In a New York Times op-ed this month, columnist Nicholas Kristof explores the reasons for Asian-Americans’ tremendous success in the United States—from real and perceived stereotypes to what he sees as the realities of their familial and cultural environments.
He’s of the opinion that strong, two-parent families and a great value on education is the reason that so many Asian-Americans excel in this country—that and the high expectations that are placed on the children. All of those factors contribute in various ways, but it’s that last part that I was most struck by—presenting children and people with opportunities and trusting them to manifest their true potential.
Kristof points out a famous experiment in the 1960s by Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobs. The experimenters conducted I.Q. tests on an entire class and told teachers which children they expected to highly perform academically. A year later, 47 percent of the students designated as “gifted” gained 20 or more I.Q. points.
But there was a hitch. Rosenthal and Jacobs actually chose the children at random—not because of their I.Q.s. Were those kids delivering because of their teacher’s trust and expectations?
This study reminded me of a story from my own life growing up in my birth country of Lebanon. When I was a child there, my parents sent me to a French elementary, where upon completion you would choose a path of math and science or literature and arts. Girls were generally encouraged to take the latter.
But my father told me from a very young age that I could do anything that I set my mind to. Although I did well in literature, I also excelled in the other subjects, and when it came time for me to choose a track for junior high school, I chose math and science. I was surprised that I was one of only two girls out of 50 students who entered this track.
When I took my first math exam, I got a perfect score, and when my teacher handed back the papers, he asked me in front of the entire class if I had “taken the test before or if I had cheated.”
I was almost devastated, and this nearly destroyed my confidence.
Though I overcame the cultural bias that my teacher had against girls excelling in math—even in his mind—I still reflected on this formative moment over the years. I also learned that two years after it happened, when my younger brother took his class and did well, the teacher said “You have your sister’s brightness.”
I often think about how I would have been undone in my studies if my father had not placed in me his complete trust and faith. I think about the children from Rosenthal’s and Jacobs’ experiment and my own experiences, and I can’t help but wonder how many more children in the world and colleagues at work we could help if we truly and consistently believed in them?