When Larry Met Amy
Summers and Chua, that is. The dinner discussion was scheduled before Chua became mama non grata in some quarters; her academic work focuses on the more Davos-y topic of globalization and empire. But in Davos, as elsewhere, talk about Chua’s extreme parenting approach is too delectable to pass up, so the conversation inevitably evolved into something of a parenting forum, with the notably hard-charging Summers, former Treasury Secretary, Harvard president and White House economic adviser, playing the somewhat unlikely role of Pussycat Dad to Chua’s Tiger Mother.
Summers questioned whether the “traditional veneration of academic achievement” remains the correct approach. “In a world where things that require discipline and steadiness can be done increasingly by computers and things that require creativity still can’t be, is the traditional set of educational emphases on discipline accuracy and successful performance … really what we want?” Summer asked. He noted that the two Harvard students with the greatest impact on contemporary society—Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg—had never graduated. “I have a feeling if they were Chinese their parents might not have liked that.”
Then, Summers observed, “If the goal is to succeed, there is a second question which is people on average live a quarter of their lives as children. That’s a lot. And it’s important that they be as happy as possible during their 18 years and that counts, too. Even if one could achieve more discipline at the time it probably comes at a cost. And is that a cost one that a society should incur. Is the society where people work the most hours necessarily the best and the most healthy society and I think that is a legitimate question.”
Summing up, Summers acknowledged the improbability of his position. “What’s striking for me in this is that in…95 percent of the conversations I’ve had in my life I’ve been on the side of ‘rules, rules, rules, do what’s right, stay between the lines,’ so it’s interesting to find myself as the apostle of permissiveness,” Summers said. “When I describe to my children that I found myself in such a position they’re going to be very surprised.”
Ruth Marcus is an editorial writer for the Washington Post.
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