Collective Intelligence

Apparently Amy Chua has got people up in arms with her controversial “Tiger Mother” concept of child rearing.  Having run across several references, most of them scathing, to her theory that American children are coddled, poorly disciplined, and incapable of sufficient intellectual rigor to compete in the modern world, I reacted the way older people are generally supposed to on hearing complaints about “kids these days,” namely tut-tutted and harrumphed, started to compose a little speech about “back in my day,” then moved on to the next item in the paper and forgot about it.

My sympathies were initially with Ms. Chua, maybe because I’m a bit of a Sinophile, but also because I’m a liberal elitist snob who enjoys seeing other liberal elitist snobs being told they’re doing it all wrong,  Now I see David Brooks has taken her to task, and I’ve come around to his way of thinking.  Brooks claims that Chua’s ban on frivolous activities like play dates, sleepovers or TV watching on grounds that they take time away from what really matters, i.e., studying, is short-sighted, misguided, and ultimately counter-productive.

As someone who grew up in a time before play dates and sleepovers had entered the common parlance, and TV watching was considered – at least in my family – as something for the weak-minded, I’ve always tended to harbor suspicions about such activities (don’t they have homework they could be doing?).  But as Brooks points out, book learning, while vital, can only take a person so far, and this is perhaps more true than ever in our contemporary world.

When I lived in the mountains, miles from the nearest town or school, there was much debate among local parents about the virtues and defects of home schooling.  Few doubted that, with sufficient effort, parents could inculcate their kids with basic knowledge as least as well as a harried teacher trying to manage a couple dozen kids in a classroom.  But the talk would always come round to “socialization”: wouldn’t kids miss out on interacting with their peers at recess and lunch and on the school bus to and from town?

As someone who had seldom if ever enjoyed interacting with his peers at school, my reaction was, “Hell no!”  As far as I was concerned, the other kids had been the biggest single stumbling block to my education.  They never wanted to talk about math or history or science; they were too busy dissecting what was wrong with my shoes or my haircut or the kind of car my parents drove.  Time and again my mother would find me with my nose buried in a book in some dark corner of the house and say, “It’s such a beautiful day; why aren’t you outside playing with your friends?” and I’d be like, “Where’d you get the idea those were my friends?  They’re just the jerks who happen to live in our neighborhood.”

Every school has children like that: reasonably bright, seemingly normal, but just can’t seem to get along with the other kids, and as I grew into adulthood, things didn’t change as much as I imagined they would.  True, I was able to improve my social situation to an extent by finding subcultures of fellow misfits to associate with, but that only served to heighten the feeling of being isolated from the mainstream of society.  I was able to find ways of earning a living without having to make the concessions to convention and propriety that most people do, but while at the time I counted that as one of life’s small victories, I’ve come to believe in later years that it was actually a great loss.

Brooks maintains that children often learn more important lessons “managing status rivalries, negotiating group dynamics, understanding social norms, navigating the distinction between self and group,” – i.e., just hanging out with their friends – than they do through hours of intensive study, drills and lectures, and I think there is much truth to this.  I spent most of my life trying to compensate for my inability to get along with others by immersing myself in knowledge and learning, partly because I enjoyed it, but perhaps more so because I labored under the impression that if I could demonstrate that I was smarter than everyone else, people might come to accept me as being worthwhile and valuable.  I probably don’t need to point out the actual result: people instead came to see me as an annoying and pompous smart ass.

Even if education is viewed – as, unfortunately, is the case with many parents and educators – as little more than preparation for a lucrative career, learning to get along with others remains one of its most vital aspects.  As Brooks points out, much of today’s most essential work is done in groups, and depends on the ability of group members to share knowledge and insights without beating each other over the head with them.  As an aspiring young intellectual, I used to be fond of saying that eclecticism was the mother of creative synthesis, which was a fancy-pants way of justifying my scattershot propensity for picking up and discarding random subjects of study as the spirit moved me.

But the real creative synthesis most often takes place in groups of people able to pool their collective intelligence and by doing so turn it into something greater than the sum of its parts.  I regret to say – but only because I failed to learn this lesson at the time when it would have been most useful – that the first essential step toward that end is learning to play nicely together.

3 thoughts on “Collective Intelligence

  • January 18, 2011 at 7:23 pm

    I’m a school teacher – grade 5. I think a big part of the problem (and, again, this is just my opinion and not a reflection on my employers and all that) is that we expect each child to go to college. Each child cannot – and should not – be taught as if he or she were going to university. Some people aren’t university material. Some children have talents and abilities that lead them elsewhere. They are still valid members of society. We discount their worth, by denying they exist (those children that shouldn’t be stressed to the max to meet a standard they cannot reach). That’s as a whole in our culture of education. I do think, too, we need to help children a lot more with the relationships they build by . . . giving them time to build those relationships. We need to guide them, and correct their actions when they are out of line, but we also need to give them time and freedom to communicate and make mistakes and learn to apologize and learn to be gracious and all of that. I think this is the most important thing. When kids come up to me with a conflict they cannot solve, I remind them that the things we learn in our lessons are important, but the most important thing is learning to get along.

  • January 19, 2011 at 7:38 am

    Parenting by Louis CK. Funny and true.

  • January 27, 2011 at 9:22 am

    This affirmation probably would have been useful to you many years ago:

    I am not defective. I am different.

    I will not sacrifice my self-worth for peer acceptance.

    I am a good and interesting person.

    I will take pride in myself.

    I am capable of getting along with society.

    I will ask for help when I need it.

    I am a person who is worthy of others’ respect and acceptance.

    I will find a career interest that is well suited to my abilities and interests.

    I will be patient with those who need time to understand me.

    I am never going to give up on myself.

    I will accept myself for who I am.


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