School Climate & Safety Opinion

Lauren Anderson: Grit, Galton, and Eugenics

By Anthony Cody — March 21, 2014 8 min read
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Editor’s Note, March 22: In reviewing this post, we believe it erred in not seeking a response from Angela Duckworth or educators who support her work. We will follow up with Professor Duckworth and offer her space for a full response. Other viewpoints are welcome in the comments space below.

The post below is offered in response to material posted publicly. Responses that differ would be welcome.

Guest post by Lauren Anderson.

Last September, a headline caught my attention: “MacArthur Foundation announces 24 fellows."[1] In an historical moment characterized by heated debate about education research and reform, I thought to check whom, if anyone, in our broad field had been selected for the prestigious “genius” award.

Among awardees I found one: Angela Duckworth, Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. As I read the biographical sketch, curiosity gave way to resignation. I was unsurprised to find that the areas of focus were “grit” and “self control” - now popular concepts celebrated in mass-market texts like Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed and Jay Mathews’s Work Hard, Play Nice, and an appealing policy target for those who believe that if we could just cultivate the “right” qualities among the “low-achieving” then they would be able to transcend conditions of poverty and other obstacles in their way. Couched in the language of innovation, these ideas are among the least innovative in our field. They reflect long legacies of victim-blaming, the tendency (especially among the privileged) to emphasize individualism and personal traits over material conditions and social structures, as the core determinants of academic “success.” And they help to perpetuate dual, deeply-held myths about equality of opportunity and meritocracy--myths that hold intuitive appeal for many of us because, like the Horatio Alger tale, they explain our achievements as the earned products of our own hard work.

Watching the video that accompanied the sketch, resignation turned to vexation. Here was another familiar-sounding narrative deployed to rationalize a turn toward individualistic, “objective measures.” [2] In it, Duckworth recounts her own frustration, felt during her short stints as a teacher, about, “how little I was able to change the number of hours that they [italics added] were willing to put in for me, as students.”[3] Presumably these encounters informed the “distinctly different view of school reform” that Duckworth would later write about in her application to doctoral study: “The problem, I think, is not only the schools but also the students themselves...”[4] Of course, in other directions lie other possible interpretations and corollary questions--about the effectiveness of one’s own teaching practice (especially as a new teacher),[5] the relational ties between teachers and students (which develop over time), the broader set of forces at work in young people’s lives (including, for example, institutional racism, conditions of poverty, and inequitable access to resources that we know impact development), and so on.

That Duckworth, like many, has chosen to seek cause and cure for achievement, or lack thereof, primarily in the individual is, again, not particularly surprising; nor is the fact that doing so has brought her acclaim. What is surprising is her research statement’s opening paragraph, in which only one scholar is quoted:

... as Galton (1892) suggested, the inclination to pursue especially challenging aims over months, years, and even decades is distinct from the capacity to resist 'the hourly temptations,' pursuits which bring momentary pleasure but are immediately regretted."[6]

This quote may seem fairly innocuous to those who don’t know from where it comes: the second edition of Hereditary Genius: An Inquiry into Its Laws and Consequences. For a sense of the text in question consider this synopsis provided by its author, famed scientist and eugenicist Sir Francis Galton:

The natural ability of which this book mainly treats, is such as a modern European possesses in a much greater average share than men of the lower races. There is nothing either in the history of domestic animals or in that of evolution to make us doubt that a race of sane men may be formed, who shall be as much superior mentally and morally to the modern European, as the modern European is to the lowest of the Negro races.

Or consider this excerpt from a sub-section titled, “The Comparative Worth of Different Races:"

... the number among the negroes of those whom we should call half-witted men, is very large. Every book alluding to negro servants in America is full of instances. I was myself much impressed by this fact during my travels in Africa. The mistakes the negroes made in their own matters, were so childish, stupid, and simpleton-like, as frequently to make me ashamed of my own species.

I have read Galton’s writings for multiple purposes, including as primary sources detailing the intertwined histories of science, research and racism. I have also read about Galton in the work of those like Duckworth’s decorated University of Pennsylvania colleague Tukufu Zuberi, Professor of Sociology, The Lasry Family Professor of Race Relations,
and Professor of Africana Studies. A celebrated psychology scholar, Duckworth has no doubt read Galton more closely than I. One can, therefore, safely assume that the reference to only this text in the opening paragraph of the Duckworth Laboratory’s research statement--the statement that is positioned as foundational to the research conducted in and through the lab--is not casual, nor naïve. This, in turn, raises for me a number of questions:

  • What are we to make of a 2013 “genius” award winner quoting unproblematically the ‘founding father’ of eugenics in the opening paragraph of her research statement, even as her research engages young people of color? What are we to make of this particular line of scholarship--so individualistic in nature, so far from a structural critique--gaining such favor in these times of gross inequity? If education is ‘the civil rights issue’ of our time--as so many reform entities, including those supporting the scholarship in question, often claim--what are we to make of a research agenda that explicitly names as its foundation a text steeped in eugenic thinking?
  • What are we to make of this particular text being quoted so prominently (and without reference) in the public domain research statement of a scholar who admittedly attributes her own frustrations (even failures) as a (relatively inexperienced) teacher to the internal shortcomings of her students?
  • What are we to make of the explicit and implicit claims to objectivity? Should it matter how a researcher interprets her own struggles as a teacher--for example, attributing those struggles to students themselves? Should it matter that among many listed accolades are at least one grant and one award from a foundation established by a current collaborator and helping to buoy a network of charter schools (i.e., KIPP schools) that proudly advocate an emphasis on “grit” and “self control” for a population of students who are among those Galton would have held in dehumanizing regard?
  • What underlying assumptions about participants and peers--members of ‘researched’ and ‘researcher’ communities--are operating here, and what meaning is to be made of them? What, for example, would participants think and feel if they traced the unproblematized quotation to its fuller source? Would what they find comport with their understanding of the research in which they (or their children) participated? What about colleagues in the research community? Is the assumption that we will read neutral references to eugenical texts unproblematically, that we will not be punched in the gut by the institutional violence that they represent?
  • What are the policy implications of this research-based narrative, so favored by foundation support and media coverage? What do we stand to lose, or further obscure, if celebrating and cultivating “grittier” individuals becomes the policy target du jour?

These are just a few questions that speak to the institutional soup in which we’re swimming, the direction that the currents of research are flowing, and the forces that are pressing certain work forward.

All research is ideological on some level. But not all research offers such an easy opportunity to make its ideological content plain. Nor does all research offer such an easy opportunity to ask questions about why some scholarly projects garner such support, in terms of grant monies and accolades, such softball treatment by mainstream media, and such popularity among ‘good liberals’ who fashion themselves education reformers.

Duckworth’s work--now with MacArthur Foundation funding following that of Gates, Templeton, and KIPP, among others--is shaping public discourse,[7] policy and programming, especially concerning the importance of “character” education in urban schools serving low-income kids of color.[8] It is therefore not just fair, but also important to understand and ask questions about the ideological foundation on which that work rests.

In this case, given the historical underpinnings--evident in Galton’s prime placement--coupled with individualistic, rather than structural, explanations for students’ “success” and “failure”, it is essential to interrogate the claims to objectivity on the part of the researcher and the tacit approval (or uncritical uptake) of frameworks and findings on the part of those promoting the research.

This example helps, hopefully, make clear that such interrogation is a responsibility that scholars and stewards of public education cannot afford to duck.

Lauren Anderson is an assistant professor of education at Connecticut College.

What do you think? Can you see an intersection between eugenics and the current drive for “grit”?


[1] //www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2013/09/25/macarthur-foundation-fellows/2866525/

[2] //www.macfound.org/fellows/889/

[3] //www.macfound.org/fellows/889/

[4] //www.nytimes.com/2011/09/18/magazine/what-if-the-secret-to-success-is-failure.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

[5] Based on her CV, it appears Duckworth taught four years total, for two consecutive years in one school (Lowell High School), after working in New York City (it seems as a math teacher in a program that offered supplemental services) for a year in 97-98, and in a charter school in Philadelphia in 2002. The CV does not offer any information about credential status or preparation for teaching, specifically. (https://upenn.app.box.com/ALDcv)

[6] //sites.sas.upenn.edu/duckworth/pages/research-statement

[7] For a few recent articles documenting popular coverage of Duckworth’s research on grit, see the following links:

//www.npr.org/2014/03/17/290089998/does-teaching-kids-to-get-gritty-help-them-get-ahead; //www.nytimes.com/2011/09/18/magazine/what-if-the-secret-to-success-is-failure.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0;

//www.wired.com/wiredscience/2011/03/what-is-success-true-grit/; //www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2013/09/we-need-to-be-gritty-about-getting-our-kids-grittier/279992/

[8] Some of Duckworth’s recently published research, for example, explores the role of “grit” in the “effectiveness” and/or short-term retention of TeachforAmerica corp members placed in low-income districts. For example, see the following links:

//www.tcrecord.org/content.asp?contentid=17352; //www.sas.upenn.edu/~duckwort/images/Positive%20predictors%20of%20teacher%20effectiveness.2009.pdf

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.