Viscerally Annoying, Cerebrally Dissatisfying – my reaction to “The Triple Package,” part I

Yet, there are facts and truths one cannot ignore in “The Triple Package:  How three unlikely traits explain the rise and fall of cultural groups in America,” by Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld.  The authors are a married couple, and law professors at Yale; they both have established their academic standings, in addition to “international best seller” status from published novels/memoir.

Their thesis in “The Triple Package” is fairly simple.  In US, success favors groups that believe themselves to be superior to others, for example religion-based “chosen people” status per the Mormons and Jews, and which also paradoxically experience inferiority/insecurity feelings (they are never good enough).  The third necessary asset to propel these minority groups to success is their impulse control, a self-disciplined attitude to withstand temptations, to work hard, and be willing to postpone pleasure and reward.  Immigrant/minority groups selected as outstanding in their propensity to achieve success, largely and presumably causally because these three criteria apply to them, include some usual suspects, such as Asians, e.g. Chinese and Indians.  To demonstrate that not all Hispanic and black populations are disadvantaged, the authors showcase Cubans and Nigerians.  Iranians and Lebanese are amongst the success-prone cultural groups as well.  The only group included in the success list that does not comprise immigrants is the Mormons.

A dinner at restaurant usually requires $ or a credit card.

A dinner at restaurant usually requires $ or a credit card.

For a little more expansion on their thesis, in lieu of reading the book, you can read their synopsis on New York Times.

The impetus and the foundation of this book were laid out in a 2008 Yale Law seminar, “Law and Prosperity.”  However, the more than 80+ pages of footnotes do not clearly present their methodology.  They draw upon economic statistics to substantiate their chosen groups’ success, defined by “income, academic accomplishment, corporate leadership, professional attainment, and conventional metrics.”  They authors admit that such measures are “vulgar success,” yet most people, especially immigrants, accept them.  I’ll address this point later.  While the authors acknowledge the slippery nature of defining “culture,” they reason that their usage is consistent with most of the definitions in the academic literature.  However, I cannot discern how they arrived at their “triple package.”  Did the data inform them?  Or, did they develop some theoretical framework –not evident in the book – from which to tease the concepts of “superiority,” “insecurity,” and “impulse control?”  If they rely on data to derive the “package,” how did they go about collecting the data?

I raise these questions not to totally reject their thesis.  On the surface, these notions – The Triple Package! – make some intuitive sense.  I’ll use the illustration of my familiar cultural group, Chinese.  For historical, geographical, or technological reasons (mostly derived from ancient times), China has always regarded herself as superior to the rest of the world.  Yet, as immigrants, Chinese have, and still do, struggle to be recognized in this country.  Despite their collectively impressive academic achievement and attendant income level (two of the measures for “success”) many Chinese still feel like underdogs.  They study hard, work harder, but rarely play hard, so that they can make their parents proud and raise their children in a better environment.  And they rarely talk about “having fun.”

By comparison, American culture (indeed, how do we define it, especially as there is a wide range of American sub-cultures) encourages children to play, or to have fun in learning.  Social skills and sports (at least in high schools and colleges) seem to be more important, or at least more lucrative, than academic achievement.  On the one hand, Americans say they emphasize competition; on the other hand, Americans have become known for the attitude “everyone is a winner” in recent decades, thanks to the “self-esteem” movement.  This is the movement that emphasizes the merit of self-esteem (SE), while often muddled in expressing the causal relationship:  Should adults promote SE so that children feel confident in their learning? Or, should adults praise children after they reach certain expectations (and if expectations are lowered, the children get praises more often)?

A good sushi requires fresh fish and good skills.

A good sushi requires fresh fish and good skills.

Of course, there is some truth in these broad assertions; that’s the nature of generalization.  While the authors often admit that there are plenty of exceptions to their statements, and some of their observations are impolitic (formerly, “politically incorrect”), they urge us to face facts.

Success is elusive if a person or a group lacks any of the three elements in the “triple package.”  For example (their example), the Amish people have impulse control in abundance – “hardworking” and pleasure-denial seem to be wired into their being – but they are taught to be humble at all times.  “Pridefulness is a sin.”  This is one of the reasons their education stops at eighth grade.  High-mindedness surely leads to pride.

However, an incomplete “triple package” doesn’t cause a group to be impoverished.  Their example is one of the poorest regions in the country, the Appalachian area.  The plight of this area has been rooted in its geography, history, economic upheavals, resource distributions (both natural and labor)…to name a few major ones.

The authors provide ample economic statistics – through their impressive cadre of research assistants – and cite well-known people’s testimonies, from CEOs to authors.  Yet, I still feel disquiet after finishing the book.  I see some merits in their thesis (supported by individuals’ narratives or historical records), and I see validity in many of their critics’ perspectives.  I will address some of the latter’s points next week.  For now, I will highlight the issue of “success.”

The authors admit that their definition of success is fairly narrow, but these “vulgar” success measures are what most immigrants strive for.  Money, academic high marks, position, power, accolades…these are conventional, but they appeal to the populace, not just the immigrants.  Yes?  By and large, I have to agree, especially for immigrants who came to this country with few assets.  To some extent, it’s like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs:  You can’t address spiritual needs till you are fed, clothed, and have a roof over your head.  Some of us might wonder:  What happens to being well-rounded?  How about emotional intelligence?  Shouldn’t possessing creative and innovative skills be more if not equally important?  Is monetary reward the most important goal?  How about “happiness?”  Yes, they are all important, but, to whom? I think these goals, not easily measured, belong to mostly middle-class, or upper middle-class, whose primal needs are met or even satiated.

An excellent sake adds to the pleasure.

An excellent sake adds to the pleasure.

If a child from a housing project or a ghetto area receives a scholarship to attend the famously selective New York high school, Stuyvesant, or an Ivy League school, such as, Yale University, would we advise this aspiring young person to forgo the scholarship because these places are just for “snobs?”  Shall we gently remind this child that she should consider her economic class and try for a state university whose environment might be more “comfortable?” Chua and Rubenfeld’s definition of success may not be comprehensive although I think it does address most of the immigrants’ immediate goals.  On the fifth hand, there just might be some groups whose threshold for “primal needs” is much lower than others and therefore they pursue “spiritual needs” e.g. happiness, more readily.

I now can afford to look down upon the conventional measures success as “vulgar” because I no longer need to prove myself.  Now I can say, with validity, that Ivy League undergraduate education isn’t worth the astronomical tuition because I’ve been there.  However, I felt very differently when I first came to this country.

Just the concept of “success” alone is complicated enough, so, reducing the even more complicated nuances of “cultural” groupings to the three-prong operational structure (for success) leaves me feeling incomplete and dissatisfied.  I will try to complete my critique of this book next time. Till then,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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