Education Opinion

What’s Dangerous About the Grit Narrative, and How to Fix It

By Peter Gow — March 03, 2014 5 min read
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There’s been a great deal of buzz lately on the topic of grit. As educators we’re all for persistence, resilience, stick-to-it-ive-ness--the stuff of grit, right? But it turns out that there’s grit, and then there’s the way some people are talking about grit.

Because there has been a bifurcation of grit, a tidy split in the word’s connotation that came about so quietly most of us, to our embarrassment, missed it until we had our noses rubbed in it by sharp people who figured out what was happening. (A nice summary of this critique can be found here.)

On the one hand there’s what we have always understood grit to be, a set of dispositions and habits that incline a person--a student, in our world--toward staying with a problem, toward fighting through a challenge. Good stuff, and indeed a quality of character that is pretty much unexceptionable in any circumstance one can imagine. The history of our nation, from persistent Pilgrims losing half their number in their first Massachusetts winter to doughty little Abraham Lincoln walking all those miles to borrow and return books to obsessive Thomas Edison testing a million (or maybe it was fewer) substances to find the best material for the filament in an electric light bulb. Apollo 11! Apollo 13! The Miracle on Ice!

But no good deed goes unpunished. Place this exceptionalist and triumphalist narrative of the overcoming hero against the reality of our society, and the lights of success shine even more brightly against the backdrop of our failures. Move the lens closer, and we find ourselves gazing at high levels of poverty and underemployment--the eighty percent of our population who among them only lay claim to seven percent of our national wealth--while at the top a single percent have commandeered forty percent. Four-fifths of us are losers.

Thanks to our if-you-keep-folks-agitated-they’ll-keep watching-your-show media and the never-ending ululations of “reformers,” many with (in)vested interests in their own brands of corporatizing and privatizing school reform, we are a nation obsessed with education and a pervasive sense of institutional failure. In this atmosphere, what could be easier than to create a dire narrative tagging the poor and underemployed by their obvious association with schools that underperform? The poor, underemployed losers are losers because they attend lousy, underperforming schools. The problem for the “reformers” and their conservative supporters, however, is that this narrative locates the blame for this cascade of failure on social conditions: systemic poverty, even (gasp) racism.

Saved by grit! What observers are now calling the “Grit Narrative"--that anyone can succeed if they just work hard enough, try hard enough, keep their nose to the grindstone and endure whatever travails life throws at them--provides a perfect solution. The poor who stay poor lack grit! The students in underperforming schools lack grit! Their parents lack grit! Even their teachers are shiftless, gritless slugs, protected by unions when they’re not taking long vacations. No need to worry about poverty and racism--those are just excuses. The real problem is an endemic lack of grit, individual failure writ large across whole populations.

I just returned from the annual conference of the National Association of Independent Schools, where the topic of grit arose here and there amid some pretty interesting sessions on school leadership, school change, and how we keep the ship of education moving forward. And independent school teachers, perhaps contrary to what you might believe, are a pretty liberal and tender-hearted crew, as anxious to make our schools welcoming, inclusive places as teachers anywhere. Diversity and social justice have been on our minds for a while.

Thus it made sense that a number of the featured speakers at the conference had stories to tell that drew on experiences of working through poverty, dysfunction, and racism. Astronaut and scientist Mae Jemison, Walgreens executive Stephen Pemberton, and John Quiñones of ABC News moved us deeply with their stories; great people, conquering long odds, who grabbed your heart and held on.

But I couldn’t help thinking, as I listened, that to some degree we were setting ourselves up to co-opted by the Grit Narrative: here were men and a woman who had beaten the odds and emerged from humble backgrounds to lives of influence and purpose, the very exceptions to the grim rules that the Grit Narrativists love. Quiñones, Jemison, and Pemberton made no excuses; they have overcome.

In a relative sense, it might be too easy to hear our speakers’ stories--and I don’t think for a second that they themselves would ever imply or believe this--as a critique of their peers for whom urban poverty or the foster care system or prejudice remained insurmountable obstacles. The Grit Narrative condemns the poor by implication as it celebrates the success stories.

As educators we have to catch ourselves sometimes. I applaud Jemison, Pemberton, and Quiñones and admire their courage, character, persistence, and nerve, but I can’t let that admiration obscure the fact that our schools--all of our schools, public and private--are part of and to varying degrees both victims and sustainers of a system that distributes resources and power in staggeringly inequitable ways. We cannot ignore the reality that poverty and racism correlate with educational underperformance at levels that simply give the lie to the Grit Narrative.

For hundreds of years our society allowed skin color and economic success to serve as facile proxies for the content of a person’s character, and for a long time I was pleased to think that in my lifetime we might be getting beyond that. How wrong I seem to have been; the Grit Narrative, its shadow spreading back over the land under the guise of “research,” threatens to take us straight back to an era where poverty is about laziness and where failure, unless it’s the “failing up” of a revered entrepreneur, carries the stain of moral bankruptcy.

A few years ago some researchers brought the old-timey word grit back from obscurity as a smart descriptor for certain positive qualities. It is now time for these same researchers to step forward and reclaim their word from the demagogues who are turning it into a code word as pernicious as anything from the era of Robber Barons and Jim Crow.

Grit is good, but the Grit Narrative needs to go back to the nineteenth century and stay there.

Engage with Peter on Twitter: @pgow

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