end of the current Five Year Plan.

        This is obviously impossible, since science doesn’t work like that, but fortunately scientists don’t need to actually discover N new things by the end of the fiscal year, they just need to report that they did. Endemic corruption makes this a lot easier.

        Meanwhile, strict control over all forms of expression ensures that scientists don’t step out of line. This prevents them from collaborating effectively (unless they are collaborating on faking results for the bosses), and it also ensures that smart people get “taken care of” pretty early on — since smart people tend to ask all kinds of inconvenient questions, and we can’t have that.

        In some extreme cases, entire scientific disciplines can be obliterated by fiat, e.g. genetics in the USSR (and “cybernetics”, a.k.a. computer science, almost followed suit).

        1. DavidFriedman

          That sounds like a description of the USSR. Is it clear that the same is true of China?

          It’s not a democracy, and there are a substantial number of state owned entities, but my impression is that it’s mostly a market economy, and one would expect that to produce occasional innovators along the lines of Elon Musk, whether or not it produced the equivalent in academic fields.

          1. Bugmaster

            That’s a fair point; that said, China does occasionally investigate its millionaires for corruption and promptly has them disappeared (after seizing the assets, of course). Ironically, all of their corruption charges are likely true, since there’s no way to get anything done without bribing someone, but still, I can see how it would create a chilling effect. Also, I’m not sure to what extent their government controls scientific institutions, as compared to commercial ventures — their level of control might well be higher.

          2. VivaLaPanda

            I do think there’s a very real way in which the anti-authority/independent behaviors that make for a good entrepreneur are discouraged in China. If not by the education system, by the fact that trying to break into a market as an outsider quickly results in bureaucratic hurdles being thrown in front of you by incumbent players with connection to the local political leaders. To succeed you have to be willing to play nice with the existing players, something antithetical to how we describe entrepreneurship, since we usually group that with “disruption”.

      2. Cerastes

        I can’t offer an explanation, but I can say that in my field, I encounter Chinese papers fairly regularly. While none of them are flat out wrong or bad science, they’re often just…unimpressive. The papers are legitimate contributions that fill in gaps, but they’re never making huge strides that open entirely new areas or dramatically change our understanding of a system.

        1. Thorium228

          Surely this is what happens when you’re forced to sit still as a child and value order and structure above creativity – competence instead of innovation?

        2. gkai

          Yes, but you often feel the same with western papers, when comparing new papers with old one. It’s biased, as old paper which are still cited are the good ones and/or the ones that pionnered a new field….But still, I feel new papers are more “formulaic”, and tends to do just the minimum to be published and prepare another publication. You feel that the metric to be maximized is paper/year, and if you can say something in 3 diluted papers or one outstanding one, the 3 diluted are now often prefered.

          1. Konstantin

            This is a well known consequence of the publish or perish attitude. Academics are evaluated on how many publications they have, which is easy to measure, rather than their quality, which is much more difficult to measure. Some institutions use number of citations or journal prestige as a proxy for quality, but those metrics have their own issues.

          2. Cerastes

            Honestly, I don’t think that’s it. My field is comparatively small (if we ran a solo conference, it would probably be two orders of magnitude smaller than Society for Neuroscience) and very recent, with most of the really powerful tools only becoming available in the past 40 years (which seems like a long time, but it’s a small field with a lot of ground left to cover). As a result, every year people are publishing what will doubtless become major, foundational papers that make huge strides in core questions. We’re where genetics was in the decade or so after Watson & Crick, basically.

            Obviously some labs are more innovative than others, but *none* of those innovative labs are in China. That strikes me as noteworthy.

          3. Bugmaster

            @Cerastes:
            FWIW, I am not a biologist but I do work with plant genomics a little. From what I’ve seen, there’s a massive amount of research going on in China in this area, but most of the papers they publish are just… meh.

        3. WATTA

          The papers are legitimate contributions that fill in gaps, but they’re never making huge strides that open entirely new areas or dramatically change our understanding of a system.

          I’d think that an apparent surplus of boring papers might be due to of a lack of out-of-the-box thinking in a field but also might be due to those making-sure-we-got-this-right kinds of studies being a necessary foundation before a new breakthrough can be made. In other words, are the Chinese reserachers failing to aim for big breakthroughs or are they totally aiming for them but using a strategy of producing a large quantity of small steps of progress?

          With a replication crisis happening more or less in various fields, I feel pretty positive about the prospect of one part of the science world being intensely inclined on doing boring just-making-sure-we-got-this-right kind of research. Maybe the seeming lack of big results among Chinese research is more congruent with reality?

        4. Dacyn

          True in my field as well. Well, where “Chinese” means “Chinese universities”, expat Chinese do as well as anyone else — which suggests the causation could go the other way, if good researchers prefer to move abroad.

          1. imoimo

            Plausibly this could be the whole effect: if you’re good enough to innovate, why not boost your potential by moving to the US?

        5. zzzzort

          I’ve always heard that that is a pretty straightforward consequence of the incentives in Chinese academia, which emphasizes quantity over quality much more than the US/europe, and has high enough standards for quantity that even principled researchers need to spend a lot of their time pumping out least publishable units.

        6. MoebiusStreet

          What does it mean to be a “Chinese paper”?

          What I’m looking to disambiguate is someone like my wife’s cousin. She was born and raised in China, but came to America for college. She’s now a professor at Berkeley, and respected enough to have been inducted into the National Academy of Sciences.

          How would you count her? Is she “Chinese” because of her name, or “American” because any paper she puts out is going to say “Berkeley” (even though her formative years were in China)? I don’t think this is such an edge question, given the number of foreigners who come here to study.

          And whatever you decide there, how does it impact Scott’s question, anyway?

          1. JayT

            I wouldn’t be surprised if this is a fairly large part of it though. The high-end Chinese students figure out a way to get to a Western country, where their talents pay better, leading a to a brain drain in the homeland.

      3. Ketil

        I think the reason is that Nobel prizes (with one notable exception, which China is unlikely to get) tend to be given to people at the end of a long and glorious career, while China in spite of their long tradition of education has been ramping up international science fairly recently.

      4. FormerRanger

        One explanation for Chinese papers being dull is that where a Western author would write one big paper with all the results and insights, Chinese (or Russian) authors would write fifteen papers, one on each nugget of the research, with lots of repetition and 20 co-authors.

        One could speculate about why this pattern exists, but at least the last time I looked at publications from China it was true.

        1. gkai

          Maybe a western author 20 years ago. Current western authors do not differ to their chinese or russian counterparts, at least that’s my impression.

          As an insider, I feel that when research was more a hobby than a job (because the pay is either garanteed whatever you do (early 20th century academic?), or you just are wealthy enough it’s irrelevant (19th century and before?), it’s pure self motivation and intellectual competition among peers, and I think this hobby-like science produce flamboyant (sometimes wrong, but flamboyant anyway) outcome at a reduced frequency.
          When it’s a job with external evaluation, it produce scientific paperwork, safe, frequent and boring.

      5. jcrox

        If we wanted to take Nobel Prize results really seriously as an indication of talent, China’s extremely low on both overall Nobels per capita and scientific Nobels per capita. Russia, for comparison, has about 30x as many in science. That comparison probably goes a decent way toward cancelling out “draconian censorship coupled with total command economy and the resulting culture of corruption” as a factor @Bugmaster, since both countries have been pretty authoritarian in recent history (I’m assuming Russia inherited the USSR’s Nobels in the Wikipedia dataset). Even if we discount everything pre-1976 I can’t imagine that would close the 30:1 gap meaningfully – for example, the listed entries since 2010 include only 1 scientific Nobel for China and 60 for the US, if I counted right.

        That seems to leave us with either a long lead time required to make important discoveries, a flawed Nobel selection process, or something being seriously wrong with China’s education system, general culture, or whatever else. I’d bet the next 10 years will clear things up considerably.

        1. Mark V Anderson

          That seems to leave us with either a long lead time required to make important discoveries, a flawed Nobel selection process, or something being seriously wrong with China’s education system, general culture, or whatever else. I’d bet the next 10 years will clear things up considerably.

          I am totally outside the scientific community, but from my lay knowledge my guess is all of the above.

      6. Douglas Knight

        People have for many years pointed to the low number of Nobels from Japan. But these complaints are out of date. Japan has more Nobel prizes in the 21st century than the 20th.

        I don’t know how Japan turned it around. Maybe it just took a lot of time to build up invisible intellectual capital. It’s too soon to hold this against China. Or maybe Japan changed something. But what changed definitely wasn’t the obvious attributes of the educational system.

        1. Clutzy

          I wouldnt even call it “invisible”, a lot of Nobels are for applied, not theory.

          Over the last 10 in chemistry only 2/10 could be realistically be called “theoretical” and both still required some experimentation. In physics 3/10 are theoretical in nature, one of those 3 being split.

      7. AG

        Are you saying that people in China aren’t producing really top level people, or that Chinese-ethnicity aren’t top level people in proportion to population? The former could be answered by immigration, the latter could be that the most talented Chinese people are optimizing for things not measured by our definitions of top level. Which is to say, a cultural difference in the standards by which top level status is conferred (similar to how fiction awards ceremonies largely produce result orthogonal to general populace evaluation). If China’s accrual of world power/influence is disproportionate to its quantity of top level people, that points to the measure of top level people having fallen to Goodhart’s Law.

        1. DavidFriedman

          What I was saying was that people in China don’t seem to be producing top level people at anything like the scale one would expect. That was based not on my own observation but on discussions I had seen by people trying to explain the pattern.

      8. DragonMilk

        My understanding is that there’s no safety net to fail and perverse incentives to conform.

        As such, “top level people” tend to emigrate, particularly given the historical economic situation.

    2. viVI_IViv

      I think Chinese pop culture mostly stays in China.

      Japan has a similar school system, or even more military-like (e.g. kids wearing uniforms), and it exports lots of pop culture. Arguably, Japanese pop culture is at the present more innovative than the nostalgia-porn Western pop culture.

      1. VivaLaPanda

        Censorship really is a huge issue. Good art tends to ask hard questions, and it’s hard to get that when censorship is so strict. One of the few pieces of Chinese media to make it outside is webnovels, and webnovels are notable for being one of the least censored forms of media in China. Even there, there are known cases of popular web novel authors having to censor large chunks of their works.
        Here’s a note from the govt after a huge number of novels were taken off Qidan, a major platform:

        The Chinese website has not fulfilled its management obligations on the dissemination of illegal and illegal information, and has been interviewing the responsible person of the operating company on issues such as misorientation and vulgar pornography, and ordered it to self-examine and correct itself immediately. During the rectification period, the “Urban” channel “Science Superpower” and the “N-Dimensional” section of the “Girls Network” channel were suspended for 7 days from the beginning of May 21st to May 28th. Time.

        There have been several cases of novels being delisted for referencing religion, politics, or sexuality too much. This can sometimes also extend to descriptions of violence that are seen as overly gorey. Enforcement is super inconsistent, which creates a chilling effect because authors don’t know where the line is and so tend to play it safe.

    3. mmckstat

      I was under the impression that China has low pop culture output.

      I was under that impression until relatively recently. But, there’s a whole world of ‘Chinese Web Novels’ with its own tropes and genre conventions, and more authors than you could ever read. From what I hear, these are really popular with young Chinese people, on the level of Japanese manga or such.

    4. TJ2001

      “Culture” you want to showcase in public only really develops with surplus wealth being available to fund it… China was one of the poorest per-capita nations in the world 30 years ago…

      Now that the Chinese incomes are coming up and people have some disposable income – we will see this change….

  61. qwerteaparty

    Western culture is on a trend to consider children people too who have the right to be self-directed and happy.

    And when my kids grow up useless hopefully UBI or similar will save them.

    1. LesHapablap

      Simultaneously it is on a trend to treat infants like babies, children like infants, and teenagers like children. Safety-first is the rule of the day: self-reliance and independence don’t seem to be a priority.

      1. Enkidum

        This is vastly less true in America than in any East Asian culture, at least among the middle/upper class (which is pretty much all the children I’ve met in Asia). It’s insane how childish Japanese/Chinese young people are in comparison to their Western counterparts.

        1. LesHapablap

          Yet the Japanese allow their kids a lot more independence than Americans, walking to school by themselves etc.

          1. Well...

            There’s comparatively little crime in Japan. And for all I know Japanese journalism doesn’t sensationalize and amplify what crime they do have.

          2. Matt M

            Indeed. The reason American parents don’t let their kids walk to school is less “they are likely to be abducted” and more “the media has falsely convinced them they are likely to be abducted.”

          3. LesHapablap

            That is certainly a reason why they can get away with raising their kids to be more independent. Though as Matt points out, children virtually never get abducted by strangers in the US anyway.

            I don’t know how true it is that Japanese (or Chinese) kids are childish compared to Americans. I’ve stayed with a young family in Japan a few times and didn’t notice any particular immaturity.

            Here’s a youtube video depicting Japan’s culture of raising kids to be independent, getting to school alone at 6 years old is the norm: Japan’s Independent Kids

          4. Well...

            I also wonder how much of this is helicopter parents seeing the inside of their own bubble. My kid’s* in 1st grade and there are lots of 1st graders walking there in the morning.

            Maybe there’s a question of scale. We drop our kid off by car, because although we don’t live all that far away, it is longer than I’d expect a six year-old to walk, plus you have to walk along the shoulder of one busy thoroughfare without a sidewalk and cross another one, and there are for whatever reason often car crashes along that route. If we lived in the neighborhood of the school where our kid could walk there by staying on sidewalks and not having to cross any road with a speed limit over 35mph, it would be different.

            Of course there are probably parents in that neighborhood who still don’t think that’s safe enough. And presumably some of these Japanese parents are letting their kids walk to school even in busy urban places with lots of challenging intersection crossings…

            *ETA: Clarifying comment inspired by baconbits9’s comment: I have multiple kids.

          5. baconbits9

            My guess is that parents are a lot more protective of their first children and in general more relaxed as things progress. Lots of 1 child families means lots of kids who are more protected.

          6. baconbits9

            I believe Japan’s main problem is the number of childless women. This link has (eyeballing the graph) roughly as many women with 3 kids as with 1, and the largest segment by a good amount is 2. However the 20%+ who end up with zero kids is the major drag on their fertility rate.

          7. Enkidum

            It was stupid of me to say that they’re way more childish. Upon reflection I don’t think it’s true, and I do think it’s a pretty racist sentence so I regret writing it.

          8. LesHapablap

            Enkidum,

            This whole post is a speculation about the superiority of one culture, in some respects, over another and its causes. If there’s any point in discussing that at all, we need to be able to say both positive and negative things about different cultures. So I don’t think your post was bad at all except it would have been more useful with some evidence.

          9. TJ2001

            Also – many American schools have consolidated and so distances children travel are much further.

            We are 10+ miles away from our kid’s school… No way the kids are walking 10+ miles each way…. 1/2 mile – Sure, walk or ride a bike… 10+ Miles – nope!

      2. tmk

        Are infants between babies and children in the variant of English you speak? I would use “toddlers” for that age group.

        1. Orion

          I’ve always considered infants a subtype of babies. A baby is anything pre-toddler. A baby starts as a newborn, then spends a few months as an infant, then a few more months as baby (NOS), then becomes a toddler.

          1. baconbits9

            Baby is broad and generic, ranging from a fetus still in the womb to a toddler. Infant is more specific for a young baby who is out of the womb but with almost no independence. My wife and I strongly disagree on toddler, when our youngest took her first steps at 10 months I said she’s a toddler, she said no way until at least a year old.

  62. Alexander Turok

    Fourth, we could look at US trends over time. Both US parenting and US schooling seem to be getting less authoritarian over time; 31 states have banned corporal punishment since 1970, and the teachers I know confirm a shift away from most forms of discipline. Over the same time period, children have gotten weirdly better behaved – less crime, less teenage pregnancy, more willing to jump through various stupid hoops to get into a good college.

    Crime rates are lower now than they were in 1970, but were in the process of exploding in 1970 after having increased dramatically during the 1960s.

    1. samsondale

      Is it possible that crime rates are not decreasing but that record-keeping of crime rates are being manipulated so that it seems as if crime rates are decreasing? The incentives of the record-keepers align with showing such a decrease, no?

      1. poipoipoi

        Almost certainly the case, and I’m not sure it matters.

        There’s a famous NYPost headline called “Headless Body in Topless Bar” where a man went into a bar, held them up at gunpoint, and made the bartender cut the head off a patron. On the front page, just below the headline, there is a picture of a man kicking and screaming at the photographer as he is thrown into a police car.

        The punchline is that they are different men.

        The man in the picture had walked into the Waldorf Astoria, a famous 5-star hotel in NYC, ran into a lady in the stairwell and stabbed her to death. That’s ONE DAY in NYC in the 1980’s.

        Whatever else you want to say about American urban crime rates, they are nowhere *near* that sort of level. You’d notice. Maybe SF is starting to get close in a categorical “Difference in magnitude not sufficient to be difference in kind” sort of way. Nowhere else is that bad yet.

      2. John Schilling

        The decline appears even, and to approximately the same degree, if we look only at homicides. And it’s really hard to fudge the numbers on homicides in anything resembling a developed society. In Iraq in the years following the 2003 war and at the height of the insurgency, independent investigation found that government records of homicides tracked fairly closely with reality.

        1. Eric Rall

          I’ve heard that and have generally believed it, and the Iraq example is a dramatic illustration of how far the principle can carry.

          I’d add the caveat that large changes in the quality of trauma medicine can be a confounding factor in the use of homicides as a proxy for levels of violence. If a hospital system get significantly better at handling trauma cases resulting from violent crime, then that can produce a declining homicide rate even if acts of violence were happening at the same levels, because if the victim survives, then the incident probably shows up as attempted murder or aggravated assault instead of murder or manslaughter.

      3. JayT

        If anything, I would guess that the crime stats are more complete today then they were before the 1970s. There are certain crimes, like rape, that are more likely to be reported today versus the past. There are more “eyes” on the world today, so it’s harder to commit a crime without anyone knowing. I also suspect that there were more crimes in the past that were just ignored than there are today. If a black man was found beaten in an alley, I suspect that 1950s cops would be less likely to investigate, or even report it than they would be today.

        1. Butlerian

          Counterproposal: people care much less about their neighbours today, qua lowered community participation, so fewer crimes are reported / investigations demanded.

          If your neighbour 3 doors down vanishes, in 1950 she’s in your church, you play bridge on Sundays, and she sometimes watches your kids. Everyone knows her vanishing is out of character and the whole church goes to the police to demand an investigation.

          In 2020, you don’t know her habits; you don’t even know her name. You don’t even notice she’s gone.

          1. DavidFriedman

            That doesn’t work for murder. There is almost always a body, which turns up. And even if the victim doesn’t know her neighbors, she probably has a job, or a kid in school, or … .

            And murder rates have fallen roughly in half from their peak a few decades back.

      4. Alexander Turok

        It’s possible, but the same incentives would have led to under-reporting in the past too. Here’s an article in Chicagomag about the Banana-republic tier efforts to minimize reported crime:

        https://www.chicagomag.com/Chicago-Magazine/May-2014/Chicago-crime-rates/

        It’s enough for me to note that the homicide rate, considered the most reliable crime statistic, is not different than it was in the 1950s, despite better medical care today allowing more people to survive murder attempts, despite better police work, despite better surveillance, despite less absolute poverty, despite less de-jure segregation, ect.

        1. Mark Atwood

          As a data point, in my neighborhood in Seattle, in the local neighborhood discussion group, someone a few weeks reported that someone broke open the hood of their new car, ripped out a bunch of engine parts that had resell value, and did so much damage that the repair estimate totaled the car. The Seattle PD refused to take a report, because they didnt consider it “car theft”, it was “petty vandalism” or maybe “petty theft”, as if someone had stolen some old tools of a back porch or something. The real reason, of course, is that progressive crusader mayor is embarrassed by the “Seattle Looks Like Shit” meme, and has ordered the crime stats down by any means other than actually imprisoning people.

      5. Quixote

        This seems almost certainly false to me based on experience in my area. I’ve lived in the same region of a major city for 30+ years, my parents lived in the region for at least 20 years longer than that, and some of my elderly neighbors who I know well have lived in the general area for 85+ years. Over that time crime has vastly vastly vastly decreased. Houses and cars used to be broken into on a weekly or more frequent basis. That doesn’t happen anymore. When I was a kid people used to steal our trash cans. That doesn’t happen now.

    2. TJ2001

      It’s also possible “Suburbanization” has something to do with this….

      I mean if you look at something like crime “Paying” some threshold $$$/hour – it’s a lot more time consuming to rob a few cars scattered through a couple miles with a lot of yards and dogs in-between than when they are all in the same building…. Seriously – lets say 10% of cars are unlocked just because… You could go down a 1-mile suburban road to check 10 cars or go through some Big City Parking garage/Apartment Complex and pull 400 car door handles in one parking lot… And so if you can make 5x as much working at WalMart, cutting lawns, or fixing cars – why resort to stealing?

  63. Squirrel of Doom

    Over the same time period, children have gotten weirdly better behaved – less crime, less teenage pregnancy, more willing to jump through various stupid hoops to get into a good college.

    Getting rid of leaded gasoline explains much of the decline in crime last few decades. This could well also be part that.

    1. bulb5

      Later in that same paragraph:

      I think the better behavior is probably just caused by lower lead

      Anyone have a good link to some study about that?

      1. Ketil

        Wikipedia treats it as a hypothesis which is difficult to prove conclusively. The page also mentions legalization of abortion, which Freakonomics pointed to, as another (not mutually exclusive, of course) possible explanation. I would think comparing different countries legalizing abortion at different time points could be enlightening, but I’m too lazy too look it up right now.

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lead%E2%80%93crime_hypothesis

        1. Squirrel of Doom

          There are dozens of theories on this. Most are of the type “this confirms what I’ve always been saying!”.

          I assume it’s more than one reason for a complex thing like this. But the lead theory has some real good data. Different jurisdictions abolished leaded gasoline in different years, and if you correlate that with crime state 23 years later, it looks quite convincing.

          At least that’s what I’m told, and what the possibly cherry picked curves I’ve seen show. I haven’t independently researched this, of course.

          The “23 year” factor comes from lead damaging growing toddler brains, but it takes about that time for the kid to grow up to a violent man in his prime.

        2. Steve Sailer

          I went to school from K-12 in 1964-1976 in Sherman Oaks, CA, which was then home to the busiest freeway interchange in the world (405/101).

          Who do I sue to get my missing IQ points back?

          1. Godbluff

            The effects of lead on IQ are probably overrated (they reflect a lot of SES cofounding) and they seem to be concentrated on the executive function, impulse control, and working memory.

        1. sty_silver

          I literally read that sentence you quoted, verbally thought “it’s probably just lead” and then read the part on lead a few seconds later. It was great.

    2. inhibition-stabilized

      The interesting thing about the lead connection is that China has much worse pollution than the US. (I don’t know about lead pollution specifically — does anyone know of any data on this? I’d be surprised if they had less lead pollution though.) Would Chinese children be even more obedient with less pollution? I’m not sure how this fits into the argument. It will be interesting to see what results China gets as their pollution situation improves.

      1. zzzzort

        I would guess that’s true now, but leaded gas only ended in the 80’s, it accounted for the vast majority of lead in the air, and the US had a much larger auto market during that time. China might have missed the lead issues in the same way that Africa (hopefully) misses the coal issues.

  64. anonymousskimmer

    there are still real children you have to educate one way or the other. I have no general solution for this

    The idea of multiple classes per semester of school is that children will learn multiple topics effectively simultaneously.

    Is it possible to get superior results by exposing kids to a variety of learning strategies – if not simultaneously, then consecutively? (Is anything gained by forcing a child to obey during the entirety of schooling that wouldn’t be gained by forcing them to endure it for 1 hour a day, or one semester of preschool [with periodic followup, perhaps]?)

    Given the inherent difficulties of finding out what’s best for a particular kid, such broad exposure may help discover what’s best for each particular kid.

    If you’re going to experiment with conflicting priors, you may as well throw everything plus the kitchen sink (available in Montessori schools) at it.

    1. inhibition-stabilized

      The counterargument to this would be that some teaching strategies might require full immersion to be successful. Can you imagine a kid switching from a US-style classroom to a Chinese-style one each day? It seems like it would be hard to get young kids to understand that they have to sit still and unquestioningly obey one teacher while giving them more latitude for creativity with a second teacher.

      Of course this is all speculation, and you’re right that it would be valuable to be able to try different techniques — both to see what works for individual kids as you noted and to see what works in general. Randomized controlled trials are of course rather difficult to run on education.

      1. anonymousskimmer

        It seems like it would be hard to get young kids to understand that they have to sit still and unquestioningly obey one teacher while giving them more latitude for creativity with a second teacher.

        Same teacher, different tasks, at least for pre-school.

        1. Simon_Jester

          It is really hard to get children to consistently follow totally different sets of rules from different authority figures in similar environments. I don’t think you could make this work.

          1. Matt M

            Really? My impression is that young children intuitively understand this sort of thing. They learn quickly that mom and dad are different people with different standards who respond to behaviors differently (and they adapt themselves accordingly).

            Note that even in the book, the child seems to have understood that even though he would be forced to eat eggs at school, he could still refuse them at home.

          2. natethenate

            I’m curious why you think this. My kids (2 and 5) have absolutely no problem following different sets of rules in different contexts, it seems to come very naturally to them.

          3. baconbits9

            I’m curious why you think this. My kids (2 and 5) have absolutely no problem following different sets of rules in different contexts, it seems to come very naturally to them.

            Definitely. Almost all kids quickly learn which parent is more lenient on what, who to ask for what and adjust (to varying extents) to each parent based on the parents’ moods.

          4. Simon_Jester

            @Matt M
            @natethenate
            @baconbits9

            1) Note that I said “totally different.”

            If two parents have moderately different degree of willingness to give a child a cookie for good behavior, either way the rule still looks like “sometimes child gets a cookie for [list of behaviors]” when viewed from thirty thousand feet. The child may strategically seek a decision from the cookie-generous parent, but they’re still following a broadly comparable pattern either way. But imagine the contrast between two parents, in the same house, one of whom will say “you can have a cookie literally any time you want” and one who will say “you can literally never have a cookie.” They take turns controlling cookie access on alternating days.

            Now those are two totally different rules in the same environment.

            2) Note that I said “consistently follow” totally different sets of rules, not “understand” them.

            The most common outcome of one parent being much more lax than the other on a particular subject is that the de facto rules start to devolve towards the standards of whichever parent is more lax. The children understand that there are two sets of rules just fine. The problem isn’t that they don’t understand it or can’t navigate that environment. It’s that they will be much harder to train to follow the strict rules when they have the lax rules as a ‘more fun’ example.

            Remember the cookie example from above. Realistically, the never-cookie parent is going to spend a lot of time frustrated that the child absent-mindedly just walks right up to the cookie jar and takes out a cookie without so much as a by-your-leave… Because the child has a very strong incentive to “forget” that they’re supposed to be following the strict rules. This greatly increases the disciplinary burden of enforcing the strict rules on no-cookie days, which in turn makes it a lot harder to maintain and train standards of no-cookie behavior. And increases the risk that he child will start to resent the no-cookie days, view “not eating cookies” as a sign of humiliating subservience, and in adult life rebel by gorging on cookies or something.

            3) Note that I said “in similar environments.”

            This part of the statement is doing a lot of the heavy lifting. Children can definitely learn to follow different sets of mutually exclusive rules in different parts of their overall world. But that’s very different from teaching them “in this building, with this teacher, you get to go to the bathroom whenever you like without permission, unless it is between 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. in which case you can’t because that’s discipline training time.” In that scenario, the rules are changing sharply without an underlying change in the surrounding environment to explain the change.

          5. natethenate

            @ Simon_Jester

            You’ve set the bar really high — *very* different sets of rules, in *almost exactly* the same environment. I can’t speak personally to a situation like that.

            What I can say is that if your parameters are loosened a bit — somewhat different rules for two different classrooms in the same school, for example, or quite different rules for school vs after-school day care vs home — they seem to have no trouble at all.

            I’m inclined to believe they could also handle the original proposal, unless you have some reason to think they can’t.

          6. baconbits9

            If two parents have moderately different degree of willingness to give a child a cookie for good behavior, either way the rule still looks like “sometimes child gets a cookie for [list of behaviors]” when viewed from thirty thousand feet.

            Parents can be very different and have very different standards. Many kids grow up in houses where one is the disciplinarian and one is the comforting/motherly figure., kids navigate these waters regularly.

          7. localdeity

            For the “totally different rules in similar environments” concern, one could paint and decorate a classroom to look totally different, and put all the classes with one set of rules into that classroom taught by one particular teacher.

          8. Simon_Jester

            You’ve set the bar really high — *very* different sets of rules, in *almost exactly* the same environment. I can’t speak personally to a situation like that.

            What I can say is that if your parameters are loosened a bit — somewhat different rules for two different classrooms in the same school, for example, or quite different rules for school vs after-school day care vs home — they seem to have no trouble at all.

            I’m inclined to believe they could also handle the original proposal, unless you have some reason to think they can’t.

            @natethenate

            I think the model of “can they handle it” or “do they understand it” is unhelpful in this context. The problem isn’t that children lack the mental wherewithal to understand that there are different sets of rules in different contexts. The problem is that if the bulk of their time is spent in “laxity context” and then you try to send them to a discipline class to teach them discipline only once a day (or a few times a week), while not teaching discipline at other times…

            I don’t think it’ll work. The child will tend to react to “discipline class” by rebelling against the discipline, or by being compliant in the short run but in the long run thinking of it as an unwelcome humiliation, and adopting opposite behaviors as a way of asserting independence.

            It’s like, imagine you grow up with fairly typical American parents, but they take you to this really really strict 19th century style church where there’s no fidgeting and no talking and you have to sit still and sing hymns exactly in key and you get a switching if you disrupt anything or mess anything up.

            The odds are pretty good, IMO, that coming away from that experience you won’t have “learned discipline” in that church. You’ll have learned to hate going to church. The experience of “discipline class” has to be repeated frequently enough that it becomes a normal part of the child’s experience, as opposed to an unwelcome periodic intrusion on the child’s mental life.

            Parents can be very different and have very different standards. Many kids grow up in houses where one is the disciplinarian and one is the comforting/motherly figure., kids navigate these waters regularly.

            @baconbits9

            Yes, but if the two parents are acting as a coordinated team (“wait till your father gets home,” “go ask your mother to help you with that,”) then there is de facto only one set of rules to navigate. The fact that the parents take on different roles doesn’t mean the child won’t get a spanking for making a scene; it just means the spanking is deferred until the disciplinarian parent shows up.

            Insofar as there are two rulesets in opposition to each other, the child is going to develop preferences for one and resentment against the other. No prize for guessing which one, if one is “go do your own thing” and the other is “get screamed at for drawing raindrops wrong 1000 times.”

            @localdeity

            For the “totally different rules in similar environments” concern, one could paint and decorate a classroom to look totally different, and put all the classes with one set of rules into that classroom taught by one particular teacher.

            I actually think that would help.

            The only problem is that the students are still going to a designated Discipline Class that makes up only a small percentage of their time, as opposed to the larger percentage taken up by the Chinese preschool as a whole.

          9. k987

            (Sorry for accidentally clicking “report” instead of “reply” at first)

            Children can generally understand games, where rules have to be obeyed. Why couldn’t they understand the concept of a “strict discipline day” (or even week, etc) which its specific rules? (Except breaking them would have more serious consequences than most games).

    2. sclmlw

      I’m biased toward the highly-adaptable view of childhood brain plasticity. You certainly could have a system that samples from many different approaches, but I’d think from that system you’d get the worst features of all these systems. Presumably, children who are forced to sit and stare at the wall for hours on end are going to develop a more nuanced strategy for keeping their brain occupied sufficient to accomplish their task than children who do it less frequently. Also, I think we tend to reduce a whole system of pedagogy to the parts that are most striking to our eyes, and a partial instruction in many theories would give short shrift to all of them.

      A while back Scott published a post about guidelines versus recommendations that I think is apt here. The first question you want to answer is what you want the education to achieve, then tailor your approach to that strategy. Some strategies are clearly better than others in general, but that doesn’t translate to “always better for everyone”, which is what this kind of discussion usually devolves into. And why should we think one size would fit all learners? Indeed, if we look at a statistical distribution and say that because the average child in one learning approach does better than the average child in another we’re missing something about the individual children in both systems – especially the children for whom that approach didn’t work. In effect, we try to mold children into statistics, which is an artificial construction.

      Some kids probably thrive in a highly-structured environment, either because they lack discipline and will benefit from having it imposed on them, or because that’s the kind of environment their brain naturally works well in. Some kids might thrive from instruction based on self-directed learning, like in Montessori, for similar reasons of deficiency or aptitude.

      I see the issue of teaching style as similar to career choice. Lots of people treat choosing a career as having to find the One Perfect Profession they will be uniquely suited to. But I think that’s wrong, and it makes the selection process not only more difficult than it needs to be but also less targeted, as you’re forced to resolve nuance into black-and-white questions of Good/Bad paths. In my case, I’m certain I would have enjoyed a number of different career paths/branches other than the ones I chose. Instead of optimizing for perfect, I optimized along preferences of outcomes. Because of that I’ve never regretted the paths I didn’t take, even though I know they held some satisfying opportunities for me that are no longer available. I think individual parents should do the same kind of nuanced decision-making when selecting which learning style is best suited for their children’s needs and aspirations. It’s probably a failure mode to decide on one technique to rule them all, since every child is different.

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