The Confucian Cure For Tiger Parenting

Junru Pu/University of Washington, Seattle

In 2011, Amy Chua wrote Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, an ambiguous paean to her ferocious effort to drive her daughters to academic excellence. The book was an instant bestseller and ignited a controversy between proponents of hard work and defenders of a more relaxed, permissive parenting style. Eight years later, a new story demonstrated what tiger mothering looks like at scale: the Varsity Blues scandal revealed the machinations of over 750 affluent families in greater Los Angeles to gain admissions to prestigious universities, from falsified disability reports to gain extra SAT time to outright bribery of college athletics coaches.

What Chua’s defenders and critics had both missed over a decade ago was that academics was only one domain of fierce competition for college admission. Beyond the exposed fraud lay a vast domain of legitimate parental striving, from choreographed service trips and niche sports to paid admissions consultants and million-dollar donations. 

Underpinning it all was a determination that by outworking their peers and jumping through the necessary faddish hoops, one’s child could gain the crowning glory of acceptance to an elite university. What the debate over Chua’s tactics obfuscated is that there is, in fact, a broad consensus among parents about the paramount value of elite admissions and how far one should go to achieve it. Everyone is a tiger parent now.

The framing of Chua’s book, however, placed this drive in the context of an East Asian cultural emphasis on education as the key to personal development. This claim left a lasting imprint on the debate, but a misleading one. It is true that learning is central to the Confucian tradition. But far from endorsing tiger parenting, the Confucian tradition explicitly condemns it as a moral failing. 

Living in a bureaucratized empire often plagued with corruption, Confucian critics saw this kind of striving as a natural but erroneous response to bureaucratic incentives. Their contrasting view of education and strategies for navigating the tension between virtue and advancement contain lessons for all parents and students trying to chart an alternative path.

The Purpose of Learning

Learning in the Confucian sense differs markedly from “education” as our own schools practice it. It was values-laden and driven by practice, valuing life experience and role models over book learning. The very first line of the Analects places this ethos front and center: “To learn and then apply what you have learned, is this not a pleasure?” (Analects 1:1). Advanced students were exhorted: “The official, having discharged his duties, should devote his leisure to learning. The student, having completed his learning, should apply himself to becoming an official.” (Analects 13:19).

Learning is not the mere acquisition of book knowledge but a continuous cycle of study, practice, reflection, and discussion. Confucian learning is something that is done in the community, with both mentors to learn from and peers to spar with. The Analects themselves are a record of this process, with Confucius instructing and sparring with his disciples and watching as his proteges go on to achieve government positions and take on disciples of their own.

Confucius taught at a time when China was riven by civil war and when corruption and treachery were mainstays of politics. His aspiration was to create a class of upright officials—what he called 君子 junzi, “noble men,” an equivocation emphasizing nobility of character rather than social rank—who could reform government to better serve society. This ideal set the tone for his teaching, which was centered around self-cultivation, ethics, and how to create functional human relationships and sound cultures in governing institutions. Like the classical Western conception of the liberal arts that focuses on a free citizen’s civic participation, Confucian education was relationally and politically oriented. It was aimed not at self-advancement but at producing upright and confident future elites who, in improving themselves, were fit to improve society.

In Confucius’s time, these aspirations meant government service, while in modern society this may encompass a wide range of careers and professions. Whatever their line of work, Confucius did not want his students to view themselves as mere technicians or social climbers, but instead cultivate a holistic view about the social contribution of their work. He once said that “the gentleman is not a tool.” (Analects 2:12). Originally intended to warn against overspecialization, against thinking of oneself as a machine churning out deals or billable hours, this remark also rhymes with the modern slang of “tool” as a soulless social climber.

This holistic view included critically thinking about the educational and professional hierarchy itself. Confucius once cuttingly remarked “In a well-governed state, it’s shameful to be poor and unknown; in a poorly governed state, it’s shameful to be rich and in office.” (Analects 8:13). Success in the hierarchy may be a means to the end of building a better society, but it is never an end in itself. There are prestigious institutions and lucrative careers that are damaging to society, such that a noble man would decline them, and moral stands for which statesmen should be ready to risk their careers. In the Confucian school, students were to carefully judge the values an institutional hierarchy promotes before entering it. In modern meritocracy, by contrast, the hierarchy only judges you.

The Confucian orientation forms a telling contrast with modern striving parents, who have a sophisticated understanding of how to get into a good school but cannot articulate why. How many parents who drive their kids to achieve for the sake of getting into a good school can articulate, concretely, what a good school is supposed to do? How many can explain how a management consultant or investment banker—careers that account for over 40 percent of Harvard graduates—ought to serve civilization?

This is not only an abstract societal concern. Parents who do not critically examine the institutions they drive their kids to enter are setting up their children for problems. A 2020 report from a task force in the Harvard University provost’s office reported that 31 percent of students reported suffering from depression, and 30 percent from anxiety disorders. A survey from Nature Biotechnology revealed that 53 percent of PhD students have sought mental health treatment for one of these two conditions. These educational institutions have also presided over a milieu in which marriage and childbearing are increasingly delayed and rare. The prime tenet of the tiger parent is their belief that admission to an elite university is the ticket to a good life. But this belief is disprovable by publicly available data. Their sacrifice towards this end is not only costly in terms of their family’s financial resources, but empirically does not even deliver the goods they sought.

Despite the publicly available statistics, parents repeatedly find themselves surprised when their own children run into these problems. If what they seek is a good future for their children, should they not spend at least a fraction of the striving that goes into test prep and extracurriculars to ensure that their children are mentally well and have the opportunity to start a family? There is a special irony that such parents, allegedly under the influence of a Confucian tradition that venerates the family, end up funneling their kids into careerism and barrenness.

The Confucian Mindset

Confucius’s strategy of small-group elite instruction eventually bore fruit, but its very success in reaching the halls of power meant it faced many of the same corrupting influences we face in such institutions today. The band of disciples grew, eventually giving rise to a class of scholar-bureaucrats that later rulers found indispensable in administering their empire. By the Han Dynasty, Confucianism had become the state ideology and was the subject of school instruction and civil service exams. Predictably, this had a corrupting influence as bureaucratic demands compressed a philosophy that once developed under lived conditions into formulas to be recited on command. Against this pressure, generations of scholars labored to maintain the spirit and practice of Confucianism, both within and outside academic institutions.

Wang Yangming was one such philosopher-official in the Ming dynasty. Exiled due to court intrigue, he nevertheless amassed a following of disciples. When asked to write a preface for a book of model essays for the imperial exams—a Ming-dynasty equivalent of a test-prep book—he declared that the study of how to become a sage is basically incongruous with study for passing examinations. Nevertheless, the exams were the only route to officialdom and the opportunity to put one’s ideas into practice on a grand scale. Therefore, the student should cultivate their own character before studying for exams, regarding the exams as merely a transitory prerequisite towards true statesmanship.

Wang emphasized the need for the individual to chart an independent course but was not blind to pragmatic constraints. This pragmatism is key to pursuing a Confucian vision of education in the modern world, for we are in much the same situation he confronted. The modern university exercises unrivaled control over economic opportunity, with an ever-escalating college wage premium attesting to the extent to which degrees and credentials gatekeep the commanding heights of the economy. On the other hand, the admissions system is corrupt—not in the sense of rewarding Varsity Blues-style bribes, but in the sense that its criteria are flawed no matter what your theory of admissions is. Whether the mission of college education is seeking future leaders, rewarding the most brilliant, or uplifting the most disadvantaged, nobody would suggest that the way to go about it is to discard standardized tests and instead reward those parents who can start a nonprofit for their child. Yet that is the bizarre situation applicants now face. 

For modern students, no less than those of Wang’s day, study directed towards becoming a virtuous citizen is basically incongruous with the hoops for getting into college. Yet we cannot simply reject the whole apparatus because of this corruption. As spiritually simplifying as that would be, it would also forfeit the opportunity to build what we can in an imperfect world.

The Confucian approach offers a different perspective: we should engage with the institutions, but we should not, like tiger parents, allow their perspectives to dictate our values. We must be a judge of institutions rather than being judged by them, and we must imprint our own values on our education. 

This is a subversive idea in an environment where the race is to be excellent at admissions criteria rather than to question what they say about the institutions that implement them. Tiger parents assume, at least in practice, that good schools are good in themselves. We have cultivated a culture of trusting the experts. We defer to teachers and professors on what is worth doing and view the schools and universities as capable of providing a good life. 

Yet this is at best a necessary fiction for a deeply ideologically divided nation that nevertheless demands government-funded education. All education is in some sense ideological, for all students go on to act in the world in one way or another. A world in which students of “top universities” pen predictably identical college admissions essays and then predictably move on to careers in management consulting, finance, and software firms is empirically not a neutral one just training students to make their own best decisions.

The ultimate duty falls on the scholar to assess this ideology and to judge the value of educational institutions by their fruits. In one sense, this includes the knowledge and economic opportunity they offer, but it also includes the ways they fail to promote human flourishing in their students and societal responsibility in their alumni. Families and communities, too, must take the lead in actively espousing their own values. While their children are young, they should actively speak to their own vision of what a flourishing life looks like. As children mature, they should elaborate that vision by humanistic study and experiential learning. 

Schools and universities can be valuable partners in this endeavor, but only junior partners or a public utility rather than a fount of authority. To view them otherwise is to become a tool. For any of this to happen at all, the family must delve into the more philosophical questions of what is worth doing, which are the same questions that the Confucians discussed among themselves.

Whether through study of the classics—Confucian or Western—participating in religious life, or civic engagement, students should be spending many hours every week cultivating their character and moral orientation, especially where it diverges from the moral fashions of the schools. Students and their communities should go out of their way to provide the human element that mass education is structurally incapable of delivering. They should seek opportunities to learn from inspiring teachers, community leaders, family friends, and relatives, whose lessons in how to do good work and be an upright person live in traditions of practice, not books. 

Students should engage with the real world as much as possible; aspiring writers should submit their poetry to real journals, and most students would benefit from a summer job that illuminates a little piece of how the working world really works. Parents should think very little of pulling their kids out of classes for these activities; schooling must never interfere with education.

The Confucian mindset also leads to a paradoxical view of “practicality” in education. It values humanistic learning—abstract knowledge about history, mathematics, ethics, and science that orients the student in the world and helps him make sense of his place in it. It also values practice; taking those ideas and acting in the real world, reflecting and learning from that experience. 

What the Confucian mindset does not value is much of what is now called “practical education.” Learning computer skills to build a hobby project on the internet is practical, but a class in “computer literacy” forgotten a year later is not. “Practical” in a Confucian sense is not about chasing whatever fields are hiring right now; it’s about getting close to the coalface of the real world from every angle, leavened by reflection and discussion with real peers and elders. Above all, Confucian education is aimed at developing a stateman’s mindset, one concerned neither with personal advantage, nor with education as its own goal, but with putting these things to use to serve his family and society. 

Graduates may very well go onto conventionally prestigious careers, much as the enlightened scholar-bureaucrat engaged in prestigious public service. But while their job titles might look the same, their orientation towards their work looks distinctive, with a vision of what they would like the work to accomplish in the world and a readiness to switch to another opportunity with greater social value if need be—or, like Wang, risk it all to correct abuses and flaws in the industry. Quite the opposite of conformist strivers, they should be ready to gamble all their reputational capital, equally prepared for meteoric rises and public disgrace or exile, precisely because they serve a higher good than the values of their workplace.

The challenge that Confucian ideals issue seems daunting, but for that reason, it is a uniquely empowering perspective. Generations of scholars rooted in Confucian ideas of learning and self-cultivation struggled to apply those ideas in the context of an imperfect yet totalizing education and civil service state. The Confucian idea serves as direction for those who want to serve civilization but currently endure an oppressive system of education unaligned with either personal or societal flourishing. It rebukes the many who follow the institutional incentives towards becoming excellent sheep. Thousands of years ago, Confucius already condemned the ambitions of the average striver.

Institutions can be reformed, and their incentives can be reoriented: none of these challenges are insurmountable. But what comes before all this is an internal reorientation, a decision to value true learning and to side with what is healthy and virtuous in society, even to one’s own temporary detriment. Tiger parenting is the natural endpoint of a technocracy in any century, and it will not end until parents and their children decide that being a sage is better than being a Harvard man.

Peter Wei is a physician in State College, Pennsylvania.