The genius (?) of “grit”

As far as mainstream news is concerned, I read and listen to NPR. Not a great choice for getting news stories unfiltered by corporate sponsorship (try We Act Radio as an example of a better option from a progressive, anti-neoliberal perspective), but it’s better than nothing and it works with my morning routine. Last week, I came upon a story relating to education, a topic that has gotten a lot of press with the Common Core standards receiving both accolades and criticisms from school districts across the country. While the NPR spot didn’t discuss the Common Core, it did focus on another educational trend that may offer help to our country’s struggling students: “grit.”

No, “grit” is not the stuff you pick out of your shoes when you walk in pebbly places or the grime you wash out of your hair after a long day out in the world. “Grit (personality trait)”, according to its Wikipedia page (note: the author is fully aware of the flaws in this information resource as well – perhaps I’ll write in the future about media literacy), is “a positive, non-cognitive trait based on an individual’s passion for a particular long-term goal or endstate coupled with a powerful motivation to achieve their respective objective.” Because this personal characteristic refers to perseverance in the face of opposition, rather than cognitive facility (intelligence), it is seen by its proponents to be both non-academic while still a powerful determiner of a person’s success both in and out of school. The NPR story presented “grit” as a new term coined by Dr. Angela Duckworth, a psychology professor from University of Pennsylvania who has won a McArthur Genius Grant for her work, and a new offering in the endless struggle in education to improve American schools, curricula, and teacher and student performance. Dr. Duckworth stated that “grit” seems like an ‘American’ way of doing things, that is, struggling against all odds to accomplish a goal. (You might wonder whether any other countries could claim a similar ethic; however, as the American mythos very much centers on a sense that any individual’s success can be attributed to his/her hard work, a.k.a. meritocracy, this language guarantees a home run in selling American audiences.)

Here’s my problem with Duckworth’s seemingly new idea. Firstly, claiming that something as obvious as perseverance – excuse me, “grit” – impacts a person’s success in life (insofar as this person measures success against external standards) seems almost tautological. Indeed, we would be hard-pressed to find a person who says that all the achievements of the great thinkers of the world were complete accidents and that sustained focus on the goal at hand had nothing at all to do with this. My point is, Duckworth’s revolutionary idea appears so obvious that we are tempted to smack our heads and say, “Of course, she’s right – and she’s a genius for reminding us of this!”

But there are bigger problems with attempting to apply a theory of such universal appeal.  If we delve deeper, we can find plenty of examples of successful people who may have worked hard and stuck to it, yet who also began their journey quite a bit ahead of others. Children born to wealthy, high-status parents all over the world typically have a much broader range of advantages – competitive edge, by capitalist terms – with which to pursue whatever goals they set out to reach. Many of the most widely recognized “success stories” of our time were in fact raised in middle- or upper-class families by parents with strong educational and professional backgrounds. In short, they were raised in environments where success and social and cultural achievement were the familial norm. There is plenty of research in cognitive science, education, and other fields to support the assertion that family wealth, education, and emphasis on social achievement help to shape a young person’s ability to access opportunity, through what Jean Bordieu termed cultural capital. And the converse proposition is true, i.e., that students who are low-status (because they are poor, immigrants, people of color, and/or living in underserved and marginalized communities) without such advantages often struggle more and have limited access to social goods. The modern conversation about educational and, later, social inequity often includes discussion of thesocial programming inherent to the class-based curricular differences in wealthier school districts versus poorer ones and of biases against children of color starting at a very young age, and those of us with a sense of intellectual and political responsibility must consider that social, environmental, and cultural factors work at systemic as well as local levels to maintain status quo and cultural norms. So the question is this: how does “grit” address inherent biases of teachers, administrations, policies, and communities as a whole?

NPR’s article does offer contrary perspectives on Duckworth’s suggestion that “grit” is the overwhelmingly important characteristic children need to succeed against all odds: that the educational system itself in its current state contains a variety of “pedagogical and curricular problems,” according to writer Alfie Kohn, that cannot be corrected or even addressed by a single concept like “grit” that focuses only on student learning and behavior; or that espousing a seemingly neutral personality trait as a predisposing factor in personal success could in reality act as a form of moral prescriptionism within schools (i.e., if you behave in an “pre-approved” way that accords with certain sociocultural and educational norms, you will be awarded with social success). It is important to state that Duckworth’s research is limited by its psychological orientation; while psychology has brought us a plethora of advancements and insights into the human mind, in education, the psychologist’s view is one which disarticulates a learner from his/her environment and focuses more on the individual in spite of the group. When Duckworth talked about how “grittier kids were significantly more likely to graduate” in her TED talk last year, she mentioned that this occurred regardless of students’ family income, standardized test scores, or feelings of safety in school. This seems so attractive, and yet suspect. I would suggest that perhaps the self-reporting – the means by which she gathered this information from students – might have veiled some more complex problems that students themselves were unaware of or could not articulate.

Finally, there is the issue of being clear about what we mean when we refer to that very loaded and overused term “challenges” that children are meant to face and overcome in schooling. John Dewey wrote 100 years ago in Democracy and Education (read a free copy here) about the way students might build the ability to work through stumbling blocks: “A difficulty is an indispensible stimulus to thinking, but not all difficulties call out thinking. Sometimes they overwhelm and submerge and discourage.” (p. 151) If we accept Dewey’s point about differentiating difficulties, we find an important issue to keep in mind when critiquing Duckworth’s plan to apply her “grit” theory to public education. Students with a stable housing situation, food on the table, parental support (which implies parents that have the time and background and abilities needed to be supportive in a school-oriented way), etc. – in short, feelings of social and biological safety – are better able to face academic challenges with lower stress levels and stronger cognitive capabilities than students who are not. Students who drop out of school, who do not continue on to college, who get lower-paying jobs after graduation, are struggling with a host of factors outside of school that may in fact impact their self-view as well as their perception of how to deal with school-based difficulties. How would “grit” be helpful when a student’s stress levels are such that s/he can’t focus on classwork and can’t interact in a way that the teacher finds acceptable? Would the same teacher perceive a student with lower stress levels – giving him/her greater advantages cognitively and socio-affectively – as harder working, more focused, and “grittier” in contrast? The much more powerful and complex difficulties American students face in ecological terms – meaning all the environmental, socio-affective, cultural, socioeconomic, ethnolinguistic, and sociopolitical dimensions of the relationships between all of us – seem to bring up many more questions than we have answers for.

In short, I am suspicious of this not-so-new concept of “grit” as a silver bullet waiting for the right gun and the right hand to fire it. I think it bears further analysis and much more critical thinking; I also believe we should also be careful to interrogate the greater success of wealthier, white children from families of high levels of social achievement to identify any correlations of “grit” with social status as a whole; if these high-power children demonstrate “having more grit” and outstripping their low-status counterparts in school-based success, then perhaps the whole thing should be scrapped so we can make room for the next genius idea coming down the line.


One thought on “The genius (?) of “grit”

  1. Dr. Duckworth defines grit in terms of perseverance. But “grit” and “perseverance” are synonyms. That’s tautological. It’s like defining shyness in terms of timidity.


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