Books April 2011

The Ivy Delusion

The real reason the good mothers are so rattled by Amy Chua
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Chua’s description of her older daughter, Sophia, makes clear that this is a formidable young woman. However unpleasant the road to her pianistic accomplishments may have been—as a 6-year-old she had a secret habit of gnawing on the piano in frustration, which came to an end when her father informed her it was “the most expensive piece of furniture in the house”—there is no doubt that she has vast intelligence and warmth and humor. She wrote a spirited defense of her mother in the New York Post, which was itself a testament to one of the by-products of being raised this way: explaining Mommy to horrified Westerners can become a stand-alone extracurricular activity for these kids.

As of this writing, her application is being read, I’m sure, at many of the top colleges. Almost certainly, she will be admitted to all of them, but I can guarantee she’s put these schools’ admissions officers in a swivet. Obviously, it is not their job to provide a referendum on child-rearing practices. But they know that admitting her will send a powerful message to a large community. If Sophia goes to Harvard next fall, a significant number of parents will say to themselves: The method works. Her matriculation to a top school will surely result in more children’s being forced to endure what she did. “Early on,” Sophia explains—with unintended poignancy—in her New York Post letter, “I decided to be an easy child to raise.” These seemed to be the options in her family: to submit quietly and avoid her mother’s wrath, as Sophia did, or to scream bloody murder and receive the brunt of it, as Lulu did. If the former choice is the one rewarded with the laurel of the Ivy League, then that institution’s role in our national life—not just as a group of eight universities, but as an idea about the nature of American excellence—may just about have run its course.

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Caitlin Flanagan is the author of Girl Land (2012) and To Hell With All That (2006).  More

Caitlin FlanaganCaitlin Flanagan began her magazine-writing career, in 2001, with a series of extended book reviews about the conflicts at the very heart of modern life—specifically, modern domestic life as it is lived by professional-class women. Flanagan has quickly established herself as a highly entertaining social critic unafraid to take on self-indulgence and political correctness, and her reviews provide penetrating and witheringly funny observations about the sexes and their discontents.

Flanagan's Atlantic articles have been named as finalists for the National Magazine Award five times, and her essay "Confessions of a Prep School College Counselor," which ran in September 2001, was included in the 2002 compilation of Best American Magazine Writing. Her work has also been included in Best American Essays 2003 and Best American Magazine Writing 2003. She is the author of the book To Hell with All That—an exploration, based on her Atlantic articles, of the lives of modern women.

Born and raised in Berkeley, California, Flanagan earned a B.A. and an M.A. in Art History from the University of Virginia. She now lives in California, where she spends her time writing and raising twins.

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