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David Denby writes often about education and culture in the New Yorker, in addition to books and films. His latest book, Lit Up
In this article, he reviews Angela Duckworth’s Grit, which has become the talk of the town and a bestseller.
Denby explains the background of this idea and its leading promoter, as well as its implication for education.
I strongly recommend that you read his review.
I’m not sure what we’re learning from any of this. There may be a few champions who get by purely on talent, luck, or family wealth, but we can assume—can’t we?—that most highly successful people are resilient and persevering. It would be news if they weren’t. Grit can be partly inferred from their success itself, which is, of course, what drew Duckworth to these people in the first place. There are no mediocre or moderately successful people in her book, and she has little interest in the myriad ways we hamper ourselves—failure, in this account, is simply owing to a lack of grit.
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. As examples, however, instances of success in soccer, spelling bees, and crossword-puzzle design suffer from the same weakness as success during Barracks Beast—they may not offer much help to people engaged in work that demands more diffuse or improvisatory skills. In many careers, you can grind away for years and get nowhere if you aren’t adaptable, creative, alert. In modern offices, many people work in teams, present ideas to a group, move from one project to another. Grit may be beside the point….
Duckworth’s work, however, has been playing very well with a second audience: 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. Some public schools are now altering their curricula to teach grit and other gritty character traits. In California, a few schools are actually grading kids on grit; the practice is widespread in the trendsetting charter-school chain kipp (Knowledge Is Power Program). The standardized-testing agencies that administer the National Assessment of Educational Progress (naep) and the Program for International Student Assessment (pisa) are moving toward the inclusion of character assessment as a measure of student performance. Duckworth, to her credit, has argued against tying such scores to the evaluation of teachers and the funding of schools, but that development may be inevitable.
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. (Our prosperous students do fine on international tests.) George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind program and President Obama’s Race to the Top incentives were designed to raise test scores in general, and in particular to close the gap between affluent and poor children, but neither program, putting it mildly, has succeeded. Despite some success at individual schools, there has been little over-all improvement in the scores of poor children. The gap between white and minority children has actually increased in recent years.
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 per cent. Now it is twenty-two per cent. 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…..
If perseverance is central to Gladwell’s outliers, it’s hardly the sole reason for their success. Family background, opportunity, culture, landing at the right place at the right time, the over-all state of the economy—all these elements, operating at once, allow some talented people to do much better than other talented people. Gladwell provides the history and context of successful lives. Duckworth—indifferent to class, race, history, society, culture—strips success of its human reality, and her single-minded theory may explain very little. Is there any good football team, for instance, that doesn’t believe in endless practice, endurance, overcoming pain and exhaustion? All professional football teams train hard, so grit can’t be the necessary explanation for the Seahawks’ success. Pete Carroll and his coaches must be bringing other qualities, other strategies, to the field. Observing those special qualities is where actual understanding might begin.
The popularity of “grit” may be just one more of those “silver bullets” that reformers grab onto, as a way to avoid the central problem of our society: growing inequality.