A common thread among these three groups may be an emphasis on diligence or education, perhaps linked in part to an immigrant drive. Jews and Chinese have a particularly strong tradition of respect for scholarship, with Jews said to have achieved complete adult male literacy — the better to read the Talmud — some 1,700 years before any other group.This very complimentary statement is misleading. As far as I can see, there wasn't complete adult male literacy 1700 years before any other group. It was, however, a mitzvah for every male to be literate because learning was a sacred activity. Talmud Torah was the meeting ground for rich and poor, patricians and peasants, artisans and merchants.
Kristof argues against the geneticists who contend that there are race based differences in regard to intellectual ability. It goes without saying that it doesn't matter how smart you are if you don't use your brains, but, if you are innately endowed and apply yourself, it would stand to reason that you would achieve more than one less endowed but equally ambitious. One might teach physics in high school, while the other may be a Nobel laureate. It doesn't ring true that anyone who works hard and is insanely ambitious, regardless of innate ability, will be on equal footing with the hardworking gifted.
What is true and more to the point is that everyone, and I mean everyone, can be successful if educational values are reinforced from an early age. The immigrant drive that is often referred to as the common denominator of all groups is assimilationist and materialist in nature. The Chinese and the Jews originally viewed literacy as a tool for wisdom, and as a vehicle for transmitting traditions. When this was the purpose of literacy, believers rich and poor through succeeding generations continued to uphold these values.
When groups transformed learning from a sacred task into a capitalist tool, they actually jeopardized the future of that group's academic excellence. Once a family established itself and the material struggle was no longer necessary, succeeding generations became considerably less ambitious--and less brilliant.
The problem of being comfortable is only a problem when the purpose of knowledge is to achieve comfort.
After 10 years of Talmudic study, I once read a modern Hebrew short story in the original language, and, on a whim, I sat down and translated it into English whereupon it was published in Commentary magazine. I then edited a translation series and added two very different books to my list of publications. One was a medieval Kabbalistic lexicon, while the other was a modern history of Israel. I didn't have to go back to school, I had skills that were transferable, because for years I had been learning for its own sake without a report card in sight.
Over and over again, I have found that the by product of spending years mastering what is perceived to be an arcane discipline, has been a very practical use of that time, even though that was never the intention.
When the quest for knowledge is only for material gain, and cultural acceptance it cannot be sustained.
As it is written:
One who does not learn Torah for its own sake would have been better off not being created at all.
--B. Talmud, Brachot 17a