A friend of mine taught at Harvard for a few years. Her husband needed a job, so he taught a writing class. He said his students were so bad it appeared to be an experiment: How stupid can you be and succeed at Harvard? They had not been admitted based on SAT scores or grades, that was clear. In a recent article called “The Myth of American Meritocracy”, Ron Unz described considerable evidence of exactly what my friend’s husband noticed: Harvard admission not based on the usual “meritocratic” measures, such as SAT scores and grades. For example, he found evidence of an Asian quota. If Asians weren’t penalized for being Asian, far more would be admitted.
Archive for the 'China' Category
An American writer named James McGregor (in One Billion Customers) called China “a nation of bookworms”. In China, entry into college is heavily controlled by a nationwide test called the gao kao taken near the end of high school. For hundreds of years, China had the most sophisticated civil service entrance exams in the world. Chinese students study much harder than American students. Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (in which a mother puts a huge amount of pressure on her daughters to succeed in conventional ways) was presented by Chua as reflecting Chinese parenting values. It’s true that Chinese parents push their children much harder to do well in school than American parents.
All of which might lead unsuspecting Americans to believe that Chinese people value being a good student. Not at all. A Chinese friend explained to me that being called “a good student” is essentially an insult. “You are a good student” is what you say to someone when you can’t think of anything nice to say. It means
1. You are not interesting.
2. You have no sense of humor.
3. You have no interests outside of school.
Drone might be the closest English equivalent to the Chinese “good student”, except that no one would ever say to someone “you are a drone” and the meaning of the term has recently changed (to mean mini-planes flown remotely).
If you open the American edition of Forbes, you will find articles about the richest people in America. If you open the Russian edition, you will find articles about the richest people in Russia. If you open the Chinese edition, you will find articles about the richest people in America.
A Russian friend of mine noticed this. He happened to know an sophomore economics major at Tsinghua. It is incredibly difficult to get into Tsinghua and the economics major is the most desirable major of all. To be an economics major at Tsinghua you need a test score that is in something like the top 1 out of 100,000. Staggeringly high. My Russian friend asked the Tsinghua economics major, “Who is the richest person in China?”
The economics major didn’t know. He seemed a little angry. “Why should I know? We’ve never been taught that,” he said.
One of my students grew up and went to high school in Nanjing, population 8 million. Her acceptance to Tsinghua was such a big deal that when her acceptance letter reached the local post office they called to tell her. The post office also alerted journalists. When the letter was delivered to her house, there were about 20 journalists on hand. One of them, from a TV station, asked her to say something to those who failed.
Two years ago I taped a bunch of Chinese flash cards (Chinese character on one side, English meaning on the other) to my living room wall (shown above). I’ll study them in off moments, I thought. I didn’t. It was embarrassing when guests pointed to a card and said, “What’s that?” But not embarrassing enough.
A few weeks ago, I can’t remember why, I decided to test myself: how many do I know? About 20%. I’ll try to learn more, I thought. I was astonished how fast I learned the rest. It took little time and almost no effort. I didn’t need “study sessions”. I glanced at the array now and then, looked for cards I didn’t know yet, and flipped them to find out the answer. After a few days I knew all of them. (more…)
- chocolate: what is the best dose?
- tasting sugar water improves self-control
- The Beijing Interceptors.
- doctor complains about over-prescription of opiates. The author, a doctor named Susana Duncan, complains about several things, including “a system where symptoms are treated but the source of pain remains”. Treatment of symptoms rather than identification of causes is overwhelmingly true of the whole health care system, not just treatment of chronic pain. One example is depression. Anti-depressants do not reduce whatever caused the depression. Another example is high blood pressure. Blood-pressure-lowering drugs do nothing to eliminate what caused the high blood pressure. Duncan was once science editor of New York magazine, which may have something to do with her ability to cogently criticize the system.
- A British surgeon performs hundreds of unnecessary operations before being caught.
Here at Tsinghua University, the Second Annual Chinese International Conference on Positive Psychology has just begun. The first speaker was Martin Seligman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and former president of the American Psychological Association (the main professional group of American psychologists). Seligman is more responsible for the Positive Psychology movement than anyone else. Here are some things I liked and disliked about his talk.
1. Countries, such as England, have started to measure well-being in big frequent surveys (e.g., 2000 people every month) and some politicians, such as David Cameron, have vowed to increase well-being as measured by these surveys. This is a vast improvement over trying to increase how much money people make. The more common and popular and publicized this assessment becomes — this went unsaid — the more powerful psychologists will become, at the expense of economists. Seligman showed a measure of well-being for several European countries. Denmark was highest, Portugal lowest. His next slide showed the overall result of the same survey for China: 11.83%. However, by then I had forgotten the numerical scores on the preceding graph so I couldn’t say where this score put China.
2. Work by Angela Duckworth, another Penn professor, shows that “GRIT” (which means something like perseverance) is a much better predictor of school success than IQ. This work was mentioned in only one slide so I can’t elaborate. I had already heard about this work from Paul Tough in a talk about his new book.
3. Teaching school children something about positive psychology (it was unclear what) raised their grades a bit.
1. Three years ago, Seligman got $125 million from the US Army to reduce suicides, depression, etc. (At the birth of the positive psychology movement, Seligman proclaimed that psychologists spent too much time studying suicide, depression, etc.) I don’t mind the grant. What bothered me was a slide used to illustrate the results of an experiment. I couldn’t understand it. The experiment seems to have had two groups. The results from each group appeared to be on different graphs (making comparison difficult, of course).
2. Why does a measure of well-being not include health? This wasn’t explained.
3. Seligman said that a person’s level of happiness was “genetically determined” and therefore was difficult or impossible to change. (He put his own happiness in “the bottom 50%”.) Good grief. I’ve blogged several times about how the fact that something is “genetically-determined” doesn’t mean it cannot be profoundly changed by the environment. Quite a misunderstanding by an APA president and Penn professor.
4. He mentioned a few studies that showed optimism (or lack of it) was a risk factor for heart disease after you adjust for the traditional risk factors (smoking, exercise, etc.). There is a whole school of “social epidemiology” that has shown the importance of stuff like where you are in the social hierarchy for heart disease. It’s at least 30 years old. Seligman appeared unaware of this. If you’re going to talk about heart disease epidemiology and claim to find new risk factors, at least know the basics.
5. Seligman said that China had “a good safety net.” People in China save a large fraction of their income at least partly because they are afraid of catastrophic medical costs. Poor people in China, when they get seriously sick, come to Beijing or Shanghai for treatment, perhaps because they don’t trust their local doctor (or the local doctor’s treatment failed). In Beijing or Shanghai, they are forced to pay enormous sums (e.g., half their life’s savings) for treatment. That’s the opposite of a good safety net.
6. Given the attention and resources and age of the Positive Psychology movement, the talk seemed short on new ways to make people better off. There was an experiment with school children where the main point appeared to be their grades improved a bit. A measure of how they treat each other also improved a bit. (Marilyn Watson, the wife of a Berkeley psychology professor, was doing a study about getting school kids to treat each other better long before the Positive Psychology movement.) There was an experiment with the U.S. Army I couldn’t understand. That’s it, in a 90-minute talk. At the beginning of his talk Seligman said he was going to tell us things “your grandmother didn’t know.” I can’t say he did that.
A friend of mine was at a KFC in Beijing. She returned from the bathroom to find her purse was gone. She called the manager. The police came in 15 minutes. At the police station, she saw security footage, which showed that her purse had been taken by an 11-year-old girl. “Heart-breaking,” said my friend.
Ecologists understand the exploit/explore distinction. When an animal looks for food, it can either exploit (use previous knowledge of where food is) or explore (try to learn more about where food is). With ants, the difference is visible. Trail of ants to a food source: exploit. Solitary wandering ant: explore. With other animals, the difference is more subtle. You might think that when a rat presses a bar for food, that is pure exploitation. However, my colleagues and I found that when expectation of food was lower, there was more variation — more exploration — in how the rat pressed the bar. In a wide range of domains (genetics, business), less expectation of reward leads to more exploration. In business, this is a common observation. For example, yesterday I read an article about the Washington Post that said its leaders failed to explore enough because they had a false sense of security provide by their Kaplan branch. “Thanks to Kaplan, the Post Company felt less pressure to make hard strategic choices—and less pressure to venture in new directions,” wrote Sarah Ellison.
Striking the right balance between exploitation and exploration is crucial. If an animal exploits too much, it will starve when its supply of food runs out. If it explores too much, it will starve right away. Every instance of collapse in Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Socieities Choose to Fail or Succeed was plausibly due to too much exploitation, too little exploration (which Diamond, even though he is a biologist, fails to say). I’ve posted several times about my discovery that treadmill walking made studying Chinese more pleasant. I believe walking creates a thirst for dry knowledge. My evolutionary explanation is that this pushed prehistoric humans to explore more.
I have never heard an economist make this point: the need for proper balance between exploit and explore. (more…)
- Yale cancels China year-abroad program. One reason is that students in Beijing (at Peking University, one of the best universities in the country) learned less Chinese than students at Yale.
- European plagiarism epidemic. “More than a third of a new book for law students on how to write papers properly was plagiarised . . . The authors vowed to find the culprits.”
- Penkowa for Dummies. Complicated scientific fraud.
- Self-tracking difficulties: a fickle and too-demanding exercise tracker. I try to walk 60 minutes/day. It’s easy to track.
Thanks to Anne Weiss.