Valuing Intellectual Struggle

Alix Spiegel of NPR tackled a fascinating topic today in a piece entitled, Struggle For Smarts? How Eastern And Western Cultures Tackle Learning.” She identifies some key differences in the value placed on intellectual struggle among schoolchildren in Eastern and Western cultures. Generally speaking, in the West intellectual struggle is viewed as a weakness, while in the East, it is viewed as a strength.

Here is a taste. You can read the article, or listen to it:

Jin Li is a professor at Brown University who, like Stigler, compares the learning beliefs of Asian and U.S. children. She says that to understand why these two cultures view struggle so differently, it’s good to step back and examine how they think about where academic excellence comes from.

For the past decade or so, Li has been recording conversations between American mothers and their children, and Taiwanese mothers and their children. Li then analyzes those conversations to see how the mothers talk to the children about school.

She shared with me one conversation that she had recorded between an American mother and her 8-year-old son.

The mother and the son are discussing books. The son, though young, is a great student who loves to learn. He tells his mother that he and his friends talk about books even during recess and the American mother responds with this:

Mother: Do you know that’s what smart people do, smart grown ups?
Child: I know… talk about books.
Mother: Yeah. So that’s a pretty smart thing to do to talk about a book.
Child: Hmmm mmmm.

It’s a small exchange — a moment. But Li says, this drop of conversation contains a world of cultural assumptions and beliefs.

Essentially, the American mother is communicating to her son that the cause of his success in school is his intelligence. He’s smart — which, Li says, is a common American view.

“The idea of intelligence in believed in the West as a cause,” Li explains. “She is telling him that there is something in him, in his mind, that enables him to do what he does.”

But in many Asian cultures, Li says, academic excellence isn’t linked with intelligence in the same way. “It resides in what they do, but not who they are, what they’re born with,” she says.

She shares another conversation, this time between a Taiwanese mother and her 9-year-old son. They are talking about the piano — the boy won first place in a competition, and the mother is explaining to him why.

“You practiced and practiced with lots of energy,” she tells him. “It got really hard, but you made a great effort. You insisted on practicing yourself.”

“So the focus is on the process of persisting through it despite the challenges, not giving up, and that’s what leads to success,” Li says.

All of this matters because the way you conceptualize the act of struggling with something profoundly effects your actual behavior.

Obviously if struggle indicates weakness — a lack of intelligence — it makes you feel bad, and so you’re less likely to put up with it. But if struggle indicates strength — an ability to face down the challenges that inevitably occur when you are trying to learn something — you’re more willing to accept it.

This piece seems to bear out what many of us have been saying all along: that learning takes place as a result of grappling with the material. A person does not have to be smart to learn, only willing to work hard enough to overcome every obstacle. Some obstacles require more diligence than others. But taken little by little, many seemingly overwhelming obstacles yield themselves up with perseverance.

It is also interesting to consider the premium we Westerners place on feelings. Notice in the piece that Spiegel identifies Westerners as following where their feelings lead when it comes to intellectual struggle. Struggle often “makes you feel bad,” so many of us give up. But intellectual struggle, as is evidenced by Eastern cultures according to Spiegel, is “an ability,” a skill to master.

The piece identifies the embracing of intellectual struggle as primarily an Eastern value. It certainly is, but it is also found in Western culture. Certainly the Puritans valued intellectual struggle, and that tradition has been a uniquely American trait. The question remains, how can it be recovered in Western culture in a healthy, beneficial, and lasting way?

One response to “Valuing Intellectual Struggle

  1. Excellent… and correct. Recent studies have shown that if children think their success is linked to inherent intelligence rather than hard work, then they give up when they meet a challenge. And thus, parents who want to inculcate diligence and perseverance, are better off praising effort (e.g. "I'm proud of the way you worked so hard on that."), rather than saying intelligence (e.g. "Wow! Look what you did. You are so smart." Sadly, most parents in our society have adopted the latter.

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