NPR Whitewashes “Grit” Narrative

Albeit from different ideologies, NPR and Fox News have something really disturbing in common: Bias masked as, to use the Fox slogan, “fair and balanced.” In fact, the breezy tone of NPR makes its uncritical bias potentially more dangerous* than Fox’s essentially cartoonish balance.

And thus, when NPR discovers “grit,” we get this: Does Teaching Kids To Get ‘Gritty’ Help Them Get Ahead?

While the story does acknowledge critics, the piece clearly forefronts “grit” research as well as the credibility of “Angela Duckworth, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania who coined the term ‘grit’ — and won a MacArthur ‘genius grant’ for it.”

How can any criticism of “grit,” and thus indirectly Duckworth, hold up to that?

Despite the framing bias of the story—and that breezy tone that suggests everything is fine—I do recommend examining Alfie Kohn’s work challenging the “grit” narrative:

But the greatest failure of the NPR look into “grit” is what, once again, is missing: Not a single mentioning of race, of the strong critical rejection of the “grit” narrative as a not-so-thinly masked appeal to racism.

“Grit” is a mask, a marker for privilege and slack that suggests people who succeed do so because of their effort (and not their privilege and the slack of their lives) and that people who fail do so because of a failure of character (and not due to the scarcity that overburdens them).

The “grit” narrative is essentially a whitewashing of the power of privilege as that is a product of lingering racism. And thus, the “grit” narrative is primarily aimed at children of color and they are routinely encouraged to honor Gritty White Hopes like (as the NPR story reveals) Steve Jobs:

That message underlies every lesson at the Lenox Academy for Gifted Middle School Students in Brooklyn, N.Y., a public school that has been trying to make kids grittier for the past three years. On a recent day, in a typical lesson, a social studies class is studying Steve Jobs. Kids raise their hands to offer examples of Jobs’ grit.

“He had failed one of the Mac projects he was creating,” says one student.

“He used his mistakes to help him along his journey,” says another.

And thus, let me suggest the following:

My posts on “grit”:

The Poverty Trap: Slack, Not Grit, Creates Achievement

The “Grit” Narrative, “Grit” Research, and Codes that Blind

Misreading “Grit”: On Treating Children Better than Salmon or Sea Turtles

Kids Count on Public Education, Not Grit or “No Excuses”

Learning and Teaching in Scarcity: How High-Stakes ‘Accountability’ Cultivates Failure

An Open Apology, with Explanations: Math, Behaviorism, and “Grit”

Snow Blind: “Trapped in the Amber of This Moment”

From Ira Socol:

Paul Tough v. Peter Høeg – or – the Advantages and Limits of “Research”

“Grit” Part 2 – Is “Slack” What Kids Need?

“Grit” – Part 3: Is it “an abundance of possibility” our kids need?

Grit Part 4: Abundance, Authenticity, and the Multi-Year Mentor

Angela Duckworth’s Eugenics – the University of Pennsylvania and the MacArthur Foundation

From Katie Osgood:

Ignoring Mental Health in the Grit Debate

And (please see the discussion thread):

Does “Grit” Need Deeper Discussion?

Note Living in Dialogue post from Lauren Anderson, EdWeek Editor’s Note, and comments:

Lauren Anderson: Grit, Galton, and Eugenics

And a consideration of Anderson:

Grit and Galton; Is psychological research into traits inherently problematic? Cedar Rienar


I Think a MacArthur Genius Is Wrong About ‘Grit,’ John Warner

* Revised for tone from previous version.


22 thoughts on “NPR Whitewashes “Grit” Narrative”

  1. Well Said! I would add there is a certain pretense invoked by corporate reformers who like to “cite” the work of Duckworth. She may very well be a “genius” by the MacArthur scholarship standard, but my reading of Paul Toughs book, and seeing her TED talks left me with the sense that we she was she was being paid to “find” the data that supported the intentions of her corporate overseers.

  2. Thank you, thank you, thank you

    I was beginning to think I was hearing a different story than everyone else. There have been two stories now on grit and the one i heard today didn’t have the Alfie Kohn critique, as brief and edited as it was. Grit is the next shiny object to distract people from real problems.

    Heaven help us all.

    Delthea Simmons @

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