LOS ANGELES | This is bad news for the Tiger Moms, but an academic credential isn't always the biggest banana in the bunch. The academic dropout, though nobody's role model, is sometimes the overachiever.
The original Tiger Mom is the No. 1 topic of conversation for many parents waiting for the results of the seasonal lottery to determine whose kids make it to the colleges of their choice. For Amy Chua, the Yale professor who wrote the book "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother," no act of child abuse is too cruel to assure academic success for her offspring. She called her daughter "garbage" when she didn't show what the professor thought was her due. She forced another daughter, at age 7, to practice a piano piece for several hours until she got it down, "right through dinner into the night," with no breaks, not even for the bathroom. Then she was sent to bed without supper.
Sentiment has no place in the places of a Tiger Mom's heart, secret or otherwise. Once, when the 7-year-old Lulu made a birthday card for her mother, with the usual homemade drawing and the endearing errors of spelling and syntax of an eager child, Professor Chua threw it back at her: "I deserve better than this. I reject this." Mom expected something that little Lulu had "put some thought and effort into" — a Hallmark moment with no childish imperfections.
The goal of the Tiger Mom is to get her cubs into the Ivy League, and a strict diet of no fun and games — no television, no play dates and no grades below an A, as meaningless as an A may be in the grade-inflated world of academe — is the price Tiger Mom imposes. The professor went to Harvard, after all, and now teaches at Yale Law School.
Inevitably, there's a backlash against such child abuse. Larry Summers, who was president of Harvard until he was strung up by faculty feminists for suggesting research into why boys generally do better in the sciences than girls, suffers the wrath of academic credentialists this time. Since many of the Tiger Moms are Asian, it's only a matter of the right time and opportunity until Mr. Summers is hanged again, this time for "racism," as now defined. His latest outburst was a highlight of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, when he discussed the theme of her book with Professor Chua, observing that the two Harvard students who had most transformed the culture — Bill Gates, who founded Microsoft, and Mark Zuckerberg, who started Facebook — never stayed at Harvard long enough to get a degree.
The list of overachievers with only HSG or even HSD degrees — High School Graduate and High School Dropout — is a long one. These are do-it-yourself "degrees" that no one should have to aspire to, but nevertheless teach needed lessons in humility to the credentialists, the double-dealers in arrogance and piety, who need it most. "The problem with being self-taught," as Harry S. Truman, who went to work following a Missouri mule down the rows of corn to support his widowed mother when the other boys were off to college, "is that you never know when the job is finished." Mr. Truman's knowledge of American history and the history of the presidency was, however, unique among the presidents before and after him.
If Professor Chua wants a different and refreshing view of the relationship between high education and high achievement, observes Patrick Goldstein in the Los Angeles Times, she should come to Hollywood, where the American dream is commercially dreamed. The dream factory, he writes, is "a place that's been run for nearly a century by men who never made it through or even to college. The original moguls were famously uneducated, often having started as peddlers or furriers before finding their perches atop the studio dream factories."
The short list of titans, then and now, who escaped into the real world short of a college degree is actually not a very short list. It includes the likes of David Geffen, Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, James Cameron, Clint Eastwood, Harvey Weinstein and Quentin Tarantino, among many others. These men are mostly from an earlier generation, following in the tradition of the earlier moguls. "On the other hand," writes Patrick Goldstein, the younger new-media icons seem as likely to be degree-free as their Hollywood brethren, "whether it's Zuckerberg or the founders of Twitter, who didn't graduate from college, either." Hollywood still values experience over theory.
We all wish Professor Chua's daughters a happy life, armed with Harvard or Yale credentials or not. Such degrees are particularly important for the economy. Where else would the self-educated overachievers go to find suitable help?
• Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.
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