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    A blog by John Warner, author of The Funny Man, on teaching, writing and never knowing when you're going to be asked to leave.

We Need to Destroy the 'Grit Narrative'
June 11, 2014 - 12:30pm

I woke up this morning at 5:30am and started thinking about “grit.” I was probably even thinking about “grit” in my sleep.

I was thinking about “grit” because I’m not quite done gnawing on the conversational bone started by my previous post on the subject. I’d figured some things out for myself, but I clearly had more to sort through.

One of the things I was thinking about was whether or not in that moment of thinking about “grit,” if I was indeed being, “gritty,” and if I was being “gritty,” what was causing me to be this way? Had I developed grit overnight?

Angela Duckworth defines “grit” as “the tendency to sustain perseverance and passion for challenging long-term goals.” Under this definition, I was not being “gritty” because my motive had nothing to do with long term goals.

That said, I was being nothing if not persistent. In fact, at this very moment I have not one, but two far more pressing writing deadlines, and yet I’m spending all my time today thinking and writing about “grit.”

Why?

In many ways, Duckworth’s “grit” is a rebranding of a well-known and thoroughly studied personality trait called “conscientiousness,” which is defined as being “thorough, careful, or vigilant.” If we are being conscientious, by logical extension, we want to do the task well.

I am practicing conscientiousness in this case, even though I am, by and large not a conscientious person. I am not particularly organized. My self-discipline is sporadic.

And yet, here I am being “gritty.” Why?

The task in my life where I am grittiest is, without a doubt, grading student work. If there is someone who enjoys grading, I have yet to meet them, and yet, I do work hard at giving students feedback that is useful to them, that demonstrates care and consideration of their work.

I do not do this because of passion for long-term goals. I don’t even know what my long-term goals are in this case[1]. I take care grading because I have a passion for teaching well, and in order to teach well I need to fulfill my part of the process, which in this case is giving feedback to students that will allow them to engage with the next assignment in a stage of greater knowledge.

In the previous post I argued that the key to my own displays of “grit” are due to finding the proper “fit,” with my work, and my additional considerations only reinforce this view.

For me to be gritty, I must first be passionate. The work must “fit” my deepest interests.

A commenter to my previous post, Joel McDonald, argues that “grit” and “fit” are necessary complements. He specifically mentions marriage:

“While I wish my marriage was all about fit every minute of every day, it isn't and some minutes of some days it just requires pure effort, tenacity and dedication. But I still do that work because I love my wife and I love the life I have with her. I can pursue a great life-long relationship through both fit and grit together.”

It’s true, marriage isn’t solely about “fit.” The honeymoon period doesn’t last a lifetime. But, what allows us to be “gritty” in our marriages isn’t a long term goal of say, being around to help each other change our diapers in old-age, but a deep reservoir of love. We want to get past the bumps because we value the journey with this person, rather than our destination.

And in a marriage, where “grit” persists even when “fit” has long disappeared, only misery remains.

I believe that for many of us, “grit” in the absence of passion is not only not possible, but it’s likely not desirable, as it may consign us to lives without the essential pleasures of happiness and self-fulfillment.

I look at and admire people who are truly “gritty,” the ones who can persevere through conditions others would find intolerable, or who reach only the highest peaks, and I wonder if it isn’t likely that they also are products of “fit,” and that their particular passion happens to be being “gritty.”[2]

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The “grit narrative” as applied to educational reform posits that if we can all just learn to be “gritty,” students will be successful. They will “achieve.” The “no excuses” charters - perhaps best embodied by the Success charter network, which imposes “grit” through a combination of fiat, short-term bribery, and public shaming, while forcing any students who don’t demonstrate a willingness to get with the program out of the school – are widely seen by educational reformers as a path to the promised land for “at-risk” students.

Never mind that there’s no more evidence that these practices actually help students develop grit than there is that the lashing the backsides of cattle with a whip makes them eager to enter the corral. Success charters are nothing less than standardized testing sweatshops, and it’s the “grit narrative” that not only makes them possible but directs large sums of public money into their coffers.

The even more dangerous effect of the “grit narrative” is that it only further disadvantages the students we’re supposedly most concerned about helping.

On Twitter, Chris Thinnes, in response to my first post, introduced the idea of “chit,” something that people from privileged backgrounds get to rely on instead of “grit,” and something that accurately describes my own experience. Because I was raised in socio-economic advantage, even though I demonstrated very little “grit,” I successfully passed markers of achievement. I did this by trading in my entirely unearned “chit.”

As Paul Thomas makes clear, the “grit narrative” allows for the perpetuation of lazy and racist stereotypes. As he says, "The 'grit’ narrative is also a code that blinds since it perpetuates and is nested in a cultural myth of the hard-working and white ideal against the lazy and African American (and Latino/a) stereotype.”

“Grit” is a narrative of compliance, a life of tracks and treadmills. It is disempowering to students and crowds out other paths and possibilities. As Thomas further argues, it also avoids the much more difficult fact that in education and achievement, demographics are destiny. I keeps us from confronting the challenge of creating a more equitable world.

Paul Thomas argues that what students need more than “grit” is “slack,” that in fact, many of the students under the thumb of the “grit” movement in schools may have already demonstrated considerable “grit” just making it into the school building, and once inside they need freedom and support.

This strikes me as a significantly better approach to helping students develop Carol Dweck’s “growth mindest” than Angela Duckworth’s theory of “grit.” If we give students slack[3], they can find their passions and in so doing, have the experience of being “gritty,” rather than having it imposed from above.

But because of cultural biases towards solutionism and a rush to embrace people like Angela Duckworth who project a confidence that we can find answers to these seemingly intractable questions, we leap headlong onto paths that may be destructive. Duckworth has been anointed with TED talks and a MacArthur Foundation grant. Surely she’s on the right track, we believe.

But I believe that the "grit narrative" is a nightmare.

I have no objection to Dr. Duckworth’s “grit” research, but the “grit narrative” that she spawned is pernicious, and I urge her and the others who peddle it to admit that we still have far more questions than answers.

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There’s at least one, and maybe more posts until I’m done talking about “grit.” In the meantime, we have Twitter.

 

 

 


[1] Certainly not any external goals or achievements. As a location-bound visiting instructor, there’s literally nowhere for me to go and nothing else for me to do. This job is the job no matter how well I do it.

[2] There’s no greater example of the mix of “grit” and talent than Michael Jordan, and yet even he stepped away from basketball in 1993 saying, “The desire just isn’t there.” He was still plenty gritty, as evidenced by him immediately having a go at playing professional baseball, but at least temporarily, he couldn’t muster the passion.

[3] A great, though fictional, portrayal of the efficacy of “slack” in the classroom is found in season four of The Wire, where educational researchers try to reach the “corner kids”  who are on destructive paths. The corner kids are given their own classroom and are successfully engaged by tailoring the curriculum to what they already know, life on the streets. This includes a math lesson that has the students doing calculations of dime bags of heroin. This progress is ultimately undone when the students are forced to participate in the standardized curriculum and the experiment is ended.

 

 

 

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