Here are two accessible and important reviews of Angela Duckworth’s best seller, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. Two thoughtful writers from very different backgrounds and perspectives worrying about our society’s obsession with the idea that we can best help the poorest children in America by toughening up their characters.
David Denby, writing for the New Yorker, reviews the book not as an expert in the field of education, but as a thoughtful and educated citizen considering the book’s arguments and its implications for a generation of children. In The Limits of “Grit”, Denby notices that Duckworth, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, studied the character traits of high achievers as a way to identify the path toward high achievement: “Tautology haunts the shape of these fervent lessons. ‘Grittier spellers practiced more than less gritty spellers,’ Duckworth assures us. Well, yes. She is looking for winners, and winners of a certain sort: survivors in highly competitive activities in which a single physical, mental, or technical skill can be cultivated through relentless practice.”
Denby worries that, “Duckworth’s work… has been playing very well with… a variety of education reformers who have seized on ‘grit’ as a quality that can be located and developed in children, especially in poor children… This snowballing effect among school reformers can’t be understood without recognizing a daunting truth: We don’t know how to educate poor children in this country… For children, the situation has grown worse as we’ve slackened our efforts to fight poverty. In 1966, when Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty initiatives were a major national priority, the poverty rate among American children was eighteen percent. Now it is twenty-two percent. If we suffer from a grit deficiency in this country, it shows up in our unwillingness to face what is obviously true—that poverty is the real cause of failing schools.” Denby concludes: “Duckworth—indifferent to class, race, history, society, culture—strips success from its human reality.”
Denby notes that Duckworth and her colleagues, “boiled down a long list of character traits—what they called virtues—into a master list of seven that could be quantified and graded in schools. Grit, of course, is one; the others are self-control (both academic and social), zest, optimism, social intelligence, gratitude, and curiosity. Now, there’s something very odd about this list. There’s nothing in it about honesty or courage; nothing about integrity, kindliness, responsibility for others. The list is innocent of ethics, any notion of moral development, any mention of the behaviors by which character has traditionally been marked… Putting it politically, the ‘character’ inculcated in students… is perfectly suited to producing corporate drones in a capitalist economy. Putting it morally and existentially, the list is timid and empty.”
And a tough-grit curriculum may actually hurt the most vulnerable students—those living in poverty—children who have been abused. Here Denby turns to Paul Tough’s new book, Helping Students Succeed, a book in which Tough carefully re- examines the no-excuses schools pushing grit and rejects the idea that grit can be taught with behavioristic and punitive discipline practices. Instead Tough prescribes a nurturing environment built on developing pride through academic competence, supporting academic autonomy, and building close personal relationships between students and with staff. This blog reviews Tough’s book here.
Mike Rose, the education scholar and writer, has critiqued “grit-based” educational theories in a chapter he added to the 2014 edition of Why School? I urge you to read that book. Here, in a new review of Duckworth’s Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, Rose points out that Duckworth’s book is less nuanced than her previous scholarly work: “It is instructive to read Duckworth’s foundational scholarly articles, something I suspect few staffers, and no policy makers have done. The articles are revealing in their listing of qualifications and limitations: The original studies rely on self-report questionnaires, so can be subject to error and bias. The studies are correlational, so do not demonstrate causality. The exceptional qualities of some of the populations studied can create problems for factor analysis.”
Like Denby, Rose worries that although perseverance, determination and goal-driven achievement—the qualities that, for Duckworth, define grit—are important elements of personality, others are equally if not more important: “Of course, perseverance is an important characteristic. I cherish it in my friends and my students. But…. perseverance and determination as represented in the grit questionnaires could suggest a lack of flexibility, tunnel vision, an inability to learn from mistakes. Again, my point is not to dismiss perseverance but to suggest that perseverance, or grit, or any quality works in tandem with other qualities in the well-functioning and ethical person. By focusing so heavily on grit, character education in some settings has been virtually reduced to a single quality and probably not the best quality in the content of character. The items in the grit instruments could describe the brilliant surgeon who is a distant and absent parent, or… the smart, ambitious, amoral people who triggered the Great Recession. (Macbeth with his ‘vaulting ambition’ would score quite high on grit.)”
“Personality psychology by its disciplinary norms,” Rose explains, “concentrates on the individual, but individual traits and qualities, regardless of how they originate and develop, manifest themselves in social and institutional contexts.” Duckworth measures grit as a characteristic of successful people without measuring how their success and privilege have themselves contributed to their driving personalities: “So the construct of grit and the instruments to measure it are largely based on populations that more likely than not are able to pursue their interests and goals along a landscape of resources and opportunity. This does not detract from the effort they expend or from their determination, but it does suggest that their grit is deployed in a world quite different from the world poor people inhabit.”
Like David Denby, Mike Rose worries that character education intended to develop grit is almost always envisioned by its proponents for other people’s children: “(O)f course, a good deal of the discussion of grit doesn’t really involve all students. Regardless of disclaimers, the primary audience for our era’s character education is poor kids… (A) focus on individual characteristics of low-income children can take our attention away from the structural inequalities they face. Some proponents of character education have pretty much said that an infusion of grit will achieve what social and economic interventions cannot… But if as a society we are not also working to improve the educational and economic realities these young people face, then we are engaging in a cruel hoax, building aspiration and determination for a world that will not fulfill either.”