Rejecting “Grit” While Embracing Effort, Engagement by Paul Thomas

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Rejecting “Grit” While Embracing Effort, Engagement by Paul Thomas

A growing number of educators and scholars are confronting the essentially racist and classist roots of “grit”—not just that Duckworth’s research and popular books are misused, but that “grit” narratives and research are grounded in racist and classist biases that conflate effort and engagement with race and class privilege. [1]

When I maintain my position that this is not just about misusing “grit,” many—especially those invested in and profiting from “grit” publications and teacher training—refuse even to consider my claims, but a few who seem willing to step away from their own biases invariably ask a very important question: How does an educator reject the “grit” movement but maintain an atmosphere in the classroom that encourages effort and engagement, especially for our most vulnerable students (black, brown, and poor)?

I think I have failed to address this important question fully so let me do so here.

The first step is to set aside the assumption that low student achievement is primarily caused by a lack of effort and engagement as well as that high student achievement is a consequence of mostly effort and engagement.

Resources for this change in perspectives can be found here and in Scarcity by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir.

Next, you must resist fatalism in two forms: (1) the fatalism at the root of “grit” being racist and classist—that life for black/brown and poor people is going to be hard so we need to make them extra “gritty” to survive and excel (washed through by the racist/classist assumptions black/brown and poor people are inherently less apt to have the effort and engagement we associate with white privilege), and (2) the fatalism of life is inherently unfair for black/brown and poor people so why bother to try at all?

Finally, to that second form of fatalism, the key is to honor effort and engagement as ends unto themselves and not means to some other ends or as a magic elixir for overcoming social inequity.

The very ugly consequence of championing “grit” with uncritical missionary zeal is that the students most often targeted—racial minorities and the poor—are soon to learn that their “grit” will get them less than the gift of white privilege for other people who show even less effort and engagement as they have worked to acquire:

 

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The “grit” movement is racist, classist, and counter to the very effort we seem to be making to support the value of effort and engagement in a meritocracy (which isn’t even close to existing).

However, in admitting these facts, we must not then slip into an equally corrosive fatalism that allows teachers and students simply to throw up their collective hands and give up.

While rejecting the “grit” movement, all educators and anyone working with children must remain committed to giving the young a fair and honest perspective on the inherent value in effort and engagement while resisting the urge to make promises we cannot keep about the outcomes of effort and engagement in an inequitable society.

[1] See Ethan Ris at The Answer Sheet and his Grit: A Short History of a Useful Concept, in which he details:

This paper seeks to apply longitudinal discourse analysis to the AngloAmerican conversation about grit. Examining the history of grit reveals more than the simple fact that this character trait has had a long life. The “usefulness” noted in this paper’s title refers to the way in which language and rhetoric are employed to “legitimize relations of organized power” (Habermas, 1967, in Wodak and Meyer, 2009, p. 10). In other words, the grit discourse allows privileged socioeconomic groups to preserve their position under the guise of creative pedagogy. This phenomenon does not require malevolence on the part of its enactors. In fact, it can coexist with perfectly benign intentions.

While I think his claim that a historical analysis of the use of the term “grit” discounts arguments the term has racist implications is flawed, his analysis is excellent and important in this discussion.

 

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