The New York City group with the highest percentage of high school graduates isn’t Chinese or Indians; it’s Ukrainians (94.4%). But rarely are we treated to encomiums about the cultural superiority of the Borscht Mom.

And culture is rarely either an unambiguously good force or an unambiguously bad one. Thus, Confucian values of education and family fealty certainly are one factor in explaining why Chinese students from low-income backgrounds do better than their peers. But as we’ve seen, that’s not the whole story. Meanwhile, many in China would like to see less conformity in their culture, believing that it inhibits much of the freethinking that powers creativity and innovation in America and that it results in a citizenry that passively tolerates suppression of dissent and censorship of the Internet.

It’s not conformity that makes this country great; it’s an individual striking out against the expectations of his culture, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg dropping out of Harvard, Miles Davis coming out of heroin addiction to produce ‘Round About Midnight, the 14-year-old Billie Holiday turning the pain of her childhood into the bluest beauty, Sylvia Plath taking on death with pills and poetry, William S. Burroughs writing from the bowels of his addiction in Naked Lunch; it’s Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Cheever and Carver drinking and writing, writing and drinking through their demons. Imagine what American culture would be if American artists had kept a tight check on their impulses.,9171,2163555,00.html

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