I Swear: On “Grit,” Adult Hypocrisy, and Privilege

I’m gonna cuss on the mic tonight.
“Rockin’ the Suburbs,” Ben Folds

My parents taught me that if you swear, it’s a sign of a poor vocabulary.
If I expect my players to be disciplined, then I have to be, too.
Dean Smith

Few things have been more important to me than discovering George Carlin during my teens years in the 1970s. Soon to follow was Richard Pryor.

Profanity and the art of crafting humor are easily the foundations for my life of words as avid reader and writer.

And yes, I swear.

But in both Carlin and Pryor I learned something far more important than how to swear in ways that gained me credibility among my peers (despite my frail nerdom); I had the curtain pulled back on adult authority—the hypocrisy of the “do as I say, not as I do” adult world.

Carlin and Pryor were my first critical teachers.

I grew up in a rural Southern town and school system where adults demanded children respect authority and tradition while behaving in ways that were inexcusable—racial slurs, profanity, drinking, smoking, you name it.

This was particularly pronounced among the coaches in the public schools.

Years after I graduated, I returned to that school to teach. A sophomore came into my class one day, stunned that the head football coach/athletic director/assistant principal had just given the student demerits for swearing—and had yelled profanities at the student during the issuing of those demerits.

So as I have noted before about Coach K and my fandom for Duke University basketball, I have a great deal of trouble with the berating, profane coach demanding character and discipline from his/her players—often children, teens, and young adults.

And we live in a world still where a coach launches into a profane tirade to reprimand his player for lacking class and a white, privileged male moralizes cluelessly, perched not on his own morality but his privilege (see Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig’s Poor People Don’t Need Better Social Norms. They Need Better Social Policies).

When Dean Smith recently passed away, the coverage did highlight Smith’s unique convictions as a coach—including that he did not use profanity, but also that he led a social activist life that was often ignored.

But let’s be clear that Smith’s convictions are about not just talking the talk, but walking the walk: “If I expect my players to be disciplined, then I have to be, too.”

So when I came across a profile of Angela Duckworth, who is the central person in the “grit” phenomenon mostly aimed at impoverished and minority children, I had the same reaction to some details as I have when Coach K screams profanities on the sidelines, when the Vanderbilt coach lost it, and when the privileged make moral demands of the impoverished—and as I noted above, my problem is not the profanity, but the hypocrisy.

Early in the profile of Duckworth, we learn:

Assistant Professor of Psychology Angela Duckworth Gr’06 has another explanation. Before she entered graduate school at Penn in 2002 she spent five years teaching math and science in poor urban neighborhoods across the United States. In that time she concluded that the failure of students to acquire basic skills was not attributable to the difficulty of the material, or to a lack of intelligence, or indeed to any of the factors mentioned above. Her intuition told her that the real problem was character [emphasis added].

“Grit” research claims that some people are successful and others are not because of something like resiliency, which is a subset of the larger character issue.

However, later in the profile, we also discover:

Duckworth jokes that the job-hopping she did in her twenties was a case study in “how not to be gritty,” but it seems more a function of the intensity and dynamism of her personality. In the course of reporting this article I heard colleagues call Duckworth the most extroverted person, the quickest learner, and the fastest thinker (and talker) they’d ever met.

On the day I visited she had a half-dozen bubble gum containers on her desk, suggesting an atmosphere of restless activity and a need to replenish the saliva that’s lost through such rapid-fire speech. She also uses expletives in a way that might impress even high-powered cursers like Rahm Emanuel. In the course of a 90-minute conversation she called a principal she knew “an asshole,” described the opinion of a leading education foundation as “fucking idiotic,” and did a spot-on impression of a teenager with attitude when explaining the challenge of conducting experiments with adolescents: “When you pay adults they always work harder but sometimes in schools when I’ve done experiments with monetary incentives there’s this like adolescent ‘fuck you’ response. They’ll be like ‘Oh, you really want me to do well on this test? Fuck you, I’m going to do exactly the opposite.’”

So when I Tweeted this, I found out that others immediately assumed I was concerned about Duckworth’s profanity.

Again, I swear. Quite a lot.

But the issue with the above is that I see in Duckworth more evidence of what William Deresiewicz confronts in Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League and his book, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and The Way to a Meaningful Life:

Our system of elite education manufactures young people who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose: trapped in a bubble of privilege [emphasis added], heading meekly in the same direction, great at what they’re doing but with no idea why they’re doing it.

Privilege and success are dangerous combinations:

Elite schools like to boast that they teach their students how to think, but all they mean is that they train them in the analytic and rhetorical skills that are necessary for success in business and the professions. Everything is technocraticthe development of expertiseand everything is ultimately justified in technocratic terms [emphasis added].

Such as identifying, measuring, and labeling children by their “grit”? A technocratic view of the world that ignores inequity, privilege?

And thus, I fear that the “grit” narrative as a veneer for privilege is part of the problem noted by Deresiewicz: “This system is exacerbating inequality, retarding social mobility, perpetuating privilege, and creating an elite that is isolated from the society that it’s supposed to lead.”

There is an arrogance, a self-righteousness, a contempt for others—carried by the flippancy of profanity—that make me convinced that, yes, “grit” is a veneer for privilege, a way to reduce marginalized people through a deficit view.

To be pointed, I am deeply concerned about the racism and classism beneath those embracing and endorsing “grit”—and Duckworth’s mockery of adolescents suggests a lack of awareness that reinforces my concern.

The formula: I worked hard and succeeded. You are struggling so it must be you aren’t working hard enough!

So the missionary zeal bothers me:

For Duckworth, however, the challenge of her research question is part of its appeal. She spent the first decade of her professional life unsure of how to apply her abundant talent. Now she no longer has any doubts. “I have complete conviction that this is an incredibly important scientific question,” she says. “If we can figure out the science of behavior and behavior change, if we can figure out what is motivation and how to motivate people, what is frustration and how do we manage it, what is temptation and why do people succumb to it—that to me would be akin to the semiconductor.”

The facts refuting that formula bother me even more: Educational attainment (a clear marker for effort) is often significantly trumped by race and class.

If we accept that “grit” includes “perseverance and passion for long-term goals” (such as achieving more education), I find the above details about Duckworth more evidence of the adult hypocrisy I experienced while growing up. Is her cavalier attitude and profanity any different than the attitude she is condemning among teens?

So my concerns are not personal, or personal attacks—because Duckworth is certainly not alone in her good intentions behind “grit” research or practices.

And my concerns are grounded in Paul Gorski’s scholarship in which he shares his own self-reflection, as have I, as I continue to do. Gorski explains:

Unfortunately, my experience and a growing body of scholarship on intercultural education and related fields (such as multicultural education, intercultural communication, anti-bias education, and so on) reveal a troubling trend: despite overwhelmingly good intentions, most of what passes for intercultural education practice, particularly in the US, accentuates rather than undermines existing social and political hierarchies (Aikman 1997; Diaz-Rico 1998; Gorski 2006; Hidalgo, Chávez-Chávez, and Ramage 1996; Jackson 2003; Lustig 1997; Nieto 2000, 1995; Schick and St. Denis 2005; Sleeter 1991; Ulichny 1996). (p. 516)

Further, I remain guided in my criticism of “grit” by Gorski’s questions:

The questions are plenty: do we advocate and practice intercultural education so long as it does not disturb the existing sociopolitical order?; so long as it does not require us to problematize our own privilege?; so long as we can celebrate diversity, meanwhile excusing ourselves from the messy work of social reconstruction?

Can we practice an intercultural education that does not insist first and foremost on social reconstruction for equity and justice without rendering ourselves complicit to existing inequity and injustice? In other words, if we are not battling explicitly against the prevailing social order with intercultural education, are we not, by inaction, supporting it?

Such questions cannot be answered through a simple review of teaching and learning theory or an assessment of educational programs. Instead, they oblige all of us who would call ourselves intercultural educators to re-examine the philosophies, motivations, and world views that underlie our consciousnesses and work. Because the most destructive thing we can do is to disenfranchise people in the name of intercultural education. (p. 516)

I am not, then, being a petty prude. (Want to listen to my CAKE or Ben Folds/Five mix CDs?)

I am not stooping to ad hominem, and this has nothing to do with who I like or dislike (as I don’t know Duckworth, and the other key “grit” advocates). I suspect, actually, they are good and decent people dedicated to doing the right thing.

This is about the hypocrisy of adult demands aided by the technocratic use of “grit” as a veneer for privilege.

I remain convinced that the appeal of the “grit” narrative is mostly a failure to do what Gorski notes above: “Such questions…oblige all of us who would call ourselves intercultural educators to re-examine the philosophies, motivations, and world views that underlie our consciousnesses and work.”

So when an award-winning researcher tells me poor and minority children simply lack “grit” or a New York Times pundit explains the moral shortcomings of the poor, I hear Ben Folds singing, “Let me tell y’all what it’s like/ Being male, middle class and white/ It’s a bitch”—except Folds in his profanity is being satirical and his work is mostly harmless entertainment.

6 comments

  1. Lloyd Lofthouse

    My mother was extremely religious (with an emphasis an extreme), and, as a child, if I used any word she thought was profanity, the odds were that I’d pay for it somehow. For instance, mouth washing with bar of soap.

    Then out of high school I joined the U.S. Marines and ended up in Vietnam where I learned all about the art of profanity. In the Marines, profanity is an art form and swearing fills the air. Every sentence. Every phrase, Every clause. Every incomplete sentence.

    After the Corps, it took five years to earn a BA in journalism with financial help from the GI Bill and part time jobs. Later, I’d earn a teaching credential and then an MFA in writing. For the thirty years I spent in the classrooms as a teacher, I never used the profanity I learned in the Marines, and the profanity I heard from the children and teenagers I taught was lame in comparison. Most teenagers only seem to know how to salt their language with the “F” word and they use it often out of context and with little or no creatively. Too bad I couldn’t have taught them how to use profanity better and more creatively, but I knew better than broaching that subject—thank to the lessons I learned about profanity from my mother and godmother.

    Away from school and the classroom where I taught, what I learned in the Marines often burst from my mouth without thought and warning, and my young step daughter picked up that art of military profanity getting me in trouble with my wife. Why is it that children seem to pick up all our bad habits but few if any of the good ones?

  2. goldenoj

    This post really struck me. I have to be careful, because of my dislike of and distaste for the grit narrative, to avoid echo chamber. But this helped me understand the issue better. The involvement of privilege in the legitimacy of the speaker. The arrogance in Duckworth’s origin stories has always bothered me. The more mature I get as a teacher, the more responsibility I take for more students’ learning; ultimately, learning is their responsibility, but the conditions for learning are mine. To have Duckworth respond to the good question (what’s different between us) with finding deficiency on the students’ part is so troubling. Especially if she now admits to a lack of grit for herself. She invalidates her own first intuition. The cursing feels like a bit of a red herring, except as evidence of more bias by interpretational difference. My swearing is colorful, their swearing is evidence of anti-social behavior or lack of discipline.

    Anyhow, a lot to think about, and I’m obviously still thinking.

  3. Pingback: What’s Wrong with “Grit”? | Amber K. Kim, Ph.D.

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