Monday, May 16, 2016
More on Grit: Author Ethan Ris Responds to Paul Thomas’ Post
Editor: We are continuing our conversation on the role of "grit" in educational discourse with author Ethan Ris’ response to the earlier post by Paul Thomas.
Response to Paul Thomas
By Ethan Ris
Before I address Thomas’s critique, a word about where this article came from. This was a bit of a departure for me, since my primary work is on higher education. While researching a piece about the social construction of “non-cognitive” skills in college (recently published in History of Education), I found myself reading the works of Horatio Alger, Jr., the 19th century children’s book writer. Digging through his miserable prose, I was surprised to find an early version of the “grit” discourse that has figured prominently in pedagogical theory over the last five or so years.
As I explain in my article, Alger’s books (contrary to popular belief) were written for middle and upper-class children. They were about poor children, but not for them. Instead, they used striving street urchins and farm boys as virtuous exemplars of grit and tenacity. The message to privileged boys and girls was a simple one: compared to these kids, you are spoiled – and if you don’t shape up, they will eat your lunch. That warning was particularly potent in the late 19th century, a time of increasing income inequality, a burgeoning labor movement, and the rising specter of socialism.
While I was struck by the long legs of the grit discourse, I was also struck by how rarely its co-creators acknowledge its basis in worries about privileged children, a trend that continued throughout much of the 20th century. I argue that that oversight is equally true for both those who see grit theory as a panacea for the ails of low-income students, and for critics who argue that it is another form of victim-blaming, like cultural deficit theory.
Paul Thomas takes issue with my equivalency of the proponents and the critics, pointing out that my data and analysis strongly support the latter (among whom he counts himself) in their argument that the grit discourse punishes low-income children and students of color. He writes that there is “a direct relationship between ‘grit’ as a domain of the privileged and how that has created the context within which many in the U.S. assume black/brown and poor students lack that quality.” Privileged classes, he argues, perpetuate grit theory “because they need the wider public to believe that success is the result of effort (merit) and not the consequence of privilege.”
Thomas is on firm ground when he points out that I am reluctant to name grit theory as racist or even classist. My reason for this reluctance comes from my reading of the historical record, in which poor children are most frequently exemplars of grit in the eyes of elites. This is even true for contemporary authors who have fueled the grit frenzy – Paul Tough, for example, peppers his book How Children Succeed with humanistic case studies of gritty young people who have overcome the disadvantage of their poor, minority backgrounds in order to succeed academically. It is a short leap from Tough’s middle-class readers to the ones who gobbled up Horatio Alger’s tales of Ragged Dick and Paul the Peddler, seeing in them answers to their concerns about their own children.
For that reason, I can’t agree with Thomas’s claim that “‘grit’ is racist and classist because the narrative speaks to and perpetuates race and class stereotypes that black/brown and poor people are inherently lazy, deserving their stations in life.” I don’t believe that Angela Duckworth and other scholars who perpetuate grit theory directly contribute to that type of prejudice. While they make allusions to “closing the achievement gap” (which I read as a habitual shibboleth necessary to get grant funding), their research design indicates their true audience; as I have pointed out before, Duckworth’s most important samples are not low-income children but privileged groups like Ivy League undergraduates and advanced spelling bee contenders. As Daniel Engber writes, studying these high-achieving groups produces classic “restriction of range” bias, but for my purposes they represent exactly the types of young people for whom the grit discourse originated.
That said, I acknowledge and respect Thomas’s point that grit theory easily fits in to a longstanding racist narrative about the laziness of impoverished people, especially those of color. (I got a taste of that in the comments on a recent piece I wrote in the Washington Post’s “Answer Sheet” blog.) While I disagree with critics who allege eugenicist motives for grit research, they are certainly on to something by highlighting the dangers of “cutting-edge” scientific research that lends legitimacy to age-old forms of prejudice and oppression. And I am certainly sensitive to Thomas’s point that a reluctance to call racism by its name makes its eradication that much more difficult. Let me be clear: grit theory, in the wrong hands, fuels racism and classism. But I am more concerned about what happens when grit theory is in the right hands.
My article concludes on a note of dismay, with a description of how the grit discourse can harm young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. My study shows that the historical narrative has poor children serving as role models for privileged ones. This is different from impugning them as shiftless and unmotivated, but it is perhaps equally detrimental in its romanticization of hardship and its ploy of talking about success in terms of character, rather than structural advantage.
The difference between my critique of grit theory and Thomas’s critique strikes me as similar to the two ways to critique the “no excuses” model of schooling. One focus (with which I am most sympathetic) is on the interpretation of the model as rejecting macro-level “excuses” like residential segregation, income disparities, and the legacy of legalized discrimination as reasons for the academic achievement gap. Obviously, this willful neglect of structural hardship is troubling. The second set of critics, however, train their fire on the commonly stated rejection of “excuses” at the student level, which unfairly assumes that the real problem is that certain types of learners lack work ethic and blame others for their shortcomings.
Both critiques are valid, but they pursue two different demons. A similar dichotomy may be at play here.