Why Grit May Be Bad For Us

By Dave Powell, education professor at Gettysburg College

Grit is one of those ideas that, as we say, has legs. That’s clear enough. But is it good for us?

It’s the solution du jour right now for a lot of would-be education reformers, and there’s a reason for that: “grit” is one of those things everybody wants to be in favor of. Remember that time when Barack Obama got called out for refusing to wear a token American flag pin on his lapel? “I’m less concerned about what you’re wearing on your lapel than what’s in your heart,” he said by way of explanation. Naturally that explanation wasn’t good enough for his critics — but it was a pretty good one. What matters is what you actually mean, not what the rest of the folks on the bandwagon have to say about it.

I think about that ridiculous flap now and then when someone mentions grit. I’m okay with kids having grit and wouldn’t go out of my way to tell them not to. Being able to stick to a valuable task, even when the payoff isn’t apparent or obvious, is a good character trait to have. But, really, the obsession with grit is kind of funny isn’t it? Think about it. We require kids to go to school every day, whether they want to or not. We subject them to mountains of busy work delivered by teachers in often overcrowded classrooms, work that is increasingly mandated from on high by politicians and other “experts” who wouldn’t know good teaching if it snuck up behind them with a taser and put them on the floor. Many kids go to school in buildings that are unfit for occupancy and wouldn’t have looked out of place in an undeveloped third world country forty years ago. But we send them there anyway and then, when they don’t succeed, we blame it on them for not having enough “grit.” Maybe it’s the grit of policymakers and legislators — you know the ones I’m talking about, the ones who wouldn’t dare ask for additional public money to improve education — that we ought to be questioning.

It’s enough to make one wonder: when does having grit become a bad thing? The problem with grit is that it privileges hard work over judgment; people with “grit” keep working even when they don’t know why they’re doing it. That’s the whole point, isn’t it? But why should kids go to school in unsafe conditions? Why should teachers work in places like that? Why should kids continue to do work just for the sake of doing work? See, the argument for grit really only holds up if the people in positions of authority have earned the right to exercise that authority — that is, if they’ve proven to have placed the interests of students first. To show grit in the face of adversity only makes sense if the obstacles in a person’s way are legitimate ones.

Moreover, grit is bad for democracy. The whole reason we have public schools in the first place is not to force conformity on the next generation of Americans; it’s to preserve, protect, and extend our democracy. Schools should promote independence and freedom of thought, not blind persistence in the face of artificial obstacles put between students and whatever expectations we have for their future success. We shouldn’t be telling students to do things just because we said so. We should be encouraging them to think for themselves and pursue their own ideas. To the extent that proponents of grit support that idea, I’m on board. But it’s hard for me to see how testing for grit or mandating it in school curricula gets us any closer to that goal.

So maybe it stands to reason that even Angela Duckworth herself seems to be walking grit back faster than you can say “high stakes character education.” I can’t say I blame her: the idea was oversold, and then, in a turn of events as predictable as tomorrow’s sunrise, twisted in ways that even made Duckworth uncomfortable. Now she finds herself writing letters to the New York Times warning that “we’re nowhere near ready — and perhaps never will be — to use feedback on character as a metric for judging the effectiveness of teachers and schools,” and pleading with policymakers not to grade schools on grit. Not that any of us could have seen that coming.

Camille Farrington, a researcher at the University of Chicago, is more blunt. “There are so many ways to do this wrong,” she has said about teaching grit, adding ruefully: “In education, we have a great track record of finding the wrong way to do stuff.” You can say that again, Camille.

So what’s the solution here? I don’t necessarily think we need to throw out “non-cognitive” factors when appraising student growth in schools. Character does matter, and some of the factors Duckworth identifies do play in a role in determining what kind of person a student ultimately becomes. But it seems to me that the quest to predict success later in life both undersells the endlessly diverse ways people can find happiness in this world and oversells the idea that we know what success is. It also exposes a disappointing lack of humility on the part of policymakers who allow themselves to believe that it’s possible to find easy solutions to hard problems.

I’d still support establishing well rounded academic standards and letting teachers decide how to ensure that students meet them. That they would inevitably teach important character traits along the way should be a given. I’d also support a substantial overhaul of our approach to funding public education because that work cannot be done unless every teacher in every school has access to the resources needed to make it happen. Most of all, I’d support a reorientation of our priorities away from schooling for personal success and toward schooling for social and civic responsibility.

In the end, the solutions we propose depend largely on the way we’ve framed the problems they’re intended to solve. In this case, the obsession with grit reflects the fact that we think of schooling now largely in individual terms: school, in the common conception, is for personal improvement. Social improvement only comes coincidentally, if at all — and only if we’re lucky. In contrast, earlier generations of public school advocates fought for publicly funded education because they understood it as both a social necessity and a social good. Schools then were the bulwarks of democracy. Today they’re little more than way stations on the road to material success (we hope), places to learn skills and character traits that employers will supposedly find valuable later. How far we’ve fallen.

The bottom line is that kids who are persistent and task-oriented also tend to be obedient and compliant. That may be what some reformers want, but the more we focus on these things the further we get from achieving the democratic society that, in my opinion, should be so much more important to us.

This piece first appeared in the “K-12 Contrarian” blog at Education Week.