Another Shot Across the Bow of “Grit”

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.

5 thoughts on “Another Shot Across the Bow of “Grit”

  1. Jon Zeljo

    Grant, just to give credit where credit is due: the article by David Denby is in the New Yorker. And thanks for your work in helping to set the record straight about grit!

    Reply
  2. Rob Bean

    You cannot teach someone how to summon innate traits for overcoming adversity. The factors that I used to generate winning efforts in prep,school sports,academic perseverance & success ,overcoming cancer & unemployment are,not found in a pill,bottle, or study book. My make up drove me forward to accomplish not wait for external factors.

    Reply
    1. Grant Post author

      Thanks, Rob. Would you agree or disagree that teachers/coaches/mentors are capable of helping to build the skills and capacity to overcome adversity? Is there a “nurture” term in your equation, or is it all “nature”? I would argue that it is both, but the nurture component is only possible if the student has, as Ira Socol calls it, enough “slack” in their lives to take advantage of nurturing; hence the argument that kids in dire poverty need slack more than they need grit.

      Reply
      1. rob bean

        I was blessed to have 2 prep mentors in my life for 45 yrs+. One was my hoop coach and another was teacher/ advisor. I loved them like parents .They saw college grads, weddings, family and career. As an athlete I hated to lose with a burning passion to win. As a student I diligently perserved in prep school and graduated in top 15 % of MBA program . Some objected to my lack of business experience and wanted me out of program. Nurture..yes, to some extend. Nature ..yes too .I fought throught 5 caancer ops and searing pain. My make up is diffent than most. I was blessed with a middle class upbringing.

        Loved the points that you expounded!

        Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *