Thursday, November 20, 2008

Rice Farming and Math

I can't wait to read Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers even though I was underwhelmed by The Tipping Point. Despite all the hype around it, I was not convinced enough by his line of reasoning to be "tipped over". I am particularly intrigued by his explanation of why Asian kids are usually better at math than American ones :

"Rice farming lays out a cultural pattern that works beautifully when it comes to math," Gladwell hypothesizes. "Rice farming is the most labor-intensive form of agriculture known to man. It is also the most cognitively demanding form of agriculture … There is a direct correlation between effort and reward. You get exactly out of your rice paddy what you put into it."

I find this very presumptuous to say the least. Gladwell has made a broad brush (and mostly incorrect if I may add) assumption about Asians who have historically been a very class and caste conscious people. To posit that the rice-farming gene (or tradition) gives Asian kids a leg up in math is quite an eyeopener for an Asian such as myself who is fairly decent at math.

The average rice farmer's child in India was barely literate in the past and is still only scraping the bottom of the barrel as far as getting an education.
A majority of the kids who have traditionally enjoyed the benefits of good education in Asia, have likely never been around a rice farm in their entire lives and neither have their ancestors. For better or worse, they have zero experience of this cognitively demanding line of work and thus cannot benefit from it.

These are the kids from the so-called "upper castes" or "upper classes" who have survived by their wits generation after generation; they have grown up knowing they have no other capital besides that to make a living with. While times have changed in the last fifty years (at least in India) and rice farmers have a better chance of getting an education than they ever did before - they are still quite a ways away from making waves in AP Calculus class in San Francisco.

I would argue that Asian parents are culturally conditioned to value education very highly as being educated has always been correlated with being upper-caste or upper-class in their culture. To that end, they push their kids to work as hard as it takes to excel in school because it confers upward social mobility and respectability to the entire family. As much as Gladwell would like to believe it, rice farming has precious little to do with any of this.


ggop said...

With such fallacious logic you still want to read it?!

Heartcrossings said...

ggop - It is not often that you find so much to be amused at while reading 'serious' non-fiction :)