Grit Hits the Fan

It’s a good word grit. It’s short, and it has the  good old English language virtue of getting right to the point.

It also sets my teeth on edge.


Well for one, grit – it seems – has become one of those condescending terms that successful people use to describe what the less successful lack.  Gritlessness – the character flaw that traps children into helpless poverty and enables the rest of us to feel smug. We are successful therefore we must possess lots of this magic stuff.

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(Full disclosure – it seems I am totally lacking in grit.

I took the  grittiness “test” and was deemed virtually non-gravelly in comparison with my demographic peers.)

Since grit became the educational solution du jour I’ve been writing wiseacre one liner tweets such as:

Grit – something that you got in your eye leaning out the window of a steam train.
Grit is something that sets your teeth on edge and gets embedded in a skinned knee.

And my favorite:

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So what is my problem with fortitude, tenacity, backbone, courage and perseverance. stamina heart intestinal fortitude, mental muscle?  What’s wrong with bootstrapping grit and glory?

Actually nothing. Like the gritsters, I too, believe that tenacity and determination matter and that resilience is an admirable quality. What I don’t like is the trotting out of formulas to teach it to those others whom we – the presumed successful ones – deem lacking in these core character traits.

I have nothing against tenacity, perseverance, stick-to-it-ativness and all those other golden virtues. Quite the reverse. It is those qualities of courage and endurance and resilience that enable us to endure the setbacks and tough times. (They are also what come easily when we have the room to be deeply immersed in a flow of learning or chosen activity. We all have grit then. And that suggests the issue may have something to do with doing things imposed by others, over which we have little control and in which even less authentic interest.) No – the problem is elsewhere.

There was an active round  of debate in my Twitterspere yesterday. The trigger was the second of Ira Socol’s posts on the problem of the grit panacea for poverty. He argues that what poor children actually need is not more puritanical grit and piled on suffering but slack – equal access to  the leeway of time and resources afforded the well-off.

“Grit” Part 2 – Is “Slack” What Kids Need?

Grant Lichtman jumped with Does “Grit” need deeper discussion?   and others began weighing in with comments, posts and links.

An earlier  blog post True Grit from the Alpine Valley Sudbury school in Colorado was added to the debate. Mark Crotty joined in with:

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And that reminded me that I had pretty much expressed my thoughts on the topic here: What Failure Means these Days

I welcome this broader discussion and hope in can bring more light as well as heat to a subject that does need exploration.

In terms of pop psychology we seem to have come a long way since Daniel Goleman’s 1996 Emotional Intelligence  emphasized the importance of empathy, self-awareness, altruism, personal motivation and the ability to love and be loved. Emotional intelligence – the ability to perceive emotions, understand others,  to access and generate emotions so as to assist reflection and  regulate emotions and thereby promote emotional and intellectual growth – now has a harder edge. To survive the harsh conditions over which they have little immediate control, children need lessons in grit. 

Emotional intelligence seems to have morphed into something well – grittier  and far less appealing. Children, we are told, must learn  self-discipline and restraint if they are to overcome the burdens and shackles of poverty. Kids who do manage to survive and thrive demonstrate higher levels of self-control and determination aka “grit”.  So for some the educational  prescription is a hearty dose of school-as-bootcamp: sit up straight, look me in the eye and grind your teeth on abrasive substances.

If only those children  would be like us, do as we tell them, comply, obey and support the status quo then all will be well.  It’s nonsense of course.

What? Those in hardship need to acquire more self-control?

Is this gravel-pit solution because we have lost our collective fortitude to tackle the actual problem – inequality?  It’s not the poor that lack grit and determination and character. It’s all of us for not doing something about what matters most –  more equitable distribution of wealth and social justice.

Calls for lessons in grit are so much easier  than tackling social ills.  It allows us to blame the victim. But the truth is, it’s not those kids who need the grit but all of us who allow such systemic injustices to continue to grow. We could make a start on the teaching by setting an example with some collective discipline around social change. And then get back to the work  of helping kids succeed as the agents of their own lives  and learning in pursuit of their goals.

It’s  a deficit model. They don’t have it. We are successful so we must have it. We must teach it  And how will we do that? By rewarding their compliance with our imposed requirements.  We know best. they should comply and when they do we reward their grit.  This is the (of course) oversimplified version of how it all works. What’s missing there are all the things that actually have a chance of teaching true grit, ambitious goals, emotional stamina and  persistence to wit:-  personal engagement, purpose, self advocacy and agency. And building those things takes time and most of all caring relationships built on mutual trust and respect not command, compliance and control.

Self control and perseverance are invaluable attributes without a doubt. The problem creeps in with the assumption that some people  are poor because they lack them.  If only we could teach them these traits all will be well – they will hoist themselves by their bootstraps and none of us will have to worry about income inequality or the deep injustice of  resource distribution in schools.

The problem is believing that lack of self-control and perseverance are the cause of poverty.

Not so. Poverty is the cause of gritlessness not the other way round. (I’ve added a few links below to back-up this assertion.)

And then of course there’s The Problem Of Rich Kids.

The culture of achievement doesn’t only impact that who have little; it also eats away at those who seem to have it all as they get caught up in the competitive achievement race. Some who work in independent and high achieving schools know kids like this and it’s not a pretty sight. And while these kids have the slack of wealth and privilege they also often suffer from the grit of competition and corrosive demands to succeed and win.  They do indeed have it all. (Read the article for all the gory details of rich kids and their – and our – very real problems with character, substance abuse, criminality, cheating and self-harm .)

Here are a couple of news articles reporting on the Science study: Poverty Impedes Cognitive Function as back-up for that assertion:

Poverty saps mental capacity to deal with complex tasks, say scientists – The Guardian

Study suggests being preoccupied with money problems is equivalent to loss of 13 IQ points or losing a night’s sleep.

Poverty strains cognitive abilities, opening door for bad decision-making – The Washington Post.

Poverty consumes so much mental energy that people struggling to make ends meet often have little brainpower left for anything else, leaving them more susceptible to bad decisions that can perpetuate their situation, according to a study published Thursday in the journal Science.

“Past research has often blamed [poverty] on the personal failings of the poor. They don’t work hard enough; they’re not focused enough,” said University of British Columbia

Understanding the Cognitive Demands of Poverty on our Students is from Education Week

As one of the authors of the Science study Eldar Shafir  explains:

 “All the data shows it isn’t about poor people, it’s about people who happen to be in poverty. All the data suggests it is not the person, it’s the context they’re inhabiting.”

And then – just to complicate matters further there this from the N.Y. Times:

“Can Upward Mobility Cost You Your Health?”

Those who do climb the ladder, against the odds, often pay a little-known price: Success at school and in the workplace can exact a toll on the body that may have long-term repercussions for health.

Grit kills?

1 Comment

  1. Greg:

    OK – so this is just a great resource. And just how offensive is that Grit Test anyways? I am pleased to add this post to my growing list of anti-grit resources. (We non-gritty people are very capable thank-you very much!)

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