Two new books have been published recently on the thorny issue of social mobility, one optimistic, suggesting various things parents can do to maximise their children’s chances of success, the other pessimistic, concluding that a child’s fate is more or less sealed at birth. Paradoxically, the optimistic book is incredibly depressing, while the pessimistic one is quite reassuring.
The first book is The Triple Package by the husband and wife team of Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld. The authors, who are both law professors at Yale, identify three characteristics that America’s most successful cultural groups have in abundance: a superiority complex, insecurity and impulse control.
The message is essentially the same as Chua’s previous book, The Battle Cry of the Tiger Mother, which is that if you want your child to do well you have to duplicate the kind of upbringing Chua had at the hands of her Chinese immigrant parents. First, you must instil them with a sense of ethnic or religious pride — in Chua’s case, her parents told her that their civilisation was greater than any other. Second, drum into them that unless they work hard and do well they’ll bring shame upon their families and, ultimately, their tribe. Third, use every opportunity to teach them the benefits of delayed gratification. That means no sweets, no TV and no sleep-overs, at least not until they’ve done their daily 90 minutes of piano practice.
I have to confess, I find much to admire in this parenting philosophy. I particularly like Chua and Rubenfeld’s withering analysis of ‘self-esteem’, the one thing American schools seem to teach really well — possibly the only thing. For instance, a 1989 international survey of maths and science skills found that 68 per cent of American high school students thought they were good at maths (the highest percentage of any country), compared with just 23 per cent of South Korean students. Needless to say, in actual tests South Koreans outperform Americans by a factor of four-to-one. In reality, American schoolchildren are close to the bottom of the international league table when it comes to maths. Chua and Rubenfeld conclude that nothing is as fatal to your child’s life chances as high self-esteem. Much better to fill them with self-loathing if you can. ‘Asian American students have the lowest self-esteem scores of any racial group, but they get the highest grades and SAT scores,’ says Chua.
It’s hard for a white, middle-class parent like me to read The Triple Package without being overcome with a sense of ennui. Clearly, I’ve done absolutely everything wrong. As I write, my four children are slumped in front of the television watching Jack The Giant Slayer, having spent no longer than ten minutes doing their homework — a nightly ritual that is so painful I will soon abandon it and just hand them their smartphones as soon as they come back from school. No doubt Amy Chua’s daughter will soon be giving piano recitals in concert halls in Vienna, while my own struggles to get beyond the Chopsticks phase.
But all is not lost, according to Gregory Clark, the author of The Son Also Rises. Clark has carried out a study of inter-generational social mobility in England, America, Sweden, India and China going back eight centuries and concludes that there’s not much parents can do to improve their children’s prospects. Clark’s data shows that there’s very little social mobility anywhere in the world — yes, even Scandinavia — and it doesn’t vary from country to country or epoch to epoch.
‘We see in Sweden an extensive system of public education and social support,’ he says. ‘Yet underlying mobility rates are no higher in modern Sweden than in pre-industrial Sweden or medieval England.’
Clark doesn’t come right out and say it, but the implication of his research is that social status, like hair colour and IQ, is largely an inherited trait. That is, parents don’t pass on their status to their children via cultural practices, such as the ones singled out for praise by Chua and Rubenfeld, but through their genes.
Clark is a liberal and wants people to draw the conclusion that any unequal distribution of wealth is iniquitous. After all, if status is hereditary, then a meritocratic society is no fairer than an aristocratic one. But I’ve come to a different conclusion, namely, that it doesn’t matter how much Hollywood schlock my children watch, they’ll still turn out OK. After reading The Triple Package, that’s mightily reassuring.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.