Maya Thiagarajan is the author of Beyond the Tiger Mom, a more thoughtful take on parenting differences between East and West than that other book. She has taught English literature at elite schools in both Asia and the United States and holds a graduate degree in education from Harvard. Here she talks to the Tropicalist about why it is that the humanities (history, literature, philosophy, etc.) are consistently undervalued in Asian education, and what her ideal humanities curriculum would look like.

Trop: With all the talk about creativity these days, it’s surprising that the humanities are still so undervalued here. In your book, you talk about how Asian parents place so much importance on making their children numerate from a young age, whereas reading—say, to their kids at bedtime—simply isn’t part of the equation. Why do you think that’s the case?

MT: Colonialism has resulted in linguistic displacement in many parts of Asia.

On the one hand, parents know that English is the language of power, and they want their children to master it.

On the other hand, I think there is ambivalence among parents towards English and the values that it represents.

First, it’s difficult to have real feeling for the stories that come out of a culture that is completely different to your own.

Second, it can also be traumatic and stressful for the parents when their children are exposed to ideas that challenge the parents’ own beliefs about what it is to be a good parent and what childhood should be.

By contrast, Asian parents feel that math and science are a universal language. “2 + 2= 4,” wherever you are. Culture, accent and language don’t come into play at all, unlike with the humanities. For these parents, there’s too much subjectivity in the humanities, whereas with math and science, there is a direct correlation between effort and results.

And economic security is still key. Here, math and science are seen as the most straightforward route to jobs. These are fields where Asians have traditionally been welcome. When I spoke to the principal at one of Singapore’s best high schools, she told me that less than four percent of the students in the gifted program at her school studied the humanities.

What about those countries where students are taught in the vernacular, like China and Japan, though? Even there, it seems the Asian approach to teaching the humanities is very different from the West.

In the US, where you don’t have the pressure of an external exam, teaching the humanities tends to be open-ended. Teachers get their students to analyze and interpret the text in different ways.

 

In Asia, there is typically only one way to interpret a text. For the gao kao [the Chinese school leaving exam], you have model answers. Test takers are told to memorize and mimic them if they want to score well on the exam.

 

There is a Chinese professor, Jin Li, who teaches at Brown, whom I quote a lot in my book. She’s written a book on the cultural foundations of learning. She says that in societies that are so relationship-based, holding examinations is one way of keeping nepotism in check and keeping the system somewhat meritocratic. Even when you are testing people on the humanities, you can’t have multiple answers or divergent thinking—otherwise it wouldn’t be objective. So you end up with this strange kind of system that has been created in response to the relationship orientation of the culture, but now drives everything in the culture in turn.

And then, according to a Chinese colleague of mine, even when school children in China write essays, they don’t use the Western-style format of a thesis followed by an argument to back it up. It’s considered rude to be so direct. Instead, their arguments are very circular. A Westerner reading the essay in translation would say: look, this child is not making an argument. A Chinese reader, however, would know that you have to read between the lines. It’s coming out of a cultural context where you can’t make your reader lose face.

The modern Asian allergy to critical thinking as done in the humanities is ironic when you consider that our great books—the Bhagavad Gita for example—and our great thinkers—like the Buddha–are all about questioning.

Look, while it’s easy to be critical of the Asian approach, there are things that children get in Asia that they don’t get in the U.S.

There is a greater level of innocence, and children get to be children for longer. The stress is academic, not social, and in my opinion, the latter is more harmful.

The sense of security that Asian children enjoy might actually come from the fact that not everything is up for questioning.

The “aunty-uncle” culture prioritizes family and relationships over questioning.

As a result, children grow up with a sense of community, that this is the way the world is, that each of us has a role to play and that we are duty bound to do it.

Think of Asian culture as a seatbelt. It restrains you and prevents risk-taking, but it creates a feeling of security.

So how would you structure your ideal humanities curriculum?

Studying the humanities is not going to be of much worth to a society—as a tool of social change or social justice—if students are given a text and there’s only one way to interpret it on the exam.

Even when alternative methods are offered, like in India, when the curriculum draws upon the cultural heritage of that country by making students do yoga and meditation in the morning, they are not being asked to question anything. There are no discussions about different aspects of culture, religion etc.

For a real humanities education, you need multiple, countervailing perspectives and room for questioning and discussion.

If I were teaching a class on the partition of India and Pakistan, for example, I would have the children look at Pakistan’s side of the story. Read some literature around the event. I’d get the kids to ask questions like, why do you have the same event interpreted in two totally different ways. Why is Jinnah [the first Prime Minister of Pakistan] a hero in Pakistan and a villain in India? I would encourage those kinds of questions, and then the children would have to write about it. There wouldn’t be a right answer.

In an examination-based system, it’s very difficult to take this kind of approach.

The challenge is also to design a curriculum—if you’re teaching in English—so that it is both authentic and good. You want it to reflect the values of those who are being taught, while ensuring the teaching materials conform to a certain standard or quality.

Yes, but when we say “good,” we are referring to a Western norm of the good, which is often different from what is considered good in China and India.

For example, when I was young, I read an English translation of the Mahabharata by Kamala Subramaniam, which is widely considered in India to be one of the best. Then, I read it again after I went to the US for my higher education. This time, I was appalled by what I now considered the poor writing style.

That much said, having a discussion about the cultural values of the Mahabharata is a very different discussion from a Western-imposed one on the cultural values of democracy.

I’ve also done workshops regionally on reading and identity. I’ve asked the participating teachers to consider what happens when children are reading only Western literature and what is that telling kids about who they are and who is beautiful and who is powerful. The teachers I’ve interacted with have been very receptive.

The good news is that there is more and more English-language publishing in Asia with local content. It’s still not yet in the mainstream, but change happens slowly.