According to Gladwell, in Outliers, what is the reason that Asians excel at mathematics? Discuss the cultural and educational differences that he points to as explanation.  

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Lorraine Caplan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

We answer one question at a time at enotes, and I have selected the question on culture and education to respond to.  Each of your other questions can be submitted, one at a time. 

Gladwell has a few different arguments to make regarding Asian excellence at mathematics.  First, the agricultural tradition of many Asian countries, which is rice farming, promotes this skill, and second, Asian languages, Chinese in particular, are better adapted to handling computation of numbers, both leading to an educational climate in which the attributes of a rice-farming tradition and an ease with numbers promote educational and subsequent success in math.

Rice farming, according to Gladwell, requires a great deal of hard work through all seasons, problem-solving, and attention to detail.  Historically, rice farmers had complete autonomy to make decisions regarding their crops, unlike serfs, tenant farmers, and slaves. Each farmer and his family had to manage a complex system of engineering, irrigation, and timing to be successful. The qualities needed brought  tangible reward.  This created a culture in which hard-working, problem-solving, attentive people who cultivated the earth were successful.  I'm not sure how Darwinian this might be, but clearly, these are the traits that were handed down from one generation to the next. Children learned by being active participants in the process.  And all of the skills needed to successfully farm rice are the same skills necessary to do well in math. 

The Chinese numbering system also promotes a greater ease in learning, remembering, and manipulating numbers than those of other languages.  The names for the numbers are quite short, and they are not as inconsistent as other languages, for example, in English. We do not say "fiveteen" to show five plus ten, for instance.  Having brief sounds means children learn the numbers quickly, they memorize them almost immediately, and they do not have to be concerned about discrepancies in logic.  That makes numbers a great deal easier to work with, and this advantage, from such an early age, is a factor, too, in Asian excellence in math. 

I find both of these credible ideas, but what concerns me is that as Asian populations become increasingly urban and the world becomes increasingly Americanized, this great advantage could be lost. That would make for a more level international playing field, I suppose, but it would be such a shame for any culture to lose such wonderful attributes.