Who Says Chinese Education is Better?

Before you think I am hating on the Chinese people or Asian-Americans, please go and read this article, “In China, families bet it all on college education for their children.”

I’ll wait.

Assuming you didn’t read it, I’ll summarize. The Wus have one daughter who studies 13 hours a day and still graduated 16th in her class of 40.

“For nearly two decades, they have lived in a cramped and drafty 200-square-foot house with a thatch roof. They have never owned a car. They do not take vacations — they have never seen the ocean. They have skipped traditional New Year trips to their ancestral village for up to five straight years to save on bus fares and gifts, and for Mr. Wu to earn extra holiday pay in the mines. Despite their frugality, they have essentially no retirement savings.”

They moved away from their village, Mr. Wu spent his life working a coal mine, his wife does farm work in season and works as a retail clerk, with all of her earnings from both jobs going to pay for their daughter’s schooling.

“But studying is almost all that Ms. Wu does. She says she still has no boyfriend:

The big question for Ms. Wu and her family lies in what she will do on graduation. She has chosen to major in logistics, learning how goods are distributed, a growing industry in China as ever more families order online instead of visiting stores.

But the major is the most popular at her school, which could signal a future glut in the field. …. Among those who graduated last spring from her polytechnic, she said, “50 or 60 percent of them still do not have a job.”

Mrs. Cao is already worried. The family home across the road from the abandoned coal mine is starting to deteriorate in the wind and acrid pollution, and they have scant savings to rebuild it.”

Does this sound like a good deal to you?

I read a really good book lately, Be Good, by Randy Cohen, a New York Times columnist on ethics, and was very amused by his comment,

“I’ve disagreed with every word David Brooks ever wrote for this newspaper.”

Now, David Brooks is one of those people who blithely assumes that Chinese education is superior. It’s comments like these from his column this week that makes me wonder if he reads the newspaper that employs him.

Moreover, today’s students harbor the anxiety that in the race for global accomplishment, they may no longer be the best competitors. Chinese students spend 12-hour days in school, while American scores are middle of the pack.

Mr. Brooks is one of those who makes the assumption that more = better. But, doesn’t it? Isn’t it true that you need to study 14 hours a day with tutors and Saturday classes so you get perfect SAT scores if you want to get into one of the Ivies if you want to ever make it in a hedge fund or graduate school at another one of the Ivies if you want to make a LOT of money or be interviewed on public television?

There are a lot of ifs in that sentence, so let’s start with that.

Who says that the pinnacle of achievement is getting into MIT and making a shitload of money. Actually, I don’t have anything against MIT, either, my other company is demo-ing at their In-NOW-vation event in April . (Yes, I co-founded another company. You can read about it here.)

My youngest daughter is upstairs with four other fifteen-year-olds laughing about something I’m sure I would think is stupid. She is on spring break. She spent one day watching TV and last night she had her friends sleep over. She isn’t much of a slacker.


She received a scholarship to a very good private college preparatory school where she boards during the week and comes home on weekends. She made the honor roll her first three quarters, although she did NOT make a 4.0 which displeased us a little, because she made a B in Geometry. She is getting better about it. She takes pictures of her Geometry homework if she has a problem and texts it to her father for advice.

2013-03-06 19.15.38

She also played varsity soccer as a freshman, attended confirmation class and volunteered to serve meals at the homeless shelter and cleaned up the cemetery (it was a school activity).


And we went on vacation twice this year. Once (above) was to visit her grandmother on her father’s side, and then on to visit her oldest sister and her family. They took her snowboarding with them.

snowboardingOur other vacation was with my mom, to visit the relatives on the other side of the family. Mom is almost 80 years old and didn’t want to go by herself. We stopped at the Chateau Frontenac on the way to Halifax.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWho is losing and what exactly is she losing? It seems to me that she has a great life. Maybe this sounds like the ant and the grasshopper story, because sure, it’s good now, but what about when she applies to college and doesn’t get into Harvard? What then, huh?

Well, the oldest sister went to NYU (not Harvard). Worked for Sports Illustrated, then ESPN,  and we lured her away from journalism after ten years to co-found a company with me to make educational games. She’s our new Chief Marketing Officer at 7 Generation Games, doing one hell of a job and seems to have a pretty great life.


The second sister went to Santa Monica College, then San Francisco State University, then got a masters at USC. She’s teaching middle school social studies, which is the exact job she has wanted since eighth grade,  doing one hell of a job and seems to have a pretty great life.


The third sister went to two Olympics, is currently the women’s world champion in mixed martial arts, and seems to have a pretty great life. She’s also doing some TV show now.

Ronda choking Travis

My point is, it is pretty darn hard to see my kids as losers and Ms. Wu as a winner. The young woman at Yale who wrote the essay Mr. Brooks mentions is a winner by his definition and I wish both her and Ms. Wu well. However, I literally laughed out loud at her conclusion,

“Time not spent investing in yourself carries an opportunity cost, rendering you at a competitive disadvantage as compared to others who maintained the priority of self.”

A competitive disadvantage in competing FOR WHAT? What are you winning? Because for a bunch of losers, I think we’re doing pretty fucking awesome.






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  1. I always enjoy reading your posts, wherever they are. I learned a long time ago to never make ambiguous statements and certainly not to you.

    Personally, with their apparent definition of “winning,” I qualify as a loser. After all I don’t particularly concentrate on myself, what with the judo club that I’ve been running and has been profitable for the last seven years, the volunteer work with drill team cadets at a military school who went from practically nothing to winning trophies at every drill meet in less than a year, a great job where I can work out of my office at home and go eat some of the best food in south Texas when I travel.

    Oh well, if they want to “win” by making gobs of money for no purpose than to have it they can keep it! We’re having fun out here in New Mexico.

  2. Great post, Dr. D. I never did well in school past 6th grade, graduated near bottom of my class (C- avg.), but have always had a job in the trades (although I have worked in an IBM 3090 Mainframe environment as well as made microchips for a very large Japanese firm). I attended junior college in Sacto. for a year. I even got Employee of the Year 2009 in my current career field. I have never been behind on my mortgage (or any bill for that matter) despite the slump in the construction industry, and am still able to make a living. I don’t like relying on others to ‘Make it Happen’ for me, so I don’t. If I can’t fix it, then I hire somebody who can.
    Thanks to the inspiration of YOU and DD#3, I am investing a lot time (and soon money) into my 20+ year love of playing guitar and hopefully starting my own Luthier shop. I have no formal training but have discovered over the years and many trade jobs that I am good with my hands and machinery. The math I was able to catch-on to served me well during lay-out of sheet-metal patterns for HVAC systems. I actually remembered the very formulas for calculating circumferences and diameters of holes, which I am sure to need again when it comes to making a standard or one-of-a-kind guitar. I absolutely love music and singing. Again, no formal training, just something that runs in the blood of my family and that I want to pursue. If somebody finds that what I offer (guitars and possibly violins) is worth parting with their hard-earned money for, then great. I will not have racked-up a huge educational debt and possibly may be able to supplement my current income with the goal of one day being entirely self-sufficient. Plus, it would allow me to make even greater contributions to those things I find worthwhile.
    So, to wrap all this long-windedness up, educational basics are essential, but NOT everybody needs to be an Einstein to be successful in life. I believe it depends on what a persons definition of success is as well as what one is, or can be, good at.
    Thanks for the forum Dr. D.
    P.S. I also want to start my own blog and share what goes on in my line of work. I’ve already got one person (well, it’s a start) waiting to get yakking on it!

  3. While hard work is certainly a component of success, so is raw mental ability. An individual who only has one of the two will never trump one who has both. The first is an option left to the individual, the later is the luck of the genetics draw. Your kids have both. Mr. Wu’s profession as coal miner is not a particularly strong indicator of strong mental genetics.

    Regarding Ivy, I graduated towards the top of my HS class (while working every day after school from 4pm-midnight). A very sharp kid/friend that sat next to me in class went off to U. Penn for a computer science degree. I went to a local, practically no-name state school for a computer science degree (still ABET accredited, at least) because they gave me a free ride, my parents are not in a financial position to help, and I didn’t want to take on debt. My education: $0. His: $150,000. I’ve _ significantly_ kicked his ass in earnings every year since graduation because I didn’t require a pedigree to tell me what I could and couldn’t learn/do. I’ve been running a successful Inc 500 company for over a decade now. 99% of the knowledge required to do what I do came from reading books that interested me, at my own pace, as well as lessons from the school of hard knocks.

    I-banking is a very specific case where pedigree does matter, but for many other fields, it doesn’t mean shit. If you know your shit and can do it better than the next guy, you’re gonna soar. Period.

  4. Trying to raise a superbot may sound like a good idea in theory to some.
    I had my own fantasies of sooooper geeeeeniuses–until the little monsters actually showed up.

    We certainly incorporate learning letters, vocabulary, numbers, shapes etc into just about everything but we allow fluff as well (ala Lion King et al)

    Encouraging excellence at the expense of free will and humanity, though, seems a doomed proposition.
    See Todd Marinovich.

    So Doc, if you’re not a helicoptoring Tiger Mom, what would you call yourself?

  5. If not a tiger mom or a helicopter mom then what? Hm. That’s a good question. I’ll have to think about that and get back to you.

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