The Other Asian Miracle

The intimidating secrets of raising high-achievers.

In 2001, a how-to book called Harvard Girl Liu Yiting surged to the top of the Chinese best-seller list. Written by two parents from the Sichuan provincial capital of Chengdu, it laid out the rigorous “family education” methods they credited with getting their daughter into America’s best known Ivy League university—the current pinnacle of academic success in a country now thinking globally. According to press accounts of the manual, Yiting’s parents launched the regimen with a cognitively stimulating “verbal barrage” when she was 15 days old. On top of intensive home studying, Yiting went on to endure toughening feats like swimming long distances and holding ice-cubes in her bare hands. By 2003, Harvard Girl had sold about 3 million copies. It also spawned more than a dozen imitators peddling techniques for raising successful Chinese applicants to Oxford, Cambridge, and Columbia University. (Yale, it seems, might need to work on its marketing.)

Dr. Soo Kim Abboud and Jane Kim, two U.S.-born Korean sisters, have now produced an American variation on the theme, Top of the Class: How Asian Parents Raise High Achievers—and How You Can Too. A tame primer by comparison—marathon swims have made way for tennis lessons—their book is a filial tribute to the educational fervor of their immigrant parents (now computer programmers themselves), whose proudest accomplishments are their doctor and lawyer daughters, here moonlighting as writers. These model progeny of the “model minority” are betting that anxious families in an ever more competitive American meritocracy are ready for lessons in upward mobility from them. Yet don’t be too surprised if this book, which outlines 17 “secrets” of intensive family commitment to the quest for academic excellence, doesn’t fly off the shelves in the United States. Ironically, what Top of the Class may do best is help illuminate a trend spotted in a recent article in the Wall Street Journal *: “white flight” from heavily Asian—and academically stellar—high schools in this country. Exactly what has Caucasian parents worried bears some examining.

At first glance, Top of the Class looks like an easy sell, just as you’d think parents would be sold on schools where high-performing Asian students set a good example and boost top-tier college admissions—schools such as Monta Vista High and Lynbook High in Silicon Valley and Thomas S. Wootton High School in Rockville, Md., (nicknamed “Won Ton”). For one thing, the Kim sisters’ book could hardly be better-timed. It hits the market as college mania continues to intensify, test-prep and other tutoring enterprises are thriving, and alarm mounts that our No Child Left Behind nation is lagging in the production of “men and women who will throw themselves into today’s dog-eat-dog world and come out on top,” as Kim and Abboud bluntly put it. And with their emphasis on parent-directed efforts that promote academic success, the Kim sisters are right in step with an array of popular American child-rearing experts who call for a family-driven shift of priorities from frivolous consumption to studious productivity. From the Mormon management guru Stephen R. Covey ( Seven Habits of Highly Effective Families) to the psychologist Dan Kindlon ( Too Much of  Good Thing: Raising Children of Character in an Indulgent Age) to the pediatrician Dr. Mel Levine ( The Myth of Laziness: America’s Top Learning Expert Shows How Kids—and Parents—Can Become More Productive), top parenting advisers these days counsel that cohesive homes in which pop and peer culture is kept at bay are where kids learn how to think “win-win” and to work.

Yet the Kim sisters’ primer seems unlikely to hit the best-seller lists stateside—and for the same not-so-obvious reasons that some parents are pulling their kids out of the very high schools that incubate prestige-college candidates. The Wall Street Journal suggests a conventional angle on the white flight. The Caucasian parents quoted in the article emphasize the toll exacted on their kids by a competitive ethos. Children will end up hopelessly stressed out and convinced they are stupid, the adults worry. As one student puts it, Asian kids just need to confirm that they are smart, but white kids have to prove they aren’t “the dumb kids.” Doing so requires buying into a grade-obsessed atmosphere that entails an intense focus on academics—math and science in particular—at the expense of well-rounded cultivation of the “whole” child. It disturbed some non-Asian parents that after-school tutoring took undue precedence over extracurriculars, especially sports.

In this account of Caucasian complaints about the Asian-dominated school ambience, it’s not hard to detect an amalgam of familiar ethnic stereotypes. On the one hand, there are echoes of the condescension once expressed by snooty WASP Ivy Leaguers toward smart Jewish students—so “terribly persistent” (as a Harvard trustee in the 1920s put it) and so brainily lopsided, lacking social savvy and athletic prowess. On the other hand, the resistance is reminiscent of black students balking at “acting white” in what they fear is an uphill battle to prove they aren’t innately inferior.

But the Kim sisters quite self-consciously, and successfully, counter just such prejudices. “Contrary to what the public may believe, Asian students are no more intellectually gifted than non-Asian students,” they pronounce right away. Their own book—with its workmanlike prose and its portrait of Jane as a typical distractible kid—strikes a reassuring note on that score. In any case, it’s hard to believe that Caucasian students—hardly an embattled minority in this country—are so prone to doubt their innate talents as a group. On the question of lopsided and grindlike behavior, Kim and Abboud are quick to call for some balance—and it’s not as though sports have been banned at the Silicon Valley schools. (They’re in California, after all.) Well-aware that one-dimensional wonks without team spirit and leadership skills aren’t what colleges want (or what kids want to be), Top of the Class condones extracurricular activities. The Kim sisters’ caveat is that there shouldn’t be so many that they get in the way of the home-based supplemental studying. Such multitasking is nothing new: Juggling multiple commitments is the norm among youths of all backgrounds at high-powered high schools everywhere.

If white kids do find a distinctive deterrent in the atmosphere at heavily Asian high schools, to judge by Top of the Class the true turn-off might be not so much the competitive spirit as the cooperative zeal the Asian students bring to the classroom. Key to the Asian approach to school is an attitude deemed highly uncool among American adolescents: that, as the Kim elders preached and their daughters now relentlessly insist, “it’s okay … to be the teacher’s pet!” Getting good grades is one thing; overtly ingratiating yourself with faculty, though, isn’t likely to go over well with fellow students.

But the Kim sisters’ book points to a deeper source of the Caucasian uneasiness about the Asian high-achievement ethos. If you listen to the subtext of the Silicon Valley school laments and study the “secrets” in Top of the Class, it begins to look as though the most sensitive issues involve the parents, not the kids. The real trouble seems to be that non-Asian mothers and fathers see all too clearly that they can’t possibly match their Asian counterparts as models of dogged labor and sacrificial devotion to their children’s educational advancement. As Dr. Levine sighs about the nation’s adults in The Myth of Laziness, too “many parents perceive themselves as entertainers and recreation coordinators, facilitating play rather than mind work! The lack of an intellectual work life at home certainly can play a role in output failure.”

The truth is, it’s hard to expect your kids to be superdiligent at school and slave away at extra studying if you aren’t working tirelessly yourself and then squeezing in tutoring time with them at home—which the Kim sisters are rightly awed to say their parents did, night after night. (Standing on the athletic sidelines, cheering and chatting with other parents, is considerably easier.)  It didn’t hurt that the elder Kims could also regularly remind their girls that they had left their families to come to America and start from the bottom, all for the sake of their daughters’ futures. Talk about having the moral authority to demand industrious deference!

However you look at it, the Asian-American example has the power to inspire defensiveness among plenty of Caucasian strivers. Parents whose families have long been in the United States can’t help feeling like slackers by comparison, failing to live up to a hard-work ethos that is, after all, American as apple pie. At the same time, as they confront the intensity of Asian parents’ conviction that a child’s success or failure is a matter of family honor, today’s “hyperparents” may recognize a spirit that gives them pause. (The Kim parents’ deep personal stake in their daughters’ every academic move is scary.) Yes, the attitude is hard-driving, but what may be more unsettling is that it is so forthrightly proprietary. You would almost think kids were parental investment opportunities rather than shapers of their own destinies—which sounds a little, well, un-American. Non-Asian parents may want to run from such a spirit or call it foreign. But in an era when college cachet can become a family obsession, such fervor in fact strikes all too close to home.

Correction, Dec. 13, 2005: This piece originally mentioned an article from the Wall Street Journal Online. Although the author read it online, it was from the Wall Street Journal. The Journal uses the term “Wall Street Journal Online” to denote content that is exclusive to its Web site. Click here  to return to the corrected sentence.