One of the most enjoyable books I read recently is Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Chua, a professor at Yale, describes how she constantly pushed her two daughters to overachieve by being what others might describe as an overbearing, relentlessly authoritarian parent. Chua sees her own demanding expectations as a product of her Chinese upbringing, which she contrasts with American cultural expectations that allow children to slack off and to do as they please.
Chua takes things to an extreme (read the book), but I sympathize with her position, in part because my parents raised me the same way. A 95 on a test meant 5 points were missing.
To take an example from another great book I recently read, in Start Up Nation: The Story of Israel's Econimoc Miracle (p.124), the following description of a visit to an Israeli high school is recounted:
The Google founders strode into the hall an the crowd roared. The students could not believe their eyes, "Sergey Brin and Larry Page... in our high school!" one of the students proudly recalled. What had brought the world's most famous tech duo to this Israeli high school, of all places?
The answer came as soon as Sergey Brin spoke. “Ladies and gentleman, girls and boys,” he said in Russian, his choice of language prompting spontaneous applause. “I emigrated from
when I was six, “ Brin continued. “I went to the Russia . Similar to you, I have standard Russian-J parents. My dad is a math professor. They have a certain attitude about studies. And I think I can relate that here, because I was told that your school recently got seven out of the top ten places in a math competition throughout all United States .” Israel
This time the students clapped for their own achievement. “But what I have to say,” Brin continued, cutting through the applause, “is what my father would say – ‘What about the other three?’"
You betcha this type of approach is outside the norm these days. I heard a H.S. principal once describe his talmidim as “pampered” – I cannot think of a better word. Parents are afraid of pushing, teachers are afraid of pushing, as a community we are afraid of pushing. After all, look at all the kids that went off the derech – they must have been pushed too hard, right? Look at how many people hate going to shul – it’s all because the candyman did not given them an extra lollipop and a pat on the head. (Yes, I’m painting a caricature, but you get the idea).
When you read stories of the "greatest" generation, the common theme is pushing to do more. You had to -- who wanted to spend the rest of life in a slum, a ghetto, or worse? Who wants hardship and poverty? So you claw your way out, build a better life. But what's there to motivate you if you start with that better life to begin with?
My son's Rebbe once told the shiur about an amazing peirush on the Yerushalmi written in Siberia, of all places. Look what can be accomplished in the bleakest of bleak conditions if one has drive! And in America, concluded my son's Rebbe, what have we produced? -- Artscroll.
I think we, the Jewish people, used to have that tiger attitude. Forget the Torah giants of the past -- look at what we have contributed to the secular world in every field. But sadly, that attitude is quickly being lost. There is a pervasive attitude that scamming the system, getting something for nothing, cutting corners, is the way to go, and hard work is just not worth it or foolish.