29 January 2014

"Grit" - Part 3: Is it "an abundance of possibility" our kids need?

Note: Clearly, I will need a "Part 4" here, but I will publish this today, to support the ongoing conversation...

Dave Meister left a comment on my last post which included this story:
"Days like today remind me of my first year as an elementary administrator and going to school and finding a student in the window well of the school on a sub zero morning. She had a horrific life at home that the authorities (and I) failed to save her from. Her progress through school followed my mine ascension to a high school position. She became a very angry high school student that eventually dropped out. As far as I knew she never had any slack. She was smart in her own way...avoiding the worst of her world, but she became pregnant and dropped out. I have lost track of her, but know that we as a community failed her, but I know this, she had grit. It was ground into her by life experiences and she could not get past the scars."
The discussion of "grit" heated up across the Twittersphere in fascinating ways, and with that discussion a deeper conversation began about the components of "grit" and the origins of Angela Duckworth's theories.

Nancy Flanagan: Kiss My Grit 
Grant Lichtman: Does Grit Need a Deeper Discussion? which has become, perhaps, the conversation on the topic.
Josie Holford: Grit Hits the Fan 
Joe Bower: Let them eat grit - 4 reasons why "grit" is garbage  
Grit: Part One 
Grit: Part Two
and Vicki Davis: True Grit 

There are two key questions to get to, but first, maybe we should define "grit" if we're going to argue about it. And because of her deep role in "the selling of grit," let us use Angela Duckworth's definition as expressed in her "Grit Test" (pdf):
"Author Rose noted the key elements of the Protestant ethic to be “diligence, punctuality, deferment of gratification, and primacy of the work domain”' (Rose 1985, 102).
  • I have overcome setbacks to conquer an important challenge.  This is good according to Duckworth, and perhaps, to all of us.
  • New ideas and projects sometimes distract me from previous ones.  This is bad according to Duckworth, but certainly might be debatable for many of us, and for many who work in what is called, "the creative economy."
  • My interests change from year to year. Also bad according to Duckworth, but also quite debatable. 
  • Setbacks don’t discourage me. This is good according to Duckworth, but, really? We do not get discouraged by repeated failures? What would we need to accomplish that?
  • I have been obsessed with a certain idea or project for a short time but later lost interest. Again, bad according to Duckworth, but also highly debatable.  
  • I am a hard worker. Of course, the very heart of "good" according to Duckworth and the essential belief behind the "Protestant Work Ethic." But what if someone said, "I'm a good caregiver" instead, or "I'm a deep thinker"? Why aren't those statements here?
  • I often set a goal but later choose to pursue a different one. Very bad in the world of Duckworth, which makes everyone from Steve Jobs to Paul Allen, Thomas Edison to Sergei Brin, a loser on this grit scale.
  • I have difficulty maintaining my focus on projects that take more than a few months to complete.  Another bad one on the Duckworth scale, keep your noses to your grindstones, lads.
  • I finish whatever I begin. Of course, this is what Duckworth wants, and why anyone who drops out of any school-based thing is a failure in Paul Tough's How Children Succeed. But is giving up on a task really a sign of weakness?
  • I have achieved a goal that took years of work. Another Duckworth "gold star"- you can see the type of personality being prized here. In school this is the single-minded pursuit of all As and graduation.
  • I become interested in new pursuits every few months.  Bad, how could it not be here? People who have wide-ranging interests make poor drones on the assembly line.
  • I am diligent. Ah, yes, like "hard worker," this is another Duckworth code word for "compliant" and "self-sacrificing to white middle class expectations." It is another "good" on the scale.
Note: if you use the PDF those questions with an asterisk are "bad" - they're marked to make it easier for us to judge our students.

Let's put this together - anything at all like ADHD is very bad, those "renaissance" types are bad, kids with high-level street survival skills are bad, but compliance with the expectations of "white" "western" society is very good. Leonardo da Vinci, Paul Allen, Steve Wozniak, Bill Clinton, John Kennedy are all in the problem mode. The winners on Duckworth's measuring stick? The guys who spend their lives hunting for Big Foot in all kinds of weather, the Unibomber, the person spending 30 years in the same job.

If you read through Duckworth's "scale" you will see a pattern. Everything she sees as "good" is about scarcity - scarcity of time, scarcity of resources, scarcity of attention, even scarcity of support - her "good" is relentlessly independent, single-focused, and committed to whatever is expected. Everything "bad" is about abundance - many ideas, many projects, many interests, a belief that there is time to get things done.

This is not a "scientific" divide. Rather, it is a religious divide, and division created by whether one believes in Social Darwinism or not. Angela Duckworth believes in Social Darwinism, the root of the reprehensible eugenics movement of the 20th Century. She extensively quotes Francis Galton, "the father of eugenics," in her work, and, one tends to believe than an Ivy League professor knows who she is quoting and chooses to quote someone for a reason. 

But Angela Duckworth is also fierce in her religious convictions, a true believer in what I call "American Calvinism" - a secularized version of the Calvinist Protestantism which mythically arrived in North America with the early Massachusetts settlers.  

Let's see how Duckworth and the Puritans line up:
"[T]he key elements of the Protestant ethic [are] “diligence, punctuality, deferment of gratification, and primacy of the work domain” (Rose 1985, 102)"... "[John Calvin] believed that people could serve God through their work. Professions were useful, and work was the universal base of society and the cause of differing social classes, every person should work diligently in his own occupation and should not try to change from the profession into which he was born. To do so would be to go against God's own ordination since God assigned each person to his own place in the social hierarchy (Lipset 1990, 61-69)."
In Twitter conversations people have argued that the "work ethic" expressed above - and in the work of Duckworth and Paul Tough - is "not religious," and cannot really be seen as "racist." Those promoting "grit" are not "Calvinists" they say, and Duckworth isn't even "white," but in fact the nature of Duckworth's work, and the essence of Tough's reporting, are both fundamentally religious and fundamentally "racist" in terms of belief in what those back in the day might have called "Godly behavior," and in terms of group identities being "closer" or "further" from "God's plan."  

That the myths of the Protestant Work Ethic, and mythic identity racism, are embedded in the American power structure does not make them less religious in nature or origin, simply more troubling, because they have been used for all time to abuse those not wanted within that power structure. The Irish, as I noted in the last post, are lazy, illiterate, drunkards. African-Americans are lazy and uninterested in success. Italians are lazy and disrespectful of the law. Latinos are lazy, illiterate, and can't stay put and focus.

The myths of the Protestant Work Ethic and identity racism grew in America and has been carried forward for almost four centuries because it made those born to wealth and power feel good about themselves. How much better to describe your ancestors as having struggled alone against a brutal wilderness and wild savages than saying that your ancestors were "illegal immigrants" who stole a remarkably resource rich continent from its inhabitants. How much better to embrace Jackson's "Frontier Theory" than to worry about slaves and underpaid immigrants who built the early national roads, dug the Erie Canal, and built the railroads. How much better to celebrate "American Invention" than to discuss the wholesale intellectual property theft - from woolen mills to those railroads to the telephone debuting across those 1876 fairgrounds - which had enriched the American Republic's first hundred years.

Those myths continue to this day. How much better to say that your children get into the University of Pennsylvania, or Harvard, or the University of Virginia because they are smarter, because they work harder, because you, as a parent, have educated them better, than to discuss the advantages of race and class. How much better to say that you have succeeded in business because you speak correctly, or have the right "work ethic," than to discuss what you inherited.

This is "understood" so deeply that it has been "naturalized." To quote Edward Said (from his essay on Rudyard Kipling's Kim in his 1994 book Culture and Imperialism, in a way which describes Paul Tough's work quite well, “its author is writing not just from the dominating view-point of a white man in a colonial possession but from the perspective of a massive colonial system whose economy, functioning, and history had acquired the status of a virtual fact of nature.”

In other words, the myths of the Protestant Work Ethic and Identity Racism explain why we need not bother to build a fair and equitable society. And the myth of educational "grit" explains why we need not create fair and equitable schools. Life made easy for those in power.

But what if the key to resilience in school, in life, was abundance. What if "grit" was something which taught you the lessons of scarcity - of pure survival - but abundance offered you the "slack" you needed to get where you might want to go?

After all, would there be a Facebook if Mark Zuckerberg, from 18 to 21, had been working 40 hours a week at a mini-mart in White Plains while commuting to Westchester Community College? Where might Apple be if Jobs and Wozniak had not had that famous garage and food provided by parents? Where would I be if not for a fabulous high school teacher who gave me the time, space, and resources to keep going?

"Grit" - that response to scarcity - taught me to cheat. to lie, at times to steal (yes), to find any shortcut, to fight, to flee. Abundant moments, that opportunity for "slack" - those very Catholic "feast days for the soul" - taught me what I could aspire to.

This is not an idle, theoretical, conversation. In my "debate" with Paul Tough on Grant Lichtman's blog, I brought up examples of high schools which have provided "abundance," and Tough fought back by saying that these schools lacked the "concentrated poverty" of the schools he visited. But as I responded, that is the point. The schools he visited exist in school systems which have created a vicious level of socio-economic segregation, the schools I suggested exist in systems have done the opposite. New Rochelle, New York, or even Albemarle County, Virginia, could easily create significant sized high schools filled with nothing but poverty, as the City of Chicago has done. All it would take to do so would be for those places to mimic Chicago's school policies. But they have not. And the result of those political choices - even though both school systems do lose a good number of children to less inclusive private schools - are inclusive public secondary schools which offer abundant possibility and strong supports. Diverse academic and arts programs, strong counseling programs, and student-based choices.

creating "abundance" - time, space, choices, safety
Here are two examples. In Albemarle County, Virginia, in our most "at risk" high school - no, not a Fenger - we have not allowed that to happen, we added, a few years in response to student request, a music studio in our library.  This allowed a range of high poverty students, and we’re talking both black and white poverty, to come together around an existing set of community passions, from rap to hillbilly blues, and then to bring the middle class students, with rock, show tunes, and classical added, to join with them. We allowed these students to present their work, and to construct their core course learning via music, we did not impose our passions, our paths on them – rather we embraced theirs. From there we expanded an already inclusive theater program, including what we might call “street dance” and “street music” if we had real streets in that area. We kept kids in school. We kept kids in class. We kept kids engaged and involved in the positive. It changed, the students told us, the entire character of the school for the better. We have continued to build on those kind of efforts in that high school and others, because we have discovered the value of abundance.

"slack" generated by "abundance"
In our "at risk" elementary schools we have pursued a differing, but similar course. Our classrooms are now designed around what we call "choice and comfort," with kids able to discover what makes them comfortable in terms of learning environment and learning style. Kids lie on the floor, perch on stools, lean against high tables, sit on low tables. They write using differing technologies, from pencils to handhelds to tablets to laptops. They move when they need to. We no longer enforce Calvinist church behaviors, and so now we allow children to harness the full power of their cognitive energies on their learning. By providing an abundance of choice, an abundance of time, an abundance of tools, we have encouraged persistence in ways that "grit theorists" can only hope to emulate.

In other words, offering children abundance is a choice. It is a choice a community - a nation - can either make or not. And if a community, or a nation, chooses not to offer children abundance, I still find it remarkably unfair to complain that our children of scarcity lack character.

What Paul Tough ignores, from his perch at The New York Times, is the responsibility of organizations such as The Times to promote fundamental change. Tough does call for a better welfare system, which is lovely, I suppose, but not the equity our children need. In fact, The Times has waged quite the war for inequity in education through the reporting of Matt Richtel, an Tough, in a book which - whatever he says now - promotes the sense that what is primarily needed is "character," has done his own substantial harm.

Myth matters in the struggles for power. And understanding mythic belief matters even more. And as I have said on more than one occasion, education is the most political thing a society does, because it is a struggle for our future.

What Duckworth and Tough do in their, perhaps conscious for her, unconscious for him, unquestioning belief in the Protestant Work Ethic, is to give the power structure a pass, no matter how much either of them calls for more charity.

That is a a pass I will not sign on to.

- Ira Socol


I need to repeat, if necessary, those beliefs of mine which underlie my commitment to what I am writing. I was thrilled when @jonbecker (Dr. Jonathan Becker) called me a "scholar/advocate" in a tweet about my last post, because while some others would pretend otherwise, I never hide what drives me to tell the stories I am telling. So let me say again, I am the job-changing son of a job-changing father. I've given up on many things - attempts at school, careers, political efforts, writings, hobbies. I like to nap. I like to lie around and stare at the television. I cannot focus through a half hour meeting - none of which particularly matters. What does matter is that I am committed to the future of children who "fail to meet" societal expectations. I see ADHD as a positive, not usually a pathology requiring high levels of medication. I see social and cultural variety as a tremendous positive, and efforts like "the Common Core" as misguided attempts at homogeneity. I see age-based expectations and standards as an assault on the natural differences in children. And I believe that much which we take for granted in "white," "educated," "middle class," society needs to be questioned if opportunities are to be democratized.
"Scholars are often wary of citing such commitments, for, in the stereotype, an ice-cold impartiality acts as the sine qua non of proper and dispassionate objectivity. I regard this argument as one of the most fallacious, even harmful, claims commonly made in my profession. Impartiality (even if desirable) is unattainable by human beings with inevitable backgrounds, needs, beliefs, and desires. It is dangerous for a scholar even to imagine that he might attain complete neutrality, for then one stops being vigilant about personal preferences and their influences—and then one truly falls victim to the dictates of prejudice.

"Objectivity must be operationally defined as fair treatment of data, not absence of preference. Moreover, one needs to understand and acknowledge inevitable preferences in order to know their influence—so that fair treatment of data and arguments can be attained! No conceit could be worse than a belief in one's own intrinsic objectivity, no prescription more suited to the exposure of fools." - Stephen Jay Gould, The Mismeasurement of Man (revised), p. 36

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm not a regular reader of this blog and don't work in the education field, but this discussion struck a surprising chord.

I'm rich and white. And -- not to brag, but -- I'm very smart, at least in the way that the "creative economy" appears to value. I can assimilate complex information rapidly, draw novel connections among that information, solve problems and communicate conclusions innovative ways, etc. I've done very, very well on the job market...at least when it comes to OBTAINING jobs.

The problem is that while my mind is nimble and creative, I completely lack the "grit" these curricula seek to instill. I can develop a quick, intense, all-consuming interest in new topic -- but invariably, the interest dissipates after a short period of time and I become totally disengaged. I've tried a few different careers, all in fields that Charles Murray, NYT et al would stereotype (not unjustifiably) as the province of a rising cognitive elite. I was a lawyer for awhile at a top firm. My work involved structuring novel, exotic derivatives. While some may look down on this work from a social value standpoint, it's not the type of task that can be performed by "drones" (instead, it's the type of task for which Wall Street recruits MIT grads who would otherwise be working at NASA). Anyways, I loved this and poured all my time into it. It was a cool new puzzle to figure out. And I was good at it...at least at first. Then my interest tapered off and I got lazy and gradually stopped going to work. I'd surf the internet and play video games and (I kid you not) smoke weed and pretend to "work from home." Ambitious projects I'd taken on -- projects that seemed really cool and interesting when I conceived them -- laid fallow and incomplete. The Firm never fired me, but within a couple of years I quit. If I had "grit," I could have made partner at that place.

During the time I spent coasting and lying (to cover up the fact that I was barely working), I developed an interest in computer hacking and started trying to decrypt the hashes embedded in QR codes on old airline boarding passes. My goal was to be able to print a fake boarding pass that would guarantee expedited screening every time. In an initial burst of enthusiasm, I spent thousands of dollars on computer equipment to expedite brute-force decryption calcs, and I installed some but not all of this. Because, again, I got bored and the project was ultimately unfinished. I still have top-of-the-line graphics cards sitting in half-opened boxes around my apartment (I also never really clean).

Then I took a job with an old client contact from my firm. This was a person who worked in finance and remembered me as “smart” and “creative” and blah blah blah. He hired me to devise tax strategies for hedge funds using currency swaps. This sounds dry, but again, it's not drone work. Most people can't do it -- even people with advanced degrees in tax law. I could do it, but not for very long. Fell into old patterns, stopped putting in effort, got distracted by other things and was eventually fired.

I am really pretty great at exploring and googling and figuring things out on my own. I'm great at thinking critically and dissecting assumptions and questioning authority. Yet despite having been born with privileges few are lucky enough to enjoy, I've managed to squander two promising careers (and a promising blackhat cyberterrorist venture) before the age of 30. I'm essentially a caricature of what happens when the type of intelligence you celebrate and value exists in the absence of "grit." If I had not begun life as a rich white person, I probably would not have amassed any of my accomplishments/credentials to date. (Indeed, I might be impoverished or in jail). While I would have hated it at the time, I sort of wish that someone had corralled me as a kid and forced me to attend KIPP.