Questioning Grit

Last week, the twittersphere was abuzz over  Lauren Anderson’s   essay on the historical contexts of MacArthur  “genius” Angela Duckworth’s  work on teaching poor children “grit”.  Anderson raised serious questions about Duckworth’s quoting Sir Francis Galton,  a proponent of eugenics, in an introduction to her research.

The next day, Diane Ravitch opened discussion about the Anderson essay on her blog –and got discussion indeed, with 179 comments thus far as I write this.  Among Ravitch’s thoughts about the flaws in the “grit” discourse:

if we could just cultivate the “right” qualities among the “low-achieving” then they would be able to transcend conditions of poverty and other obstacles in their way. With more grit, they could overcome. Couched in the language of innovation, these ideas are among the least innovative in our field. They reflect long legacies of victim-blaming, the tendency (especially among the privileged) to emphasize individualism and personal traits over material conditions and social structures, as the core determinants of academic “success.” And they help to perpetuate dual, deeply-held myths about equality of opportunity and meritocracy–myths that hold intuitive appeal for many of us  because, like the Horatio Alger tale, they explain our achievements as the earned products of our own hard work.


…Funny, if we look at the issue from the other end of the telescope, we might ask whether the children who live in affluent circumstances are possessed of unusual amounts of “grit” and “character.” Well, no, they were born to families that already had a lot of money. They have no more grit or character than children living in housing projects.

Even  NPR got on the “grit” bandwagon, with this ahistorical “balanced”  feature that was broadcast just before Anderson’s essay was published.

But weeks before NPR, Anderson, or Ravitch, the wise and always gentle Mike Rose also cautioned readers about the limits of work to repair the “grit” of poor children rather than working to alleviate poverty.

            But we have to be very careful, given the political tenor of our time, not to assume that we have the long-awaited key to helping the poor overcome the assaults of poverty. My worry is that we will embrace these essentially individual and technocratic fixes—mental conditioning for the poor—and abandon broader social policy aimed at poverty itself.
We have a long-standing shameful tendency in America to attribute all sorts of pathologies to the poor. Writing in the mid-nineteenth century, the authors of a report from the Boston School Committee bemoaned the “undisciplined, uninstructed…inveterate forwardness and obstinacy” of their working-class and immigrant students. There was much talk in the Boston Report and elsewhere about teaching the poor “self-control,” “discipline,” “earnestness” and “planning for the future.” This language is way too familiar.

And also:

But can you imagine the outcry if, let’s say, an old toxic dump were discovered near Scarsdale or Beverly Hills and the National Institutes of Health undertook a program to teach kids strategies to lessen the effects of the toxins but didn’t do anything to address the dump itself?


In the NPR interview, Duckworth is quoted as saying “It’s a very, I think, American idea in some ways — really pursuing something against all odds”.

Can we not imagine instead just leveling the odds?

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