Journal of Educational Controversy


Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The “Grit” Argument Continues: Paul Thomas responds to Author Ethan Ris

Editor: In our anniversary issue of the journal, we published an article by Ethan Ris entitled, “Grit: A Short History of a Useful Concept.”  It continued both the conversation that we have been having in the journal and added also to the current debates found in a number of recent books on the topic.   Below, author Paul Thomas responds to Ris’ argument.

A Friendly Rebuttal to Ris on “Grit”
P.L. Thomas, Furman University
In his “Grit: A Short History of a Useful Concept,” Ethan W. Ris offers, I think, a rare and significant contribution to the scholarly discourse on “grit”—one that has been mostly uncritical.

 Powerfully, Ris presents a discourse analysis of “grit” with a historical lens and argues that “the grit discourse allows privileged socioeconomic groups to preserve their position under the guise of creative pedagogy” (p. 2).

Ris makes a strong case that Angela Duckworth and popular advocates of “grit” (such as journalist Paul Tough) have contributed to policies and practices aimed at mostly black/brown and poor populations of students, conceding “[t]he critics, however, are right that poor children are the inevitable losers of this game” (p. 10).

It is here, where Ris confronts both advocates and critics of “grit” that I want to offer a friendly rebuttal. 

Again, Ris’s discourse analysis and historical couching of the “grit” narrative are very important, but his argument that “grit” has been mostly an idealized character trait embraced by the privileged does not, as Ris suggests, discredit assertions “grit” is racist (and classist); in fact, Ris’s historical context proves “grit” is racist. 

Part of the problem here is Ris’s “[b]oth sides have the story wrong” (p. 2)—the both sides being:

To its champions, the concept of grit offers a solution to the intractable low performance in these schools: help the kids get grittier, and they can claw their way out of poverty (Tough, 2011; Tough, 2012; Rock Center, 2012; Lipman, 2013). To its skeptics, grit is at best an empty buzzword, at worst a Social Darwinist explanation for why poor communities remain poor – one that blames the victims of entrenched poverty, racism, or inferior schooling for character flaws that caused their own disadvantage (Shapiro, 2013; Thomas, 2013; Anderson, 2014; Isquith, 2014; Noguera & Kundu, 2014; Ravitch, 2014a; Snyder, 2014; Ravitch, 2015). (p. 2)


I am on the “skeptics” side that asserts “grit” as a narrative and as a character quality formal schooling needs to instill in black/brown and poor students is racist, but I see in Ris’s analysis 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.

My rebuttal, then, revolves around “skeptics” being wrong because we agree wholeheartedly with one of Ris’s central argument: “Here, though, is the fundamental problem with the perception that the importance of grit has to do with bettering the chances of disadvantaged students. Children raised in poverty display ample amounts of grit every day, and they don’t need more of it in school” (p. 8).

 So I would like to pose that Ris has not proven “both sides are wrong,” but has failed to recognize why we skeptics have been calling out “grit” policies and practices.

 As Christopher Emdin explains in For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…and the Rest of Y’all Too, vulnerable populations of students are plenty “gritty,” but they remain the primary targets of “no excuses” schooling grounded in “grit” discourse and lessons.

Therefore, the formula to me (one made clear by Ris’s work) is that the privileged have historically promoted and continue to promote the “grit” narrative (the work ethic the working class has imposed on itself out of fear of not measuring up to the affluent)—and needlessly worry about the “grit” of their own children—because they need the wider public to believe that success is the result of effort (merit) and not the consequence of privilege.

So I agree with Ris that the “grit” narrative and “grit” as educational policy are tools to keep the class (and race) divisions in the U.S. intact—all of which confirms 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.

Ris’s work is really important, and I would not have felt compelled to offer what may appear to be a minor quibble from someone labeled as “wrong” in Ris’s essay, but one of the ways in which privilege is maintained is our reluctance to name racism, our urge to find any other cause possible.

Duckworth, Tough, and the growing legions of advocates in the “grit” industry—these people are invested in “grit” and they are surely wrong.

We skeptics? I think we are making a case reinforced by Ris’s work, and I invite him to consider this carefully because I believe his work is crucial in reclaiming the value of effort and engagement for all children, but especially for vulnerable populations who are being mis-served by the “no excuses” and “grit” movements.


BCC said...

is it OK for educators who work in affluent schools to use Duckworth's research as one component of a larger pedagogy that is concerned with the process of deep learning and the development of generative knowledge? If so, shouldn't that be OK for teachers who work in schools that serve predominantly poor students?

I'm am exhausted by cultural/social educational academics who refuse to see the value that something like grit can play in the pursuit of learning. The cultural critique and voice of Paul Thomas and others who analyze education primarily through an historical and political lens are invaluable for understanding education within these contexts. But they fail miserably in my opinion of understanding that ideas--which is ultimately all Duckworth's research is--can provide insight and positive growth for developing an actual pedagogy of how people actually learn: i.e. the stuff of teaching and learning in a classroom!

For me to understand (learn) Thomas' work--which is highly intellectual and academic--I need to really be engaged in a process of deep learning. One part of this deep learning is grit. I had to reread the above piece twice to even begin to understand it. That was grit at work. In short, if our schools became the places that Thomas envisioned, the content that was at the core of the program would demand students had grit (amongst a host of other things like curiosity, optimism, risk taking, critical thinking, the ability to analyze and synthesize, etc) in order to understand/learn it. When I see KIPP academy schools of children acting like little robots, I cringe. If grit is used as an intervention, it fails miserably. If grit is one interdependent component of a working vision for learning that is always subject to inquiry and re-evaluation, it can be very powerful.

No one idea is a panacea to learning. That is obvious. It seems borderline disingenuous for people as smart as Dr. Thomas and others to refuse to see the role the research of Duckworth as having a potentially positive impact on students and teachers developing a vision for what learning is and how we do it. As noted in the first sentence, I became interested in the research as an educator of extremely privileged and wealthy students who were "high achievers." Yet, my colleagues and I didn't believe they were good learners. They didn't take risks. They wilted from challenges. We found the research of Duckworth to be very inspiring to help us develop a pedagogy that challenged them to take ownership of their learning. It also challenged us to create curriculum that forced students to be creative, take risks, and deal with failure in an authentic way.

P. L. Thomas said...


Thank you for your reply, but I want to suggest your points are based on a few assumptions/misconceptions about my position. Let me recommend that you read the hyperlink in the last paragraph ( and then see if this addresses your concern.

BCC said...

Dr. Thomas, it doesn't fully. I see you have come around quite a bit concerning this point. And I'm glad you have. (We've had a number of discussions on this on various blogs over the last two years and even over email! I hope to one day get to meet you and talk in person!) However, I feel you (and others hyper-critical of grit) still have done too much damage in that you always point to the "essentially racist and classist roots of grit." This is a serious claim, and quite frankly I find not true. There are indeed historical roots of classism and racism in our country that can easily be correlated to mis-using grit. But to claim Duckworth's research on grit itself is rooted in racism and classism is quite simply inaccurate at best and dishonest at worst. Extensions of her research can certainly be categorized this way (the "dominant narrative" of grit) but to cast the research (which you do) in this light I simply find surprising. In addition, I have tried to share a counter narrative to the use of grit to many people who refuse to believe grit can be positive in any way. Why isn't this narrative as plausible and worthy of discussion of say the KIPP narrative? Considering radical scholars like to challenge "dominant narratives" and give voice to those not being heard, I'd think you'd be willing to give my use of grit a chance, and perhaps even champion it? Link:

Finally, the other major fault I see in the piece you wrote--and in many others like Kohn who criticize the dominant narrative--is that it provides little evidence of these "grit acolytes" who use it so poorly as a way to foment racist practices--ie "try harder and your lot in life will improve!" I have never heard Duckworth support this. In fact, she was interviewed on a piece on the Newshour last night and she agreed grit shouldn't be used this way. Even the KIPP academy (whose pedagogy I am highly skeptical of) leaders would surely agree with you that "low student achievement is [not] primarily caused by a lack of effort and engagement as well as that high student achievement is [not] a consequence of mostly effort and engagement." Wouldn't they? Do you have evidence of principals, superintendents, teachers, etc explicitly saying that just having grit is what will turn around our schools and societies? I know Khon, for instance, never cites any actual examples in his anti-grit articles. Your piece above also give no evidence. In short who are these educators who champion grit with missionary zeal as the cure to all our educational and societal ills? I see how doing so would indeed run counter to your critical analysis of our social structures. And I totally agree with on this. Anyone who would say this would be flat wrong. I just have never seen evidence of this really being the case. Thanks again for your willingness to engage! I sincerely appreciate it. Debate and dialogue are needed--especially between people who agree on so much, which I think is the case with you and I.
--Ben Calsbeek

P. L. Thomas said...


I haven't "come a long way." That new post is simply the first time I have articulated how to address effort/engagement from a skeptical view of "grit."

Looking at your link, and comments further here, I really think you are overstating my position (and Kohn's) to make an impassioned plea to save something not worth saving.

We are not far apart at all except your insistence on reclaiming "grit" from the misguided use.

And, yes, many make hyperbolic claims about "grit"; so many, I don't feel compelled to document.

Finally, a possible better way to express my broad concern is that Duckworth's initial interest in and then the public obsession with "grit" are grounded in unexamined racist and classist beliefs about effort, an idealized faith that "pulling one's self up by the bootstraps" does and can overcome disadvantage and/or is more commonly the cause of success than privilege—neither of which is true.

BCC said...

Dr. Thomas,
I think it's important to remember my responses are just that--"responses." Responses to the myriad articles trashing an idea that I believe has merit and can have powerful, positive impacts on learning. I am not an acolyte of grit, and certainly not of KIPP schools or other "dominant narratives". But when I read over and over blogs like the one referenced here making claims that the intent of another person is rooted in racism, I feel compelled to respond, especially considering I have real experience in the context of a school using this research in ways not at all congruent with examples you (fail to) cite.
I find myself frustrated overall with social/cultural critics within education who seemingly are disinterested in teaching and learning. There is such a chasm it seems to me between those in schools of education who spend their time researching things like how people learn, and those who spend their time like you, articulating structural injustices in which our schools operate. Both are wholly needed. But both should be working in tandem.
As I began to touch on above, the content of your research is for an audience of highly educated people. I'm an educator who is versed (more than the average person, much less than you) in the basic premise of radical/critical pedagogy that examines structural inequalities. But I'm an educator that is much more interested in HOW I could get other students to understand and learn your content, for instance, in a generative, authentic, action-oriented way. Hence, I analyze things through that lens. This is the lens I analyze Duckworth: what can I glean from this that will give me a deeper understanding of how people learn? So with all due respect, saying I'm passionately trying to save something not worth saving, is fairly smug. It's TOTALLY worth saving if it makes my pedagogy deeper and richer. Maybe you're right--and Kohn has told me this--that there is other research that is much older that basically is saying what I'm cherry-picking for Duckworth. Fine. That may be true. But I guess I feel like if all the great minds in education spent their time working on building a positive pedagogy and less on tearing others down, we'd be better off. Or in the least, the two efforts (building v deconstructing) could be done in a more coordinated way.

BCC said...

I guess another way to put my concern/point:

How do we get more people to understand and learn deeply your extremely important work on injustice and inequality? We can agree your work is not simple to grasp? In fact, the vast majority of people would have an extremely difficult time even grasping your work on the bottom of Bloom's taxonomy. So how can we develop a pedagogy in a school to tackle yours--and others--highly complex content and actually learn it in a deep, meaningful, authentic way?

That last question is the one I'm mainly interested in as an educator. And importantly, in order to get students at the high school level, say, (or even in your undergrad and grad classes) to deeply learn it, I think it would require--amongst many other interrelated components of learning--what Duckworth calls grit.

P. L. Thomas said...

I recommend

BCC said...

I'm very familiar with Emdin. I am in almost full support of what he calls for. I believe in order for it to happen though, some important work--roll up your sleeves, not sexy, not academic, on-going, inquiry based work has to happen. In short the work around PLCs (I know, academia will poo-poo this) has to be integrated to create a vehicle for Emdins vision to take off.

Regardless of what is being taught--conspiracy theories of men on the moon, grammar, critical race theory, or Romeo and Juliet--I believe that what most schools (and most certainly univseristies) are missing is a shared vision and idea of what learning really is, and what it looks like. With a rich vision more teachers would be able to lead learning around really important issues and content; and importantly students would have the tools to better internalize, synthesize, and apply the lessons in a real way--regardless of their IQ and native intelligence.

I especially like the passage you cite: "The way that a teacher teaches can be traced directly back to the way that the teacher has been taught. The time will always come when teachers must ask themselves if they will follow the mold or blaze a new trail. There are serious risks that come with this decision. It essentially boils down to whether one chooses to do damage to the system or to the student [bold emphasis added]. (p. 206).

Duckworth was someone who in part helped me blaze a new trail, to help realize the goals that Emdin and others would laud. I'm not afraid or embarrassed to say that, depsite the "risk" being branded a neo-liberal at best or a racist at worst.