by Day Greenberg
A particular construct has been sweeping the educational research field. It promises a silver bullet of sorts to address educational challenges on an individual level, through individual perseverance. It makes this promise absent of any attendance to or recognition of specifically relevant contextual factors. This construct is grit.
The concept of grit, and its frenzied take-up by researchers and practitioners, needs to be problematized—and fast. Unfortunately for students, it has so far been given an almost “free pass” to permeate the conversation on and in our school systems with an insidious bootstrap mentality that rightly praises hard work and resilience yet simultaneous distorts that praise through an insulting, willful blindness that actively harms our nation’s children. The blindness of “grit speech” is the willful ignorance toward the powerful, and power-mediated, external factors that more often than not act as gate checks for students’ efforts toward success. No matter how “gritty” a student is, these factors retain the dangerous power to either expand or cripple such hard work. Such factors—socioeconomic status, parental free time at home, the color of students’ skin and the first language they learn at home, tax-dependent school resource levels that differ by district and often along lines of color, school violence levels that likewise disproportionately plague lower-income schools, teacher quality levels that (surprise, surprise) also are not equitably dispersed across schools and districts, etc.—matter. They matter a great deal: for the support students receive, for the support parents receive, for the assistance toward success that some “gritty” students can find and leverage more easily than others, etc.
In April 2013, Dr. Angela Lee Duckworth delivered a “TED Talk” on her groundbreaking research titled “The key to success? Grit”. In it, she argued that grit, “passion and perseverance for very long-term goals… having stamina… sticking with your future… and working really hard to make that future a reality,” should be taken even more seriously than what she described as the traditional standard of intelligence and “the one thing we know how to measure best,” the IQ score (Duckworth, 2013). Must we digress to address the many tested and confirmed reasons Dr. Duckworth’s praising of IQ tests is problematic? For the purposes of brevity, I’ll merely state that her assumptions about IQ and our ability to test for it are outdated, as scientists agree that those assumptions are “just wrong” (Connor, 2012; Hampshire, Highfield, Parkin, & Owen, 2012) because “the test is a measure of social class background, and not one of the ability for complex cognition as such” (Richardson, 2002).
For the same reason that praising IQ outside of sociocultural, economic, political, and any other context is misguided, placing grit in such a contextual vacuum is unwise. It’s unwise for researchers, policymakers, and practitioners, and it’s harmful for students.
Halfway through her talk, Dr. Duckworth asserts that “grit is living life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint.” What she doesn’t mention is the massive—and for many individuals, prohibitive—cost to purchase the premium brands of running shoes that offer higher levels of protection and support for the runners who have access to them. This metaphor reminds me of my middle school years, when my parents could not afford to buy me new shoes and my older sister’s hand-me-down sneakers with worn-out soles caused me to develop plantar fasciitis when I ran in them. This is not to say I was not a gritty child. But at that time and in that circumstance, when my parents were using food stamps and food banks to fill our bellies, it would not have been wise (or realistic, or kind) to expect her to find a way to buy me more supportive running shoes. My school was not giving away free running shoes, either. In that context, how should I have been expected to be able to run sprints, let alone a marathon?
Dr. Duckworth also does not mention the fact that many menacing obstacles obstruct some running paths differently than others, based on the neighborhood in which you run and even what you look like as a runner. One of the causes of my parents’ financial stresses, besides my mother’s constant medical issues and unethical health insurance practices that dropped my family into bankruptcy twice during my childhood, was the school tuition that my parents paid so that my two siblings and I could attend a college preparatory program at a Catholic school, in one of the lowest-performing and most violent public school districts in my home state of Florida. This, for me, WAS the pair of fancy running shoes I so desperately needed to complete my marathon of high quality, challenging learning in a supportive and protective environment. I cannot honestly say that I became who I am, a PhD student in one of the best programs in the country, because of my grit, my willingness to persevere in spite of my obstacles, outside of the context of how fortunate and privileged I was to escape the oppressively violent and low-resourced conditions that the other kids in my neighborhood were subjected to in their schools. I also can’t take my grit out of the context of my white skin color and the privileged social class in which my parents positioned me in our school/church community, in spite of their mismatching economic class.
Sure, I worked incredibly hard to continually earn annual scholarships that ultimately cut my tuition down to about $2,000 a year (which sometimes required even such humbling tasks as writing personal thank you notes to my friends’ parents when they donated), but who paid that balance? My parents, who were privileged enough to have jobs, and who (perhaps because of how my White, American, native English-speaking parents sounded when they talked and what they looked like when they dressed up for meetings) were forgiven by my school when they were (often several weeks) late to submit tuition payments. Besides even that, I had parents. Two of them. Alive. In the same household. Sacrificing for me. THIS was privilege. It was resources. It was social and economic capital. It was context. It was not just grit.
Grit won’t remove children from the contexts in which more powerful others place them. It cannot save our children from the structures that actively threaten their right to live, learn, and play. Grit did not keep Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, or Aiyana Jones safe from the very structures of power that still claim to protect life while continuously destroying it. In the context of the real, tangible threats cities and city leaders throw in front of our students’ paths on a daily basis, why do we believe the answer lies in isolated psychosocial interventions to make these children more resilient? Does grit stop police bullets? Does grit cure structural racism and inequity? Does grit produce healthier and more respectful teacher-student, school-community, corporation-worker, and politician-people relationship dynamics? When Gloria Ladson-Billings introduced the concept of our nation’s education debt resulting from such abuses as funding inequities and continued school segregation, she did not suggest that the way to pay back such a debt was to train our youth to shoulder it for us with a stiff upper lip (Ladson-Billings, 2006). Why do we power holders claim that the ultimate solution to the abuses we cause depends on the stamina and capacity of our victims to take the punches we give them?
Yes, grit is an interesting concept and studying this quality in students is a worthwhile effort (Duckworth, Peterson, Matthews, & Kelly, 2007). But, as with any other concept or construct in educational research, it should not be taken out of context and treated as a silver bullet. Truly, before we label something as a silver bullet, shouldn’t we begin by asking: to where and at what are we aiming, and what other weapons in our arsenal are we accidentally ignoring that might make more of a difference?
Connor, S. (2012). IQ tests are “fundamentally flawed” and using them alone to measure. Retrieved January 1, 2016, from http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/iq-tests-are-fundamentally-flawed-and-using-them-alone-to-measure-intelligence-is-a-fallacy-study-8425911.html
Duckworth, A. L. (2013). The key to success? Grit. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/angela_lee_duckworth_the_key_to_success_grit?language=en
Duckworth, A. L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M. D., & Kelly, D. R. (2007). Grit: Perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(6), 1087–1101. http://doi.org/10.1037/0022-35220.127.116.117
Hampshire, A., Highfield, R. R., Parkin, B. L., & Owen, A. M. (2012). Fractionating Human Intelligence. Neuron, 76(6), 1225–1237. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuron.2012.06.022
Ladson-Billings, G. (2006). From the Achievement Gap to the Education Debt: Understanding Achievement in U.S. Schools. Educational Researcher, 35(7), 3–12. http://doi.org/10.3102/0013189X035007003
Richardson, K. (2002). What IQ Tests Test. Theory & Psychology, 12(3), 283–314. http://doi.org/10.1177/0959354302012003012
Schwartz, K. (n.d.). Does The Grit Narrative Blame Students For School’s Shortcomings? Retrieved January 1, 2016, from http://ww2.kqed.org/mindshift/2015/05/05/does-the-grit-narrative-blame-students-for-schools-shortcomings/