“Grit” Takes another Hit (with Caveats)

David Denby’s The Limits of “Grit” in The New Yorker offers further evidence that the “grit” train is slowly but surely being derailed.

Paul Tough, journalist, and Angela Duckworth, scholar, have been central to the rise of “grit” as a silver-bullet in education reform—mostly targeting high-poverty racial minority students in “no excuses” charter schools. Both Tough and Duckworth have recently begun pack pedaling slightly as they release new books, Tough’s second on teaching children in poverty and Duckworth’s first on her highly celebrated “grit,” which was a hit as a TED talk and garnered her a MacAuthur Genius grant.

While the “grit” train was gaining steam among politicians, the media, and edureformers, several educators and scholars raised significant concerns about the essential racist and classist elements of “grit” research, the “grit” narrative, and why both are so politically powerful and popular with the public.

“Grit” is receiving another boost directly from Tough’s and Duckworth’s books—and the PR masked as journalism both have been afforded through their own public writings and numerous interviews at many of the most prestigious news sources.

However, an unintended consequence of Tough and Duckworth boosting the “grit” train through soft back pedaling has been a rise in substantive push back; for example consider:

The quality of Duckworth’s research as well as the essential value of “grit” has been fairly strongly refuted now, even in the mainstream media who love the whole “grit” charade (however, we must note, that nearly no one in that push back or the mainstream media is willing yet to acknowledge the racism and classism driving this train).

So Denby’s challenge to Duckworth and “grit” is very welcomed, but also deeply problematic.

Denby strikes first at the essential choice Duckworth has made:

Other social scientists, looking at the West Point situation and many others that Duckworth considers, might have called grit a “dependent variable”—one possible factor in a given experimental situation affecting many other factors. But Duckworth decided that grit is the single trait in our complex and wavering nature which accounts for success; grit is the strong current of will that flows through genetic inheritance and the existential muddle of temperament, choice, contingency—everything that makes life life.

“Grit,” Denby rightfully argues, is grossly over-exaggerated by Duckworth and the cult of “grit” in “no excuses” education reform. Success comes from a complicated matrix of causes—and we must acknowledge that often those competing for success are all very “gritty” as much as we must acknowledge that a tremendous amount of success in the U.S. is the combination of dumb luck within the larger advantages of privilege: Many less “gritty” privileged folk are more successful than more “gritty”  people burdened by poverty, racism, and sexism.

Denby builds, I think, to a damned fine conclusion: “Duckworth—indifferent to class, race, history, society, culture—strips success of its human reality, and her single-minded theory may explain very little.”

This dynamic is the result of so-called hard science that strips and masks through the false allure of objectivity and quantification combined with social norms and biases that remain invisible to the privileged class.

There are thousands and thousands of examples, but the unwarranted rise of Duckworth’s “grit” is also akin to how the media almost alway get science wrong; consider The Irony of Believing Humans Use Only 10% of Their Brains.

And here is the problem with Denby’s takedown of “grit”; therefore, let’s return to how Denby lays out his critique.

“This snowballing effect among school reformers can’t be understood,” Denby explains, “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.)”

As I have posed already, instead of Duckworth’s “grit,” we should be focusing on the well researched concepts of scarcity and slack. We in fact do know a great deal about the negative consequences of scarcity (poverty, stress) on adults and children, and we also are well aware of the advantages of slack (privilege).

But to Denby’s finer point, we also know how to educate children burdened by poverty. Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty: Strategies for Erasing the Opportunity Gap by Paul Gorski and For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…and the Rest of Y’all Too by Christopher Emdin are two recent books that are far more credible than Tough and Duckworth but also represent that educators do in fact know how to educate poor and racial minority children.

Lisa Delpit has been making this case for some years as well: Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom and “Multiplication Is for White People”: Raising Expectations for Other People’s Children, for example.

And there are now decades of educators and scholarship on culturally relevant pedagogy, often grounded in the work of Gloria Ladson-Billings.

So, yes, Denby, your unpacking of “grit” is on track, but you are way off about what we know about educating poor children.

The truth is, as Dave Powell explains,

We tend to think that everyone has a valid opinion on education, up to and including people who are running for president, but I can’t think of another class of people that is less attuned to the day-to-day challenges of teaching than presidential candidates are.

Political leaders, the public, and the media will not listen to the educators and scholars who know what we must do, and leaders do not have the political will to do what we know we must do.


Ironically, further on, Denby turns to Tough (easily an equally key figure in making “grit” popular with Duckworth) and Malcolm Gladwell to unmask Duckworth.

Again, Tough is an edujournalist, and his books and so-called expertise are parts of the problem. We should be buying Gorksi’s and Emdin’s books, interviewing them, and then building policy on their work.

Gladwell is cited for his popularizing the 10,000-hour rule. But Denby fails to recognize that Gladwell and others in the media fumbled the 10,000-hour rule in much the same way as Duckworth has “grit.”

The key researcher behind the 10,000-hour rule found in Gladwell’s book and public work has carefully refuted how Gladwell and the media have misrepresented what the research reveals. See The Danger of Delegating Education to Journalists: Why the APS Observer Needs Peer Review When Summarizing New Scientific Developments by K. Anders Ericsson.

In short, Tough and Gladwell are journalists who do not have the expertise on education or poverty that does exist in academia.

So while I appreciate Denby’s often incisive critique of Duckworth and the cult of “grit,” I  must caution that this critique also too often fails for the same reasons that created the “grit” circus to begin with—just as we have seen with people using only 10% of their brains and the 10,000-hour rule.

Ultimately, there are many reasons to reject the cult of “grit,” but let’s hand the stage properly to Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, Gorski, Emdin, Delpit, and Ladson-Billings—along with dozens of educators and scholars who in fact know what must be done and how to serve the most vulnerable students among us.

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