Among educators on my social media feeds, many were all atwitter about “grit” guru Angela Duckworth penning Don’t Grade Schools on Grit in the New York Times Sunday Review.
However, I must warn: Don’t believe it.
Duckworth’s apparent backpedaling on how most people embracing “grit” in education are applying her research—notably a new move to test for “grit”—has two fundamental problems.
First, please note that Duckworth’s Op-Ed in the NYT conveniently coincides with yet another book of hers on, you guessed it, “grit.”
Excuse my skepticism, but this Op-Ed is also PR for her incredibly lucrative career as a “grit” guru.
Second, and far more importantly, Duckworth’s concession that “grit” is being misapplied (her version) falls well short of acknowledging that her “grit” research itself is both steeped in and perpetuating racism and classism.
In other words, Duckworth and her “grit” cult cannot shake off the essential flaws in “grit” narratives by blaming how people are misusing it; fact is “grit” research and practices cannot be implemented in any ways that are absent the foundational flaws.
As I have detailed often, “grit” narratives, research, and practices must be rejected for the following reasons:
- In an excellent examination of Duckworth’s recent Op-Ed, John Warner confronts why good intentions are not enough: “Duckworth says these consequences are ‘inadvertent,’ which is no doubt true. But just as a certain Dr. Frankenstein learned, that doesn’t mean these negative consequences, inadvertent as they may be, were unforeseeable.” Warner’s analogy is apt, but let me add two more: dynamite and IQ. While dynamite had initial good purposes, the carnage that resulted certainly stains those intentions. But IQ is even more illustrative here. Like “grit,” IQ has always had the veneer of “science” and “objective” to mask the inherent racism, classism, and sexism beneath the metrics (see Gould). Both IQ and “grit” are harmful because of the failure to investigate how both confuse privilege and bias for intelligence and effort—as well as the so-called strong correlations between IQ/”grit” and achievement.
- Another problem can be unpacked by noting that most educators who uncritically embrace “grit” reject the teacher quality narrative. This is key since both the “grit” narrative and the teacher quality narrative share the same flaw: Someone with authority has chosen to overemphasize a minor aspect of the very complex acts of learning, achievement, and teaching. Just as teacher quality is a mere 10-15% of measurable student outcomes, student effort is an isolatable but minor element of student success—or more importantly, human success after formal education. Again, if we use educational attainment and/or wealth as proxies for “effort” (which I think is valid), in the U.S., blacks with some college have the same work opportunities as white high school drop-outs, and affluent blacks are more likely to go to jail than poor whites (see evidence of these and more here); therefore, while “grit” as perseverance or effort may be important, it pails against the weight of race, class, and gender bias.
- That overemphasis, then, disproportionately focuses on the victims of bias, placing the weight of blaming the victim on top of the weight of racism, classism, and sexism. “Grit” fails in this regard by creating and reinforcing a deficit ideology that misrepresents privilege as effort and failure as a lack of effort. “Grit” narratives and practices normalize as fact that those who success do so primarily through hard work, and those who fail deserve that failure because they lack “grit,” are lazy. Yet, both claims are demonstrably false (success and failure more strongly correlated to conditions of scarcity and slack), and depend on the worst aspects of racist and classist bigotry.
Don’t believe it—because the Op-Ed is PR for yet more “grit” for everyone to buy, uncritically, and because “grit” advocates, including Duckworth, have yet to admit, confront, and reject the essential racist and classist underpinnings of “grit” research, narratives, and practices.
The Plans of Policymakers and Professors Oft Go Awry, Jose Vilson
We Have an Engagement Crisis, not a “Grit” Deficit, John Warner