Journal of Educational Controversy


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

I am grateful for Paul Thomas’s thoughtful response to my article, and doubly grateful for the chance to respond. One of the wonderful things about the Journal of Educational Controversy is its commitment to ongoing conversations and the meaningful exchange of ideas – well beyond the unread citations that masquerade as scholarly dialogue in other publications.

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.

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.