David Brooks jumped into the recent debate over Amy Chua’s “tiger mother” theory with a piece suggesting that Chua is ignoring what is really cognitively difficult. In describing this, Brooks makes a pretty good pitch for sociology as a discipline:
I have the opposite problem with Chua. I believe she’s coddling her children. She’s protecting them from the most intellectually demanding activities because she doesn’t understand what’s cognitively difficult and what isn’t.
Practicing a piece of music for four hours requires focused attention, but it is nowhere near as cognitively demanding as a sleepover with 14-year-old girls. Managing status rivalries, negotiating group dynamics, understanding social norms, navigating the distinction between self and group — these and other social tests impose cognitive demands that blow away any intense tutoring session or a class at Yale.
Yet mastering these arduous skills is at the very essence of achievement. Most people work in groups. We do this because groups are much more efficient at solving problems than individuals (swimmers are often motivated to have their best times as part of relay teams, not in individual events). Moreover, the performance of a group does not correlate well with the average I.Q. of the group or even with the I.Q.’s of the smartest members…
Participating in a well-functioning group is really hard. It requires the ability to trust people outside your kinship circle, read intonations and moods, understand how the psychological pieces each person brings to the room can and cannot fit together.
This skill set is not taught formally, but it is imparted through arduous experiences. These are exactly the kinds of difficult experiences Chua shelters her children from by making them rush home to hit the homework table.
Sounds like a good reason to take a sociology course. Interacting with other human beings can indeed be difficult and sociology both teaches particular ways of thinking about interaction that would be helpful.
These sorts of skills, such as working within a group, often get labeled something like “soft skills.” Brooks seems to be suggesting that perhaps these really are the “hard skills” that people need to be productive employees, neighbors, and citizens. Employers seem to want these skills and yet we have relatively few college courses that explicitly teach them.
I wonder if there is available data or studies that show that sociology students are better prepared to work in group settings than those of other majors.
And would people in other disciplines read this pitch of Brooks?