Monday, October 10, 2016


Recently when talking to a young man attending a pretty prestigious high school, I learned of the book Grit by Angela Duckworth, which had been assigned to him for summer reading.  I asked him if he liked reading it, and he said he didn't like reading in general.  But he was nice enough to explain to me that the book was about the secrets to working hard and succeeding.  My gut reaction was that it was a pretty shitty move of his school to assign what sounded like a glorified self-help/executive management/prosperity gospel book straight out of an airport bookstore.  But then I looked into it a bit more, and was even more appalled.

It turns out that Grit is written by a Harvard professor of the TED Talk type, and the book has received a different, more culturally respectable level of acclaim than the typical Joel Osteen or Tony Robbins bestseller.  I was initially surprised that A) Harvard was engaging in this type of intellect-light, neoliberal dogma-heavy research and publishing, and B) that the general public, and especially academics, seem to be treating this as a serious piece of academic work.  On further thought though, I reflected that Harvard in fact seems to produce a lot of work that, instead of challenging the status quo and pushing society's intellectual horizons, just seems to reinforce and justify the new social order of a hyper-educated, hypo-critical elite earning big bucks while the rest of society festers.  I mean, Harvard's business school wrote the book on academic programs that are more about gaining influential contacts than being exposed to challenging ideas and arguments.  And since everyone is so impressed with the Harvard pedigree, the rest of us continue to accept unambitious work from the university as if it were profound and new.

Anyway, here is a very thoughtful, much less polemical take on the book, from the New Yorker, by David Denby.  Essentially the author's argument is that Duckworth's Grit seems to focus on how people get ahead of others, as opposed to learning how to contribute to and lift up the general society around them.  The values classed under the heading of "grit" are socially agnostic, if not sociopathic.  They do not correspond to the typical profile of a complete human being as envisioned in the humanist tradition of education.  Quoth Denby:
Duckworth [with two school principals] boiled down a long list of character traits—what they called virtues—into a master list of seven that could be quantified and graded in schools. Grit, of course, is one; the others are self-control (both academic and social), zest, optimism, social intelligence, gratitude, and curiosity.
Now, there’s something very odd about this list. There’s nothing in it about honesty or courage; nothing about integrity, kindliness, responsibility for others. The list is innocent of ethics, any notion of moral development, any mention of the behaviors by which character has traditionally been marked. Levin, Randolph, and Duckworth would seem to be preparing children for personal success only—doing well at school, getting into college, getting a job, especially a corporate job where such docility as is suggested by these approved traits (gratitude?) would be much appreciated by managers. Putting it politically, the “character” inculcated in students by Levin, Randolph, and Duckworth is perfectly suited to producing corporate drones in a capitalist economy. Putting it morally and existentially, the list is timid and empty. The creativity and wildness that were once our grace to imagine as part of human existence would be extinguished by strict adherence to these instrumentalist guidelines.
Not just Duckworth’s research but the entire process feels tautological: we will decide what elements of “character” are essential to success, and we will inculcate these attributes in children, measuring and grading the children accordingly, and shutting down, as collateral damage, many other attributes of character and many children as well. Among other things, we will give up the sentimental notion that one of the cardinal functions of education is to bring out the individual nature of every child.
Can so narrow an ideal of character flourish in a society as abundantly and variously gifted as our own? Duckworth’s view of life is devoted exclusively to doing, at the expense of being. She seems indifferent to originality or creativity or even simple thoughtfulness.
Secondly, Denby points out that the main factor of success or failure in the US school system, and our overall economic system, is wealth and poverty.  Wealthy kids get a good education, have good opportunities, and get good jobs.  Poor kids get shit on, from pre-school to adulthood, often passing through the penal system on the way.

Denby points out that it is hard for poor children to develop "grit" as defined in the book Grit, because they are subject to a series of stressors that distract and beat them down.  Though the author's criticism is fair, it focuses on the poor as victims.  I would add that kids and adults living in contexts of poverty, violence, pathology, and oppression in fact have much more grit than the rest of us, though it seems not to count on Duckworth's scale.  Just to wake up and go to school every day takes a huge amount of grit if you don't have enough food, your parents can't take care of you because they're out working, the path to your school is beset by feral dogs and human predators, and your school is organized to crush your spirit.  My fear is that, as with all the latest educational fads, young students of color will be the guinea pigs of a new nationwide experiment on "grit" education.  The one constant in the US education system is that, instead of fixing the root problems that make the system unable to provide poor students with a decent, dignified education, we constantly punish these students for the system's failings by subjecting them to whatever draconian, unproven method comes down the pipeline.  It looks like Grit may be the next flavor of the month.

I'll close on a pithy quote from Denby on Grit:  "If we suffer from a grit deficiency in this country, it shows up in our unwillingness to face what is obviously true—that poverty is the real cause of failing schools."

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