The Triple Package

It doesn’t feel that long, but it turns out that it was three and half years ago that I reviewed Amy Chua’s previous book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger MotherHer new book, written in collaboration with her husband, Jed Rubenfeld, is titled The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America; it attempts to explain why certain cultural groups in the United States are more successful than others. Anyone who is familiar with the tiger mother idea, and anyone for that matter who glances at Chua’s name, risks leaping to the false conclusion that The Triple Package is a racist justification for the academic success of Asian-Americans.

But please don’t jump to that conclusion! At the very least, read the book first.

One salutary characteristic of The Triple Package is precisely the recognition that we’re talking about culture, not race. There’s no such thing as “Asian culture” (singular), so those who observe the success of Chinese immigrants and American-born Chinese in STEM endeavors need to be careful not to generalize to all Asians. However, if you look at the list of the top 20 scorers in last year’s Massachusetts Math Olympiad, you find that their names include Gu, Gowravaram, Zhou, another Gowravaram, Zhu, Nie, Venigalla, Gandhi, and Agrawal — apparently more Indian than Chinese! Altogether we have slightly fewer than half of the top 20 who seem to be Asian. (I say “seem to be,” since it’s impossible to tell from names alone because of mixed-race students, not to mention names like Lee and Park.)

But back to the book. Chua and Rubenfeld have identified eight successful cultural groups, including the two mentioned in the previous paragraph. The other six are Cuban-exile, Iranian, Jewish, Lebanese, Mormon, and Nigerian. Perhaps most striking is the non-parallelism here. Iranians, Lebanese, and Nigerian are nationalities, roughly parallel to Chinese and Indians, although the huge multiplicity of ethnic groups within each of these nationalities bears further examination. But Cuban exiles form a subset of a nationality, and Mormons are an entirely different matter, being a religion rather than an ethnicity. And Jewish Americans are even harder to pin down, since Judaism is a religion but Jewishness is a culture; many of us are culturally Jewish but not religiously so. The authors provide a wealth of evidence for their list — and you may or may not be convinced by the evidence. But the list does seem to fend off charges of racism, even if perhaps they do protest too much.

So what are the characteristics of all eight groups? What is the “triple package” that they all share? The list is intriguing:

    1. superiority complex
    2. insecurity
    3. impulse control

What makes it intriguing, of course, is the apparent contradictions between the first two. The third characteristic is clear, but how can the first two co-exist? I say “apparent” contradictions, because anyone who has taught a significant number of students from those eight groups recognizes how insecurity combines with a superiority complex in a paradoxical way: you’re better than others…but you’re never good enough.

As with any work that combines sociology with statistics, the danger is that readers will leap to stereotypical conclusions about individuals. Needless to say, a statistical tendency within a group tells us nothing about any single individual. If you are cautious enough to resist the error of stereotyping, you should read The Triple Package. You’ll learn something. And you’ll think about the downside of the triple package, the anxiety that we often see in our students, especially (but by no means exclusively) those from the eight groups.


Categories: Books, Teaching & Learning