hagiography (n.) ha·gi·og·ra·phy \-gē-ˈä-grə-fē, -jē-\ (1) a book about someone’s life that makes it seem better than it really is or was, (2) a biography that praises someone too much
[A]s we put into practice an education that critically provokes the learner’s consciousness, we are necessarily working against myths that deform us. As we confront such myths, we also face the dominant power because those myths are nothing but the expression of this power, of its ideology. (Freire, 2005, p. 75)
For most people in 2014, that children were taught for many years in U.S. public schools that George Washington could not tell a lie (the old cherry tree myth) may seem quaint, and to others, a remnant of the distant past.
But the whole truth about this mythologizing of a Founding Father is that much of the knowledge imparted to students through formal schooling remains more propaganda than fact.
From Hellen Keller to Martin Luther King Jr. to Nelson Mandela, children are spoon-fed passive radical myths and distortions of selected exceptional people in order not to capture who those people were but to perpetuate cherished cultural myths (regardless of their veracity).
So if we return to NPR’s whitewashing of the “grit” narrative, we can see how corrosive “myths that deform us” are. The “grit” narrative is itself false, and thus, personal narratives must be manufactured to reinforce that foundational but false narrative.
All of this works, of course, among the shiny happy people who push the “grit” narrative:
Everyone is very happy.
But about those “myths that deform us”; recall the grit lesson in the NPR piece concerning Steve Jobs:
That message underlies every lesson at the Lenox Academy for Gifted Middle School Students in Brooklyn, N.Y., a public school that has been trying to make kids grittier for the past three years. On a recent day, in a typical lesson, a social studies class is studying Steve Jobs. Kids raise their hands to offer examples of Jobs’ grit.
“He had failed one of the Mac projects he was creating,” says one student.
“He used his mistakes to help him along his journey,” says another.
I wonder if students will be told the full story?:
One thing he wasn’t, though, was perfect. Indeed there were things Jobs did while at Apple that were deeply disturbing. Rude, dismissive, hostile, spiteful: Apple employees—the ones not bound by confidentiality agreements—have had a different story to tell over the years about Jobs and the bullying, manipulation and fear that followed him around Apple. Jobs contributed to global problems, too. Apple’s success has been built literally on the backs of Chinese workers, many of them children and all of them enduring long shifts and the specter of brutal penalties for mistakes. And, for all his talk of enabling individual expression, Jobs imposed paranoid rules that centralized control of who could say what on his devices and in his company.
Just as we conveniently ignore the full story about other shiny happy billionaires filled with grit:
There might be some problems with that story too:
Eichenwald’s conversations reveal that a management system known as “stack ranking”—a program that forces every unit to declare a certain percentage of employees as top performers, good performers, average, and poor—effectively crippled Microsoft’s ability to innovate. “Every current and former Microsoft employee I interviewed—every one—cited stack ranking as the most destructive process inside of Microsoft, something that drove out untold numbers of employees,” Eichenwald writes. “If you were on a team of 10 people, you walked in the first day knowing that, no matter how good everyone was, 2 people were going to get a great review, 7 were going to get mediocre reviews, and 1 was going to get a terrible review,” says a former software developer. “It leads to employees focusing on competing with each other rather than competing with other companies.”
And despite what valid criticisms we can offer about Malcolm Gladwell, he makes a pretty compelling case that Gates’s success is the result of as much good fortune as it is talent and effort.
The truth is that “grit,” or effort, is at best a secondary quality (and even then it is likely overemphasized as a key element in success) because the most powerful element at the causational level for most success (and failure) is the context in which any person finds her/himself.
Privilege and slack are conducive to excelling while scarcity tends to breed failure.
The root cause is systemic, not personal. The same person in a condition of slack and a condition of scarcity performs differently and experiences different outcomes.
The lesson, then, is if your primary message for children requires that you make up stories (or cherry-picking, if you will) to prove the myth is accurate, you are likely telling children “myths that deform us” (and that isn’t very hagiography-George-Washington of you).
And in no case is that justifiable.
Freire, P. (2005). Teachers as cultural workers: Letters to those who dare to teach (D. Macedo, D. Koike, & A. Oliveira, Trans.). Boulder, CO: Westview Press.