How Different Cultures View Intellectual Struggle


In honor of a new school year starting, I wanted to share this recent audio post from NPR.

This “Your Health” segment  first aired on November 12, 2012, but was replayed this year on Labor Day Monday.


It’s relatively long — nine minutes — but worth it for the light it sheds on

  • East vs. West cultural differences
  • Internal vs. External locus of control issues
  • A new way to view struggle


Struggle comes in many forms.
Struggle comes in many forms.


When you see someone struggling, what do you think?

  • They are having trouble.
  • They can’t do it.
  • They must not have the ability.
  • I need to help them.


These responses are, according to a number of researchers interviewed in the segment,

[again, CLICK HERE to listen]

typical Western responses. (drum roll here) 


Eastern responses, on the other hand, (by this I mean Asia and parts therein, not the Atlantic Seaboard) are different.  There, the different researchers assert, struggle is seen as

  • a part of the learning process
  • an opportunity
  • expected, a predictable part of the educational process
  • a sign that one “has what it takes to resolve the problem.”


I’m posting this because it’s the beginning of another school year.



The NPR makes a number of points regarding classroom educational practices in both the US and Japan. Listen here if you missed it above.


If I were to take only one message away from this segment it would be that

Struggle can be a good thing.


Thanks to for image
Thanks to for image


Struggle — intellectual or not — the act of persisting through to the end despite the challenges, of not giving up, is a quality that leads, eventually, to success.


If (as they believe our Western culture emphasizes) struggle indicates a lack of ability, weakness, why would the struggler continue?  Why not just give up?  Why not wait for help, ask for help, look outside yourself?

(as they suggest Eastern cultures hold) struggle indicates the ability to persevere, strength, then wouldn’t the struggler be more likely to keep at it?


I thought of a story from my memoir of Kazakhstan.

I offered evening classes in English practice for local school teachers and one evening when laryngitis kept me silent, I brought a list of  “directions.”  It was from a packet of material I’d gotten when I’d volunteered at an ESL center in Virginia, before we left for Kazakhstan.

I hadn’t given much thought at the time to the cultural values language lessons impart. I was focused only on the structured English language practice it offered and — given my laryngitis — the hope that someone else could read the list.

Some of the directions were blatantly impossible.

(“Skip over to the window and count to fourteen, after you first stand up and say your telephone number, then your birthday, and then your address.”)

The real object, I knew, was for the students to learn when to “ask for help.”  But none of these local teachers asked.

Their continued struggle as each direction became more and more ridiculous, made me uncomfortable, so I cut in.

“I don’t understand,” I said through my hoarseness, modeling what I wanted them to say.

“You’re a bad student,” they said, for asking for help.

“It’s the strong student,” I assured them, “who knows when to ask for help.” I felt so sure of myself.

Now, I’m not so sure.
How uncomfortable are you with struggle?  Is it harder to see someone else’s struggle or your own?

Would you like to see more opportunities for struggle in your child’s classroom?

Might struggle become something you welcome?





2 Responses

  1. KM Huber
    | Reply

    Not surprisingly, I lean to the Eastern way–I do remember the NPR segment–but your wonderful ESL example adds another layer. So staying more Eastern than Western, if struggle is viewed as an experience, then it is neither bad nor good but just is. Perhaps I am far too idealistic as I age but I have to say that when I appreciate a struggle as an experience, immediately it offers me more. Thanks for such a thought-provoking post, Janet.

    • Janet
      | Reply

      Hi Karen, I loved how you said:
      when I appreciate a struggle as an experience, immediately it offers me more –

      Thanks for adding this. I know you write from experience. You are an inspiration.


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