Monday, February 06, 2012

The Korean's Epistemology: Avoid Truisms, Take Some Risks

Here is another attempt at a running series that may or may not continue. This series will be about more general discussions about epistemology (i.e. study of knowledge,) and how the Korean prefers to approach learning about the world.

This installation of the series was sparked by a Wall Street Journal story about French parents that the Korean shared on his Facebook. An excerpt, just to make sense of the exchange that followed:
The French, I found, seem to have a whole different framework for raising kids. When I asked French parents how they disciplined their children, it took them a few beats just to understand what I meant. "Ah, you mean how do we educate them?" they asked. "Discipline," I soon realized, is a narrow, seldom-used notion that deals with punishment. Whereas "educating" (which has nothing to do with school) is something they imagined themselves to be doing all the time.

One of the keys to this education is the simple act of learning how to wait. It is why the French babies I meet mostly sleep through the night from two or three months old. Their parents don't pick them up the second they start crying, allowing the babies to learn how to fall back asleep. It is also why French toddlers will sit happily at a restaurant. Rather than snacking all day like American children, they mostly have to wait until mealtime to eat. (French kids consistently have three meals a day and one snack around 4 p.m.)
Why French Parents Are Superior [Wall Street Journal]

Upon seeing this link, a reader commented:
It's called neglect and letting the babies cry it out method that has just been proven to be not so great for them and it might even lower their IQ's. What we need is a nice middle. Also, each kid is so different. I could take my first one to a restaurant no problem from when she was a baby, but the second one? She has a very active mind and body all it's own so hard to enjoy a nice sit down meal at a restaurant.
The Korean objects to this comment. But first, he would caution that this post is about epistemology, not about child-rearing or the French. The Korean's objection is about the intellectual approach to the topic of French child-rearing, not about the topic of French child-rearing itself.

The Korean's objection is this:  expressions like "nice middle" or "each kid is so different" do not move the ball forward. Those are truisms that describe everything and explain nothing. Every decision to be made in the world involves some type of balance-finding. Every individual unit -- be the unit a country, a car, a child, or whatever -- bears some kind of difference compared to another individual unit. These are obvious truisms that we already know. Re-asserting these propositions, without doing more, does not add to our knowledge of the world.

These are the questions that do move the ball forward -- where is that "nice middle"? What does the "nice middle" look like? How do we get to that point? If we must balance numerous competing values, exactly where should we strike that balance? What are the principles involved in striking that balance? As to "each individual X is different" -- how much do those differences matter? Are there any unifying themes or trends that connect those individuals? If we do connect those individuals based on those themes or trends, what lessons do we gain, and what things do we lose sight of? Do we lose too much by adopting an overarching theme, such that the overarching theme cannot be applied to those individuals from which the theme was inductively derived?

These are the questions that matter, because these are the questions whose answers truly advance human knowledge. To be sure, those answers may end up reaffirming the truism. For certain issues, for example, the the degree of differences found in individuals may overwhelm any attempt to derive a general rule. When a reader asks the Korean, "There is this one Korean guy I like. What can I do to attract him?", the Korean simply answers: "Do something that he likes." In that situation, the Korean believes that is the right answer -- as far as affairs of the heart goes, the variation among individuals is just too large to derive a general rule that is applicable to a particular individual without fail, even within a relatively defined group of individuals. (In this case, Korean men.) But this is not the same thing as the vacuous, "every person is different" wave-of-the-hand. Exploring a path to find a dead end is not the same thing as abdicating the journey altogether.

Take some intellectual risks! Don't be afraid to chase an idea down a rabbit hole, and form your own ideas and theories. Actually pursue those ideas and write essays, instead of fleetingly thinking of something and flinging the half-formed thought on another pile of Internet comments. Don't be afraid to have those ideas aired out and exposed to relentless criticisms. And when you encounter an idea that you dislike, do not dismiss it by retreating to the comfortable position behind those meaningless truisms. Charge forward, swing your intellectual weaponry, and engage your sparring partners by giving your answers to those questions that matter and telling why his answers to those questions are wrong. That's how we learn anything truly new.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at


  1. Thanks for sharing the article. One of the most interesting articles I have read in a long time... Cross-cultural comparisons are always fascinating. Kumawoyo.

  2. "I pointed out that I'd been scolding Leo for the last 20 minutes. Frédérique smiled. She said that I needed to make my "no" stronger and to really believe in it."

    Seems like common sense, doesn't it? My mother told me children tend to do as they are expected to do - they are sensitive to the expectations of their parents and to the society around them. Genuinely expect good behaviour and you will tend to get it.

  3. I deal with kids and their parents where I work. Strangely there is one couple - a Korean-American father and Jewish American mother that are ruled by their 7 and 9 yr old kids. The kids have them wrapped around their fingers. It amazes me that the kids get anything they want, do anything they want, and the parents just foot the bill all the time. I really wonder how these kids are going to function as adults. Will they crumble at stress and rejection? Or will they actually become resilient? It appears to me that these kids think they are the best things since sliced bread and they do lead a very charmed life. I've heard 7 yr olds talk back and yell at their parents. And the parents don't say anything! Amazing....! I would be giving my kid a nice smack on the face for that.

    1. I honestly wonder how I would deal with children like that. There is always a line to be crossed just a matter of "where". I sometimes wonder if I'd give my kids a good ol' Korean beatdown or try a more "American" approach. To be honest... sometimes I feel like I'd have no problem hitting my child, but at the same time I'd feel torn about doing so.

      I mean it really sucked growing up.

      Sometimes I do remember the times of being punished and wonder how it affected my mentality and just growing up. I remember holding my hands up and push up positions for the longest time...

      Russell Peters' "Somebody gonna get hurt real bad" skit always makes me laugh and reminds me of those times

  4. Thank you for this post. Thanks for inspiring me to be more courageous in my efforts to develop meaningful dialogue to better understand people, ideas, cultures and opinions.

  5. From nothing but personal observation, and from having a brother with moderate developmental delays, I do think that teaching children, like matters of the heart, is something that in the optimum is individual.* However, it turns that there ARE intermediates between anything goes and "general rules" if you think in terms of probabilities. No child, from math prodigy to traumatized Romanian orphan, is going to be covered by every rule, but I bet there are methods that are effective for *most* children at *most* times. It is too bad that the outcomes of "good parenting" are so hard to define and that the development of children is shaped by so many different factors that it is difficult to even study parenting, much less derive general rules of thumb. I generally look to the mouse and rat literature for basic ideas and, unfortunately, rely on observation and anecdotes for stuff that is specific to humans. (I should note that I don't have children yet... I've observed that parents' good intentions and principles are often thrown out the window in favor of expediency.)

    Going back to the Tiger Mom discussion, I think that there is considerable variation among individuals in how easy certain topics are to learn. The question is whether certain topics are important enough to force learning on people who don't take to them easily. Personally, I feel that knowing math up to and including calculus and statistics inside and out is highly important, while learning piano is not. My mom would agree with me on the first point and disagree on the second. Even the wishy-washy American parents who insist that their children not be forced to learn anything don't actually believe that- I'm sure that they make sure their children are tolerant and respectful of people from other cultures, for example, which is not something that comes easily to human nature.

    As to your last paragraph: if I thought anyone else cared about what I thought on child-rearing, maybe I would write an essay. I have indeed published papers on my very narrow area of expertise. But on this subject, I am thoroughly average, and there is nothing that I have thought that thousands of other people haven't, and there is nothing that I could write that many thousands of people couldn't write better. I post this comment here because you wrote the original blog post and have a much higher probability of caring about thoughts on this topic (and because the child-development experts are not here to supply the better thoughts and the better writing).

    * In any case, from a probability point of view, matters of the heart are not that individual. If you don't know the guy at all, giving him good home-cooked food is much more likely to be an effective strategy than giving him cow manure. But I agree that these probabilities depend much more strongly on the guy's species (human vs. dung beetle) than nationality.


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