Lessons From a Chinese Family

As President Obama promotes his plan to offer universal pre-school, an account of a poor Chinese family’s drive to send their daughter to college offers a contrast to the American education and poverty industries.

Nineteen-year-old college sophomore Wu Caoying has been tirelessly overseen by her fanatically-hard-working parents. Though uneducated, they fiercely monitored her study habits. When her village grammar school lost its English teacher, thus interrupting her study of that crucial language, they scrimped further to put together the money to hire an English tutor. Wu Caoying’s schools were not filled with government-funded dropout-prevention specialists, gang-intervention workers, and other costly paraprofessionals to try to persuade students to study. Rather, the deal was: The school provides the teachers, the students do the work.

Once in college, Wu Caoying also did not encounter a massive bureaucracy dedicated to persuading “first-generation college students” to stay in college. The deal was: The college provides the professors, the students do the work. “Studying is almost all that Ms. Wu does,” reports the New York Times. “She says she still has no boyfriend: ‘I have friends who have boyfriends and they argue all the time. It is such a hassle.’” It is a good bet that Ms. Wu’s polytechnic also does not provide a “Rape Crisis Center” teeming with feminist counselors to ease co-eds through the devastation of post-drunken-hook-up regrets.

The American education system looks shamefully decadent by comparison. Billions of taxpayer dollars have been poured into the effort of encouraging students to take home their free textbooks, do their homework, pay attention in class, and not attack their teachers, rather than cutting school, tagging their neighborhood, and running with gangs. Federal. state, and local coffers endlessly disgorge new programs to motivate students to take advantage of the opportunities that affluent America strews in their laps. Colleges try desperately to lure and retain students from “underrepresented” groups, bulking up with deans, provosts, and vice chancellors to offer them “services” to give them the study skills they still lack. Middle-class students are often as indifferent (if not more) to the power of education as poor students, treating college as a four-year-long mixer, and high school as a “pre-gaming” party to get up to speed.

Now comes the president’s $10 to $20 billion pre-school initiative.

In his State of the Union speech and at a rally with teachers in Atlanta last week, President Obama located responsibility for preparing a child for more formal schooling in the collective “we” that usually signals the arrival of a big-government program: “Study after study shows that the sooner a child begins learning, the better he or she does down the road. We are not doing enough to give all our kids that chance.”

Actually, a child begins learning at home, as soon as he is born. If a parent is unwilling to teach his child colors, numbers, the alphabet, and self-control, he should not be a parent. Perhaps the government’s latest assumption of parental responsibility will finally cancel the need for all the other surrogates down the road. Even if the social science were not so discouraging on the matter, the briefest perusal of America’s previous anti-poverty efforts would counsel pessimism.

— Heather Mac Donald is a contributing editor at City Journal.

Heather Mac Donald — Heather Mac Donald is the Thomas W. Smith Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a contributing editor of City Journal, and the author of the New York Times bestseller The War on Cops

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