There was the following sentence in the commentary of Joshua Rothman, the New Yorker’s archive editor on Amy Chua’s memoir, “Tiger Mom” under the title, “The Battle hymn of the Tiger Family” in the online New Yorker February 4 issue:

"Why didn’t all sorts of families, and not just Asian ones, send their kids to cram schools to study for Stuyvesant entrance exam? They regard the usual explanation, that Asian-Americans have an ‘education culture,’ as circular. The challenge is to delve deeper and discover the cultural roots of this behavior – to identify the fundamental cultural force that underlie it. - -

The thing is, though, that often, cultures really are circular. All the time, communities judge their members by standards that are, on some level, arbitrary." http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2014/02/the-battle-hymn-of-the-tiger-family.html

I’m not clear with the meaning of the word, “circular” used here.

Cambridge English Dictionary defines ‘circular’ only as an adjective, meaning;

  1. Shaped like a circle:
  2. Describes an argument that keeps returning to the same points and is not effective.

OALD adds to;

  1. Moving around in a circle as adjective, and
  2. A letter sent to a large number of people as noun.

There is no mention of “circular” as a verb in both CED and OALD.

However, none of the above definitions seems to sit well with “culture(s)” in the above context to me.

Does “culture as circular” mean culture is inherited generation to generation? What does “have an education culture as circular” and “cultures really are circular” mean?

3 Answers 3


They regard the usual explanation, that Asian-Americans have an ‘education culture,’ as circular.

This refers to the term circular argument (or circular reasoning). Why do Asian-Americans send their kids to study for the Stuyvesant entrance exam? Because they have an education culture. Why do they have an education culture? Because they go to good schools. Why do they go to good schools? Because they get admitted into them. How do they get into them? Because they get prepped for the entrance exams.

From a logic perspective, circular arguments are a fallacy – because of their circular nature, they don't hold water.

The thing is, though, that, often, cultures really are circular. In some families, what matters is military service. In others, it’s religious adherence.

The author is saying that, even if it is a circular argument, we should acknowledge that it's often rooted in reality. Many times, we are who we are because we became who our parents wanted us to be (or, at least, we learned to value the same things our parents valued).

  • It's not actually a circular argument, it's a non-circular argument that there is a feedback loop in valuing education education that goes beyond regular intergenerational transmission of cultural traits.
    – smithkm
    Apr 1, 2014 at 18:37

A circular argument is one where Fact A is the explanation for Fact B, and Fact B is the explanation for Fact A. Asians are motivated to educate their children because they have an education culture, and they have an eduction culture because so many of their children are educated.

The second appearance of "circular" in your quoted text is in a sentence where I think there is a missing word.

The thing is, though, that, often, cultures really [are] circular.


This refers to the fact that most cultures generate (or are perceived to generate) "virtuous circles." Pre World War II Japan was believed to have the fiercest (samurai) warriors in Asia, which led to success in combat, which led to greater acquisition of armaments, etc.

Asians (including Japanese) in America send their children to special schools, which get them admitted to the most selective high schools and colleges, which causes the students to study more hours (and years), in a self-reinforcing cycle.

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