I’ve been researching grit – the way one does on a snowy day.
In the process I discovered an Australian newspaper archive with tens of thousand of instructive stories about grit and who has it.
It seems grit frenzy has been with us for a while and this latest round in grit mania in education is just the latest version.
The astonishing number – tens of thousands – of stories with “grit” in the title suggest such stories were a regular feature of newspapers in the late C19th and early C20th century.
It was for sure a time when most people needed a deal of the stuff to survive especially in harsh pioneer circumstances of the outback.
In these stories, grit comes in all shapes and forms. Athletes have grit and continue to play the game with sprained ankles, soldiers have grit and ignore their wounds, workmen have grit continuing their duties in spite of grievous injuries.
A nonagenarian declines anesthetic displaying great grit, and even animals have grit. A cellist continues the concert in spite of copious blood-letting and wartime workers at the Woolwich Arsenal have great grit.
There’s Lad’s grit, Yorkshire grit and a rather complicated form of feminine grit.
Grit, we are told, is a masculine quality. In these tales it is owned more or less exclusively by white Europeans excluding of course the Hun.
There’s commercial grit and sporting grit and political grit and religious grit and scads of military grit.
Children have grit of course and do not complain and even women are capable of it although this is something of a problem.
There’s Australian grit of course, but also American, British, Scotch (sic) and Russian grit (as expressed in devotion to the Czar.)
It was grit that built the British Empire. And the hard grit of character – the secret sauce of victory – withstands the blows of adversity and misfortune.
So many instructive tales about dismemberment, crushed limbs, dislocated joints and extreme and painful hardships endured with fortitude and courage. There’s a relentless inspirational, sunny side up through every adversity imaginable.
And of course it is all very admirable. When you live far from medical help for example you had better be resourceful when disaster strikes.
But beyond necessity, what’s it all about?
What’s the problem with stories about people overcoming the odds and succeeding in spite of adversity and hardship? And why is there such a incessant drumbeat to grin and bear it and come back smiling?
Reading these stories a clear political agenda and point of view emerges. This is grit in the service of king and empire and industry. These are not stories about those who fought the odds to improve the world , combat injustice and strive for better working and living conditions. These are stories about bootstrapping individual effort and overcoming personal odds not social change. It’s the agenda of “no excuses”.
I started by searching for grit in WW1 trench newspaper “The Wipers Times”. There’s one reference in the form of a verse about the courage of those who carry the rations on the hazardous journey up the line from Poperinge to Ypres.
Those who have not enlisted don’t have grit. (Although to have resisting the appeal and to declare oneself a conscientious objector took enormous courage in a time of national war frenzy.)
First World War recruiting posters appealed to grit in Ireland and Australia.
Reading these stories a clear picture emerges. Those who call for better working conditions, for health care and access to education do not have grit. Even worse they are unpatriotic and dangerous. They are asking for government hand-outs and may even be socialists or worse. People are in danger of having the grit “coddled out of them”.
Grit is clearly admirable when is means determination and courage to confront and overcome adversity. But when that adversity is not a necessity then it surely is pretext for not doing anything about situations that require collective remedy.
The grit narrative is about maintaining arrangements as they are and praising those who endure without protest or complaint. Grit belongs to “us”, not “them” and those who object are idlers, troublemakers and weaklings who seek to be coddled by the welfare state and live on the thrift of others.
It was clear in the early decades of the last century that the old order – in this instance the British Empire – was fragile. The British hold on world power was waning and domestic politics were in flux.
Not surprising then that there was a growing obsession with the rise and fall of civilizations. The science of eugenics appeared to provide both an explanation and a solution for these perplexing problems.
And so there it was – in the Launceston (Tasmania) Examiner in August 1912 – a report with all the weight of science entitled “Waning Grit.”
The story is about the work of highly respected English eugenicist Dr. A. F. Tredgold and it was widely reported in the New York Times and elsewhere.
Tredgold reported that the population were increasingly unable to keep pace with the demands of modern civilization. He presented clear and scientific evidence of race degeneracy and ultimate national extinction.
A rising tide of feeble-minded degenerates and paupers was such that the best efforts of charities could not keep up.
Tredgold’s work was enthusiastically taken up by eugenicists in the United States and elsewhere. Here’s Dr. J.H. Kellog for example writing in a medical journal.
Dr. Tredgold was highly respected and his work widely cited although it did not go unchallenged.
In a time political and imperial instability grit frenzy seems an understandable reaction. to such dire predictions and existential medical panic.
People need to stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood and exhibit character and grit. Poverty and ignorance are no excuse.
Look at all these (thousands) of sterling examples of people who overcame the odds and never gave up.
We may not use the same language now – and eugenics is out of fashion – but beliefs about “the waning grit and independence” of the poor are concepts with which we are familiar.
The grit chronicles of the era also extended to puns. Here are a few grit jokes widely syndicated at the time.
And after all the grit and enforced cheerfulness I turn again to the incomparable “Wipers Times” for a restorative take .