Operation Grit

I take comfort in knowing that I am not the only gritless wonder on the internet. Peter Gow has now confessed to being genetically lacking in the GQ (grit quotient) department.

I think it must be this that sinks me on the infamous grit test: “For the most accurate score, when responding, think of how you compare to most people — not just the people you know well, but most people in the world.” Not that I know most people in the world of course but I know enough to realize that I lead a life of idleness and indulgence compared with most of them.  Ditto when I compare myself with my forebears as well.

While my own contribution to the great grit debate leans toward the frivolous,  I’m pleased to see it continue. I know there is solid middle ground between and amongst those who care about kids, equity and learning but it is always best to understand the light that generates the heat.

The truth is:  Poverty drains cognitive resources and creates mental burdens for which sheer grit cannot compensate. And the fact that as a nation we seem content with almost a quarter of our children growing up in poverty is more than disturbing.

For me one baseline is Poverty Impedes Cognitive Function – the research reported in the August 2013 Science and  in Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much by Sendhil Mullainathan , Eldar Shafir  reviewed here.

“… the alarming conclusion of this book is how completely scarcity colonises the mind. Merely asking poorer people to contemplate a hypothetical £1,000 car repair, one study by the authors shows, impairs their performance on intelligence tests as much as missing a night’s sleep – about 13 or 14 IQ points.”

From their work comes the discussion of the importance of slack and abundance that Paul Thomas and Ira Socol have written about so passionately in their grit posts:

Further discussion – including by Paul Tough – can be found on those posts as well as on Grant Lichtman’s blog.

Perhaps if I had more of that testable grit I would not be so skeptical of the whole pop psychology grit hypothesis. But the evidence in compelling that I am relatively grit-free.

As further evidence of my own gritlessness I offer the following recent example.

I started reading first world war memoirs in high school – when I probably should have been focussing on assigned texts – and I’ve been doing it on and off ever since. As a result I am familiar with the language and landscapes of the Western Front – trench life, wiring party, listening post, dug-out and all the rest. It’s a set of mental furniture of sandbags, duckboards, parapets, barbed wire, gas masks and shell holes. It’s a familiarity with  no-man’s land, up the line, napoo, inthapink , plonk,  Jack Johnsons, minnies, Maconochie, Plug Street, Wipers  and all the rest.

When the National Archive announced that it had digitized 1.5 million pages of British Army  unit war diaries it was like an invitation to enter the official, detailed day to day reality of those frontline memoirs. Quite enthralling actually.  Operation War Diary in an invitation help tag those pages. It’s a crowd-sourcing operation and here’s how it works: You go to the diaries page and choose one to work on.

But here’s the problem. First – you have to choose and that’s hard enough. 2 Division, 11th Sanitary Section or 6Division or 6Battalion Machine Gun Corps. Perhaps the Cavalry Division 9th Queen’s Royal Lancers or the East Surreys on the Somme or the Royal Engineers in Flanders.

Then you get immersed in the tagging and moving on through the diary’s pages and the unit’s progress.

But – what about the bigger picture – what’s happening elsewhere on the front, in another regiment, another place?

The virtue of the diaries is that the literary devices of the memoirs is absent and it’s without the heavy handed puns of the Wipers Times. They provide the plain unvarnished end of day reports about unit activity. A perfect companion to all other accounts historical and literary. And sometimes the extra treat of handwritten signals from the heat of battle,  or sketches of parapet improvements  and improvised trench designs.

Sanitary Section diaries are full of plaintive requests for better regimental hygiene, and accounts of improvised methods for dealing with the tons of horse manure, the swarms of bluebottles and the difficulties of working with uncooperative civilian officials. All  the mundane necessaries of sanitation and hygiene of  scores of  of thousands of men and their horses at the front.

There’s the hustle and bustle of an incredibly efficient mobilization, getting the men , horses and materiel onto trains, on to ships, transported, encamped and  billeted. There’s the regimental pride in the low numbers of men fallen out from the extraordinary route marches of the race to the sea and then  yes – the shock of engagement and the casualties – the bald listing of the names and the end of the month tallies.

And then – in the spring of 1916 the steady build up to the Somme – the training routines and munitions and then the days of bombardment and the long and detailed Orders of Battle.

And the intense and sometimes desperate activity in the line. And then the relief, The games of football, the baths,  the swimming in the canal, the training, inspections and parades of time away from the front.

To stay with one unit means to get to know the officers as the arrive, depart for training, return from base, are wounded. It means to know the names of the officers at least who join the unit before the next offensive and to see them listed at wounded, promoted, mentioned in dispatches, given an award, missing killed a little later. It means to cross-check with the British and Commonwealth War Graves Commission to see if the wounded survived the war.

To record their names and numbers on the diary tags seems like giving attention, Perhaps some living relative will do and search and find the name and they too will imagine the life that was. And see a connection with what was with the life that is now.

But what about the grit?

It’s hard to stick with the single story when the whole is made up of such fascinating constituent parts. each unit tells a story and creates the sense of the whole.  Each individual undoubtedly had grit or at the very least had to endure.  This reader does not.

Seems to me policy makers should be cautious about imposing cognitive taxes on the poor and should cast a jaundiced eye on the grit industry when it is presented absent of the actual research on the toll of poverty on cognitive functioning.

And for those who just can’t get enough of the grit road here are a handful of other voices.

Let them Eat Grit – 4 Reasons why Grit is Garbage – Joe Bower

Why Self-Discipline is Over-Rated – Alfie Kohn

Kiss My Grit – Nancy Flanagan

The Trouble with Grit – Susan Ochshorn

Should Children Really be Expected to Have Grit – Peter DeWitt

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