I totally judge books by their covers. When I first saw the Harry Potter series, I was so repulsed by the cover art that I would hold up a hand to block my view of them as I walked into book stores. They were always prominently displayed, and in my opinion, a real eye sore. It was not until after it was shoved forcefully into my face by a passionate 5th grader who simply would not sleep at night until I had given the book a chance. I finally read the first chapter of “Sorcerer’s Stone” and was very disturbed by the child abuse. I told my energetic little 5th grade book dealer that I didn’t like it so far, but she coaxed me into reading more. With a sigh, I took her advice and did so, promptly finished, then borrowed the rest of the series from her (only went up to “Chamber of Secrets” then), and now I throw annual Harry Potter parties for my students because I’m just that much of a geek over Potter Land.
When I saw the article on Inside Higher Ed about Amy Chua’s new book with her husband, “Triple Package”, all I needed to see was Amy Chua’s name and the term “tiger mom” for me to have that gut aversion reaction to an ugly book cover. I consider myself to be reasonably reasonable, so I read the article, just to give Chua a somewhat fair shake, even if the fact that we have the same last name makes me queasy (Chua and Tsai are two romanized pronunciations of the same Chinese surname). As I read through the article and then later also listened to an interview of Chua and her husband on NPR’s Code Switch, I decided more and more that I definitely will not be reading this book.
Let’s start with purpose. I really don’t understand the point of this book. The thesis is, in Chua’s words from the NPR interview, “about breaking out from the prison of these expectations that the first-generation immigrants often impose on their children and freeing them up that, you know, in a way, if you can break away and define success as you want it — including through public service or helping others or artistic formats.” So, it’s a self-help book for people who grow up children of first-generation immigrants? What am I supposed to take away from it? How am I to apply this knowledge? Does this include some kind of intervention that involves my parents?
But then the book cover says “How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America”. So it’s a socio-anthropological study of cultural groups in America? ALL OF THEM? Wow, that’s a bold undertaking that would take a lifetime to complete any sort of academic work that even remotely scratches the surface of being able to make broad statements about every single cultural group in America. My goodness, only a mad genius of Eisteinian proportions would even think they could undertake such an massive study. Just the ethnographic field notes would bury the broad Los Angeles suburbs in a flash flood of ink-soaked notebook paper.
Wait a minute, Amy Chua and her husband are both Yale Law professors. Are they even qualified to do such comprehensive and mind bending long term ethnographic research as this? How long have they been trained in both qualitative and quantitative analytical research methods in studying broad ranging cultures as diverse and dynamic and fluid as America’s?
I would imagine they’d need to also be trained in multidisciplinary approaches because they seem to touch upon multiple definitions of success–financial, academic, artistic, activist, public service, etc. As a reader, I would feel a lot more inclined to read if Chua or hubby had at least doctoral degrees in a few fields of study such as economics, education, art history, anthropology, psychology, sociology, civil engineering, and so on. I mean, how hard can it be? Some of those have overlapping curricula, and once you get the one, the rest are each just a few years away, once you have the foundational research methods training in place. And there’s two of them, so they could like, you know, split the disciplines of focus between them.
I’m a little partial to psychology, having a degree in that myself, especially seeing that they are claiming that “three unlikely traits” of superiority, inferiority, and impulse control seem to be the “The Triple Package” their whole book is about, and in the video above, they draw upon individual examples such as Steve Jobs. (Dear me, I hope there are ample case studies in the book to really theoretically flesh out the connection of broad cultural group traits to individual people.) Superiority, inferiority, and impulse control–oh the many ways in which the field of psychology can define each of those traits for a single person let alone entire cultural groups. Since it seems they are focusing on studying those traits in groups however, and not individuals, I think sociology would be a better choice for a doctoral foundation for such a book instead of psychology, although that would make drawing upon individual case study examples like Steve Jobs a little absurd.
Indeed, I’m being too picky.
Of course, people can write about a subject they may not have devoted their entire lifetimes studying. You don’t need the billions of miles of ethnographic notes needed to say something about “how three unlikely traits explain the rise and fall of cultural groups in America”. So realistically, since one married couple could not possibly have the human ability to do the expansive research necessary to make substantial broad ranging statements about cultural groups in America AND make claims on the impact those traits have had on the *success* of those groups in relation to each other (correlation is causation anyone?), I imagine most of the “research” that supports their claims is based on mass statistical data about nameless populations of people lumped together under superficial socially constructed labels. Maybe they throw in some reviews of literature or reviews of reviews of literature. Golly, I hope they had a good meta-analysis research methods professor when they were in law school to even begin to construct such a bold thesis based on secondhand and third-hand sources.
With the sort of surface-skimming research that I would imagine could only be realistically done for a book like this in the time period and resources given, I hope they’re not interpreting far beyond the data, linking complex individual psychological phenomena to mass generalizing group traits and then making claims on various definitions of “success” that could be derived from said individual psychological phenomena. That would just be stupid.
So the “cover” of this “The Triple Package” book is looking extremely unappetizing to me right now. This book of unclear and confused purpose that probably makes claims based upon mass depersonalized data and shallow skimming of all the relevant literature may have added a droplet of value to whatever conversation it was trying to join, but that little potential droplet doesn’t seem worth the investment of my precious reading time, of which I have very little to begin with (especially because I love to write so much as well).
Nevertheless, just like with the Harry Potter books, maybe some friend of mine might be so life-changed by this book that they will shove it in my face and not sleep until I have read it. I have enough friends who are teachers, professors, superintendents, principals, doctors, activists, engineers, writers, and yes, even lawyers that would be interested in the subject matter of this book. I’m sure if someone felt that this book had a golden nugget of knowledge worth my time, they would not hesitate to passionately let me know.
Like Jean Luc Picard says, “Things are only impossible until they’re not.”
In the meantime, I’d rather not read a book of seemingly questionable scholarly value just because I’m being inundated by media coverage on it thanks to sensationalist microaggressive marketing strategies.
Instead, while rereading Scarlet Letter, Little Women, and Wizard of Oz for teaching, I’ll be working through The Handbook of Research on Teaching the English Language Arts and Ken Masugi’s The Modern Scholar: Purpose and Persuasion: The Power of Rhetoric in American Political History.