The ongoing discourse about “grit” received another jolt with an article by David Denby in the New Yorker (HT David Monaco). Denby adds his arguments in opposition to the oversimplified, or possibly misleading, research and logic of Angela Duckworth which has made the word “grit” a fixture in some schools’ mission and vision statements. As we have discussed previously in this blog, I find that many of those who want to include grit as a goal in learning either don’t have a solid definition of the word, don’t actually know how they are teaching grit, or have not had a discussion if grit is actually a goal they value.
Denby goes back to Duckworth’s early work based on the study of cadets at West Point which showed that cadets who were more likely to get through their versions of boot camp gave a certain common set of responses on surveys. I have worked with cadets from West Point, and there is not a less representative group of young people in America from which to extrapolate and apply conclusions to the larger population. These young men and women are filtered by an extraordinary combination of idealism, commitment, athleticism, and academic talent. Using such a cohort upon which to start building a philosophy about what is important to teach is like modeling lessons on how to swim by watching Michael Phelps.
I had not seen the Duckworth equations that Denby cites: “Talent x effort = skill. Skill x effort = achievement.” I fail to find a word to describe the shallowness of this thinking. It is the kind of easy-answer sound bite that leads us to think that a 50-foot wall will solve the problem of illegal immigration in America. Any decent, let alone good, educator, knows that we cannot reduce individuals to like terms in an equation. Denby says that Duckworth and her colleagues leave any evidence of ethical responsibility out of their definition of grit. I would add that these equations demonstrate that she also ignores opportunity, family life, economics, geography, social history, or chance.
I love the idea of grit and resilience. I think it is a component of success. The ability to overcome adversity is unquestionably a skill or characteristic that leads to greater personal happiness. But leaping from the synthesis of valuable personal traits to the oversimplification of an equation, or use of a word because it is short and pithy, is just not something educators should support.