A Few Words on Amy Chua

Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, about deliberately being a “Chinese mother” to her two daughters, has been the subject of intense online controversy and debate, much of it fiercely negative. I don’t want to venture into the flamewars over the book or her parenting. I do, however, want to say a very few words about Amy Chua as a teacher and a person.

Chua was my Contracts professor in my first semester in law school. I later took International Business Transactions with her. She also supervised my first extended paper in law school, which, after many revisions, eventually became Virtual Worlds as Comparative Law.

She was, by a significant margin, the most Socratic professor I had in law school. She was also one of the best. Her Contracts class was fast-moving, thought-provoking, and entertaining. She had very high expectations for our class preparation and our engagement in class. But provided you did the reading and really thought about your answers when called on, she was on your side. I said some smart things in class, and some amazingly stupid ones; I felt comfortable trying, and I felt comfortable failing. It was a classroom where on-the-fly intellectual risk-taking was essential, but I knew at all times that there was a safety net below. At the end of every Socratic discussion, she would bring things to a close and carefully restate the law so that we knew what it was we needed to have extracted from the conversation. I’ve consciously modeled my own teaching, in large part, on hers.

Outside of class, I particularly remember two things. The first is that she invited us out, in groups of six, to have a drink with her and talk about law school. She was the most approachable professor I had in my first year of law school; she came out for a trivia contest between the two small groups that made up her Contracts class. I can’t imagine any of my other professors—as good as some of them were in their own ways—doing that. The second is that, for her IBT class, she assigned her book World on Fire. She regretted, however, the potential conflict of interest that her dual role as author and professor created. Thus, she asked us all to come, when were able, to her office, so that she could check our names off a list and give us each a refund for what we’d paid the bookstore. It was the only time, to my knowledge, that one of my professors paid for our coursebooks out of his or her own pocket.

While I’m glad that her book is selling well, I am sad that her controversial parenting techniques are beginning to define her, in the public’s mind at least.

This the first time I stare in awe of a nowadays teacher and disciple engaged in a real life socratic dialogue… Kudos to both of you!

This is a basically a “survivorship bias” problem. People who survive hell on earth often have a lot on the ball. They can even be very helpful to their peers (because that’s one way of surviving). Their wonderfulness, however, should not be taken as a recommendation for deliberate infliction of hell on earth. That’s confusing survival with creation.