Misreading “Grit”: On Treating Children Better than Salmon or Sea Turtles

Rob McEntarffer (@rmcenta) Tweeted a question to me about my blog post, The Poverty Trap: Slack, Not Grit, Creates Achievement, asking: “can Grit research (Duckworth, etc) be used as a humanizing/empowering tool, rather than a weapon against schools/kids?”

Rob’s question is both a good one and representative of the numerous challenges I received for rejecting “grit”—some of the push-back has been for my associating “grit” and “no excuses,” but many of the arguments (some heated) I have read simply rest on a solid trust that “grit” matters and thus should be central to what educators demand from their students, regardless of their students’ backgrounds (and possibly because many students have impoverished backgrounds).

I remain adamant that demanding “grit” is deeply misguided and harmful to children, especially children living in poverty. But I also acknowledge that a large percentage of educators who embrace “grit” are genuinely seeking ways in which we can help children in poverty succeed. In other words, many “grit” advocates share my educational goals.

So I think Rob’s question needs to be answered, and done so carefully. Let me start with a nostalgic story.

A Facebook post from a former high school friend and basketball teammate is the basis of this story—my junior year high school basketball team:

WHS basketball jr year

I am number 5, and other than wondering why I was looking away and seemingly disengaged, I am struck by my socks.

Throughout junior high and high school, I suffered the delusion I was an athlete, spending most of my free time either playing basketball or golf. My heart and soul longed for being a basketball player, and on my bedroom wall (along with the required poster of Farrah Fawcett) hung a poster of Pete Maravich who wore the same socks superstitiously every game, two pairs pushed down and tattered.

I wanted few things more than being Pistol Pete. Maravich was smart, skilled, and hard-working. Even after his career on the court, Maravich remained the personification of practice and drills: If you work hard enough, Maravich seemed to represent, you too can be a magician on the basketball court.

Soon after Maravich, I added Larry Bird to my list of role models, again latching on to his working-class ethic as an athlete. Bird prompted mythological tales—Larry Legend—about his breaking into Boston Garden to shoot in the dark when the facility was closed.

That’s right, I was a child and teenager smitten by “grit.”

After being diagnosed with scoliosis the summer before my ninth grade, I became an exercise fanatic, possibly as a response to the genetic failure of my body. I created a year-long daily calendar on poster-board each year from ninth through twelfth grades to list and monitor my workouts. For those four years, I wore ankle weights most days and jumped rope at least 300 times each night with those weights on. Every day. Four years.

My Holy Grail was dunking the basketball*—despite my being about 5’10” and around 130 pounds.

My fanaticism about practice carried over onto the driving range in good weather also. I often hit 300 range balls on the golf course practice range before setting out to play 18-27 holes.

And what did all that get me?

Look back to that junior-year photograph above. In my high school during the late 1970s, letterman jackets were the greatest treasure for want-to-be athletes like me (I often wore my father’s jacket from the 1950s to school, a jacket he earned as captain of the first state championship football team at that same high school). But the rules of receiving a letterman’s jacket revolved around lettering your junior year—no other year of lettering resulted in a jacket.

I lettered every year of high school except junior year—a year I spent almost totally on the bench. I never earned a letterman’s jacket in high school, despite lettering in two sports my senior year.

And all that golf practice resulted in a huge amount of callouses and a year on the golf team at junior college.

But I was never Pistol Pete or Larry Legend, and certainly never close to Arnold Palmer (yes, my golf fantasies had working-class heroes also).

So what is my point? I am not trying to suggest that my anecdotes of my life prove my point, but they certainly make an important case for answering Rob’s question.

You see, throughout junior high, high school, and college, I never really tried at school—I was too busy trying to be Pistol Pete and then Larry Legend. And if anyone looked at the outcomes of these two different spheres—my grades in my classes and my scrawny, blond self riding the bench of countless high school basketball games—which do you think appears to be the result of “grit,” effort?

Despite my growing up in a working class family, I thrived when I did because of a number of privileges—being white, male, and prone to math and verbal skills cherished by the school system.

And the evidence is powerful that privilege trumps effort and that human behaviors are greater reflections of the conditions of their lives (abundance or scarcity) than the content of their character.

When my junior year ended without my having earned that letterman’s jacket, I began carrying with me until this day a deep and genuine sense of failure because I wanted few things more than to hand my father back his jacket and to stand before him in the one I earned, to show him I was the man I wanted to be, which was the man he was. That was a boy’s dream, of course, because my father could not have loved me more then or now than he does.

I trust, as well, that my experiences with trying very hard at things I could never excel in and then excelling in things that required very little effort on my part do inform what I argue is a misguided commitment to “grit” in calls for education reform and in school and classroom practices, even among educators with the best of intentions. So I want to end by answering Rob with a few observations and questions I think should help us at least reconsider commitments to “grit”:

  • How do we know when one child is trying and another isn’t? And how do we know why one child works hard and another seems not to make the same effort? I recently arrived at my first year seminar class upset that so many students had failed to submit their essays on time for that class session. My assumptions were all focused on them, but once I arrived in class, I discovered they had all been having technical trouble—the campus email system wasn’t allowing attachments. The focus on “grit,” then, often maintains a singular and accusatory eye on the child, and thus ignores the context, which may be the source of the behavior.
  • How often do we misread “privilege” as “grit”? My argument is—almost always. Even when privileged people excel because of their “grit,” the distinguishing aspect of that success remains the privilege. As well, when impoverished people overcome their hurdles due to hard work and “grit,” they remain outliers, and while they should be applauded, their outlier success isn’t a credible template for everyone else struggling under the weight of poverty.
  • As I note below, “grit” may be a distorted quality among leaders because our culture is competition-based, and our leaders both feel like winners and are praised as winners. Winning is linked to effort in our society even when the effort is not the key to that success. Leaders as winners, then, tend to project their “grit” onto others—not unlike the messages found in Maravich’s basketball training videos—”Just work hard, like I did, and you can do anything!” While such messages may be inspiring, they are at least incomplete, if not mostly untrue; my efforts in high school were not failures due to my lack of effort, but due to my genetic ceiling.
  • And finally, Rob’s question directly: Can “grit” research and ideology be used as a humanizing and empowering tool, rather than a weapon against schools and children? To which I say: If we dedicate ourselves to creating the slack necessary for that “grit” to matter and for such demands to be equitable, then yes. In other words, “grit” fails when it becomes the initial and primary demand of children, superseding commitments to creating the equitable conditions that all children need in their lives and schools. My conclusion about “grit,” then, is that the ultimate concern of mine may be where we prioritize and emphasize it—and how it is used as a spotlight on children in poverty almost exclusively.

On this last point, I think, I can make my best case about why emphasizing “grit” is both misguided and harmful.

From the authoritarian extremes of “no excuses” schools such as KIPP to the more progressive embracing of “grit” that many may call “tough love,” when we honor “grit” we reduce our children to salmon and sea turtles, we create schools that perpetuate a Social Darwinism that is human-made. School, like life, for these children becomes something to survive, a mechanism for sorting.

I think we can and should do better than treating our children like salmon and sea turtles—even when we do so with love in our hearts.

* By the way, yes, I could occasionally dunk in my late teens and early twenties.

Pete Maravich: A Tribute


7 thoughts on “Misreading “Grit”: On Treating Children Better than Salmon or Sea Turtles

  1. Thanks for the greater depth and the impeccable questions here. I was with you when you first wrote about the grit/ slack experiences. I posted some concerns about grit in response to a facebook post and received some disagreement from experienced teachers who have ‘seen it work.’
    In my experiences educating students who have dropped out of high school(s), believe me, they have plenty of “grit.” This what too many of them require to live in their neighborhoods, to walk to the store (if there is one nearby), to survive. Grit is not the problem; applying it in educational contexts where every institutional message they have received, real and symbolic, suggests that no amount of work will significantly change their circumstances (they are not dumb!), is the problem.
    In my experience, “grit” probably does need to make more of an appearance (become more of a goal?) in the land of privilege. Some affluent kids are suffering from a bit too much slack.
    Children of poverty have plenty of grit. In our context I much prefer the work of Kathleen Cushman, who listened to real children and has conceived of the “Motivation Equation.” Simply stated, this suggests that young people need to both value what they are doing/learning, and also hold a belief that they can be successful at it. As educators we can find ways to bolster both halves of this seemingly simple but sensible equation.
    None of this is easy, particularly when it is individualized down to the level of each student, as it must be. All of it is complicated by the conditions of and social constructions around poverty. The only sustainable solution is to address the root causes of poverty for all of our children.

  2. Pingback: Misreading “Grit”: On Treating Children Better than Salmon or Sea Turtles – @ THE CHALK FACE

  3. Thanks for the excellent blog post. I’m the Rob McEntarffer mentioned at the beginning, and this conversation has been valuable for me.

    I’ve been running into blog posts lately critiquing Duckworth’s Grit construct, and I was having trouble relating to those critical perspectives. I think Duckworth’s (and other related work by Paul Tough-How Children Succeed, Heckman-GED research, Dweck-Mindset-etc.) research is fascinating. I’m a former high school psychology teacher, so I’m predisposed to liking this kind of thing, I suppose.

    Dr. Thomas, our twitter conversation and your post helps me realize that this research I admire can easily be misused in the same way some “no excuses” thinkers use and misuse other findings. Example: the “Waiting for Superman” argument, concluding that teachers are the “most influential” factor that schools have “control” over, and jumping from that idea to the policy to blaming teachers for student “failure” and not allowing discussion of any other influences on schools or students.

    I still have hope, however, for the grit research that I’m fascinated by. I’m working with a couple middle schools who are finding value in the idea and research, and those teachers report that the ideas of Grit and Dweck’s Mindset seem empowering in their classrooms. But this conversation helps me realize that what you call “slack” (and privilege) absolutely has to be included in these conversations. So, thanks!

  4. Pingback: GUEST POST: Let’s Nurture Inner-Directed Students and Ignore the “No Excuses” Crowd, John Thompson | the becoming radical

  5. This was a great post. I think it is easy to misread privilege or arbitrarily constructed desirable behavior as evidence of positive character traits. In the rush to invent concepts that help explain our preconceived vision of the world we may be too eager to accept things like “grit” as being true when they only exist in language.

    One quibble: I’m not sure the absence of melanin in your skin makes you “prone” to math and verbal skills. That would indicate the presence of melanin naturally makes one adverse to math and verbal skills.

    • Thank you, but please take care with what you claim I said. I listed three separate qualities of mine, and did not in any way suggest one or any caused the others: “Despite my growing up in a working class family, I thrived when I did because of a number of privileges—being white, male, and prone to math and verbal skills cherished by the school system.”

  6. Pingback: NPR Whitewashes “Grit” Narrative | the becoming radical

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