Doreen Massey recounts her experience with a “customer liaison” at an art exhibition, leading her to note:
This is a crucial part of the way that neoliberalism has become part of our commonsense understanding of life. The vocabulary we use to talk about the economy is in fact a political construction, as Stuart Hall, Michael Rustin and I have argued in our Soundings manifesto.
In other words, the words we use reflect and reinforce the dominant ideologies of a society, a culture, an organization, or a field.
What is troubling about the power of the language we use—often unconsciously and uncritically—is that we are in a constant state of maintaining the status quo, including bigotry and inequity.
If we shift our attention to formal education, what would you consider the primary differences between struggling or failing students (mostly poor and black or brown) and successful or excelling students (mostly financially secure or affluent and white)?
Despite the current jargon of the day and the bombardment of programs, materials, and experts being sold to educators and schools, those primary differences are not a lack of grit, the absence of a growth mindset, a failure of rigor in the curriculum and the teachers’ expectations, or some combination of these.
“Grit,” “growth mindset,” and “rigor”—to name a few—are veneer, marketable veneer, for the truth about what students succeed/excel and what students struggle/fail. These terms force all the attention of educators and education on the student, creating in those students who struggle and fail (and the teachers who teach them, the schools who serve them) a deficit identity—they lack rigor, they lack a growth mindset, they aren’t being exposed to rigorous curriculum or expectations. In short, these terms and practices are about fixing broken children.
The problem with these terms and practices is that veneer masks the existing racism and classism at the root of who fails and who succeeds in our schools and in our society.
The primary reasons some people flourish and some people flounder are not in those people but in the conditions of their lives—often conditions not of their making.
Wealthy white students flourish in the slack provided them because of their privilege, and poor children of color flounder in the scarcity of living under the weight of racism and classism.
As I have noted often, if we use level of educational attainment as a marker of effort (more education equals greater effort), why do two people with the same education, one black and one white, result in the black person earning less?
The evidence is overwhelming that class and race (as well as gender) trump significantly manufactured silver bullets such as grit, a growth mindset, or rigor.
To claim that academic success dominated by white and wealthy students is mostly from their effort is a nasty lie, and to suggest that struggling and failing among student populations dominated by poor and black/brown students is mostly from their lack of effort, their lack of vision for success, and a failure to demand enough of them is even nastier.
“Grit,” “growth mindset,” and “rigor” are coded words for classist and racist ideologies and practices. They work to make the victims of bigotry and inequity turn all their attention and effort inward so that they are too distracted, too frantic to see the unearned fruits of privilege.
“Grit,” “growth mindset,” and “rigor” are about embracing and perpetuating “you must work twice as hard to have half as much.”
If we believe in education that is liberatory and a source of change, we must confront the language, stop using it, and then totally reject the practices that mislabel privilege as achievement and impose deficit identities on our most vulnerable students.
Massey ends her examination of the words we use with a call relevant to education:
Above all, we need to bring economic vocabulary back into political contention, and to question the very way we think about the economy in the first place. For something new to be imagined, let alone to be born, our current economic “common sense” needs to be challenged root and branch.
We must question the very way we think about, talk about, and practice education. To fail in that regard is to maintain an education system that reflects and reinforces on the backs of other people’s children the bigotry and inequity that still plagues us as a people.