25 March 2014

Angela Duckworth's Eugenics - the University of Pennsylvania and the MacArthur Foundation

"The direct result of this inquiry is to make manifest the great and measurable differences between the mental and bodily faculties of individuals, and to prove that the laws of heredity are as applicable to the former as to the latter. Its indirect result is to show that a vast but unused power is vested in each generation over the very natures of their successors—that is, over their inborn faculties and dispositions. The brute power of doing this by means of appropriate marriages or abstention from marriage undoubted." (Francis Galton, 1869, page xix http://www.mugu.com/galton/books/hereditary-genius/text/pdf/galton-1869-genius-v3.pdf )
This is where the work of Grit Genius Angela Duckworth begins, with Francis Galton's 1869 book which pioneered the reprehensible science of eugenics. "Unlike many decisions (e.g., what to have for lunch), choosing to endure rather than desist is a choice that must be effortfully sustained over time. This is an important difference and means grit requires not just motivation but also volition--not just resolving to achieve something important but also protecting that resolution when tempted to reverse the decision; not just committing to our goals but, more difficult than that, translating intentions into actions; not just starting things but finishing what we begin; not just zeal, as Francis Galton concluded in his 1869 treatise on eminent achievement, but also the capacity for hard work; not just want but also will," Duckworth posted last August in one of her many fame chasing broadsides.


I have been struggling against the Grit Narrative for a few months, and I'm not at all alone. What has shocked me is the ease with which supposedly enlightened organizations - leading organizations within our society such as the Macarthur Foundation, the University of Pennsylvania, The New York Times, have unquestionably accepted the work of a professor who has based her research in the work of a writer whose work brutalized and killed millions during the 19th and 20th Centuries, including the Nazi Holocaust, the Japanese assault on China during World War II, and the ethnic cleansing in Europe's Balkans at the end of last century. There are also stories symbolized by the tale of Carrie Buck, where there's an unquestionable direct line from Angela Duckworth's favorite thinker to a deep well of human misery.

The brutality of Galton's work - celebrated continuously by Angela Duckworth

The deep problem I have with "the grit narrative" lies in its flawed assumptions that if poor kids just work harder, with more focus, everything will be fine. Now everyone who has ever worked with "at risk" kids, children in poverty, knows that isn't true. What did my friend Chad say when a high school wrestler he coached got shot walking out of his house? "He needed to work harder"? What could I say to homeless kids I worked with in Grand Rapids when they struggled to stay awake in school? "You just need to be more organized"? What might I have said to the kids I knew in The Bronx who lived in a nightmare of poverty and violence? "I wish you'd pay more attention to your teacher"? The "grit narrative" leaves out the entire socio-economic world which works against so many of our kids, and blames those kids for our failings. I'll also note that it's largely based in research with little basis in reality. Who succeeds in West Point's "Beast Barracks" is not a real question because it cannot be connected to success in anything other than West Point's "Beast Barracks." (The United States Military Academy has never attempted a "control group" class with no Beast Barracks, so we have no idea if success there has anything to do with success in the Army or even in the Academy). Likewise Duckworth's deep concern for Spelling Bee champions. Being able to spell unusual words really well is directly linked to, ummm, nothing except being able to spell unusual words very well. So we have untrue conclusions based in fairly nonsensical research.

The deep problem I have with Duckworth is not just the reliance on the despicable Galton, but the willingness to rehabilitate this man and his theories. "[T]he theory that grit actually overrides other seemingly essential attributes is not new," says a business online blog. "It goes back more than 120 years. In the 1890s, Sir Francis Galton studied success and concluded “ability alone did not bring about success in any field.” He found rather that success stemmed from “ability combined with zeal and with capacity for hard labour.” Today, University of Pennsylvania professor, Angela L. Duckworth is following up on Galton’s work. She made grit the centerpiece of her research into high achievement. “Our hypothesis that grit is essential to high achievement evolved during interviews with professionals in investment banking, painting, journalism, academia, medicine and law,” said Duckworth."And thus Duckworth has made Galton and Eugenics fully acceptable again.

Listen. We all quote the despicable on occasion. I've quoted Martin Heidegger often on technology, but my quotes look like this: '"Technology," to quote (nervously, because he was pretty much a Nazi) Heidegger, is the "art of manipulating the world."' or this, "Just as I may quote Heidegger, but only after very deep investigation, because I have to see, after a lot of reading, if I can separate truth from the other insanities of a pro-Nazi philosopher." I'm still troubled by using his ideas, but at least I express that. Something Duckworth never, ever, does." Here's her online research statement, "As Galton (1892) speculated in his pioneering treatise on the determinants of eminent achievement, the distinction has chiefly to do with timescale: Grit equips individuals to pursue especially challenging aims over years and even decades. Self-control, in contrast, operates at a more molecular timescale, in the battle against what Galton called the hourly temptations – among whose modern incarnations I would nominate Facebook, Angry Birds, Krispy Kreme donuts, and other pursuits which bring pleasure in the moment but are immediately regretted. Both self-control and grit are facets of Big Five conscientiousness, a taxonomy that organizes personality traits in both childhood and adulthood..." When she writes, "his pioneering treatise," she's hardly expressing doubts about Galton's work. And in her quoting of Galton through dozens of writings I have searched, she expresses doubts about his work not once.

This is no ordinary villain. This isn't President William McKinley or even former Alabama Governor George Wallace, this is the writer whose theories stoked the atrocities in Hitler's death camps. "Hitler did not justify his social policies on the basis of Darwinism or eugenics. No reference to such subjects can be found in his books, Mein Kampf' or his Table-Talk. His social ideas appeared to derive more from the 19th century German philosophers Schopenhauer, Hegel and particularly Nietzsche who is quoted several times in Hitler's Table-Talk. The case is different with regard to the German biologists, anthropologists and geneticists of the period between 1933 and 1945. They actively invoked eugenic principles to justify the social policies of the Nazis. The consequences of these policies have been extensively documented elsewhere; suffice it to record that approximately 200,000 women were compulsorily sterilized and more than six million people belonging to "inferior races" suffered mass extermination." (Francis Galton and eugenics today, Journal of Medical Ethics, 1999 -pdf)

This is a monster, who deserves no rehabilitation, especially at the hands of the University of Pennsylvania and the MacArthur Foundation.
"This is precisely the aim of Eugenics. Its first object is to check the birth-rate of the Unfit, instead of allowing them to come into being, though doomed in large numbers to perish prematurely. The second object is the improvement of the race by furthering the productivity of the Fit by early marriages and healthful rearing of their children. Natural Selection rests upon excessive production and wholesale destruction; Eugenics on bringing no more individuals into the world than can be properly cared for, and those only of the best stock." - Galton, Memories of My Life (1908), Chapter XXI
Why is Duckworth's attitude any different from this?
"One in ten young Austrians think Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler did some 'good things', a shocking poll has found.
"The Youth Culture Research Institute poll found 11.2 percent of respondents said Hitler 'did many good things for the people', The Daily Mail reports.
"The finding was described as ‘frightening’ by the local newspaper as it is coupled with the general mistrust and dislike of non-Austrians."
Why are we offended by people stating the idea that Hitler did "good things" but not that Galton is worth basing research on?

The problem is two-fold. Not only does Duckworth celebrate Galton and his work - a dramatic challenge to contemporary ethics ("Following the events of the second world war, overt eugenic ideas became unacceptable") - but she uses Galton's theories virtually whole. As Lauren Anderson noted on the EdWeek site:
"Watching the video that accompanied [Duckworth's MacArthur Genius biographical sketch}, resignation turned to vexation. Here was another familiar-sounding narrative deployed to rationalize a turn toward individualistic, "objective measures." [2] In it, Duckworth recounts her own frustration, felt during her short stints as a teacher, about, "how little I was able to change the number of hours that they [italics added] were willing to put in for me, as students."[3] Presumably these encounters informed the "distinctly different view of school reform" that Duckworth would later write about in her application to doctoral study:

"The problem," Duckworth writes, "I think, is not only the schools but also the students themselves..."[4] Of course, in other directions lie other possible interpretations and corollary questions--about the effectiveness of one's own teaching practice (especially as a new teacher),[5] the relational ties between teachers and students (which develop over time), the broader set of forces at work in young people's lives (including, for example, institutional racism, conditions of poverty, and inequitable access to resources that we know impact development), and so on. That Duckworth, like many, has chosen to seek cause and cure for achievement, or lack thereof, primarily in the individual is, again, not particularly surprising; nor is the fact that doing so has brought her acclaim."
Dickens 1843... "this boy is ignorance,
this girl is want."
the failure is society's
This is not an issue of people "in their times." You see - apologies to those around me in Charlottesville, Virginia, but - Thomas Jefferson and James Madison knew that slavery was wrong - even back "in their times." And Galton was writing 30 to 60 years after Charles Dickens, after Karl Marx, after many had made it clear that the Industrial Revolution and unchecked capitalism were the cause of the extremes of poverty. And Duckworth is writing in a time when people know the structures of our society are brutally unfair to many. The kid in inner Cleveland needs "grit," the kid in Shaker Heights really doesn't.


"Galton was a very insecure man who, in an effort to emulate his cousin's adventures, took an expedition to Africa, where he become convinced of the inherent inferiority of any races that were not of European descent. His insecurities led him to take a particular interest in those who were born into the "right families," or possessed certain forms of genius." And like Galton, Dr. Duckworth has a "particular interest in those who were born into the "right families."

"It reminds me of a study done of taxi drivers in 1997," Duckworth told ASCD in a very revealing interview. "When it's raining, everybody wants a taxi, and taxi drivers pick up a lot of fares. So if you're a taxi driver, the rational thing to do is to work more hours on a rainy day than on a sunny day because you're always busy so you're making more money per hour. But it turns out that on rainy days, taxi drivers work the fewest hours. They seem to have some figure in their head—"OK, every day I need to make $1,000"—and after they reach that goal, they go home. And on a rainy day, they get to that figure really quickly.

In other words, Duckworth is criticizing anyone born into, or raised in, a culture less financially aspirational then her own high-wealth background. Notice, the cab drivers she is criticizing are not failing to work, they are failing to accumulate excess wealth, and to Duckworth this decision to, say, return home to their families sooner, is a sign of unforgivable personal failure. Duckworth's "rational" is only "rational" to her and her kind. It isn't rational to me. It isn't - and this is a long time slander against everyone from the Irish to Africans - natural to many non-Protestants.

Whatever she claims, if you read her statement, you cannot conceivably believe she is doing anything but blaming the individuals. And, if you read her statement - this section ends with, "Your goal is, "How can I get the most out of my day?" Then you're like the taxi driver who drives all day whether it's rainy or not." - you cannot find a way to believe anything but that her work ranks cultures and is based in that classic of white protestant culture, "The Protestant Work Ethic."
"[O]ne’s duty in a calling, is what is most characteristic of the social ethic of capitalistic culture," Max Weber wrote in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, "and is in a sense the fundamental basis of it. It is an obligation which the individual is supposed to feel and does feel towards the content of his professional activity, no matter in what it consists, in particular no matter whether it appears on the surface as a utilization of his personal powers. Or only of his material possessions (as capital)."
That work ethic and the "White" Supremacy it suggests - "white" in the 1900 sense of white excluding the Irish, Italians, and others - is not rational, not universal, and perhaps, not even healthy, as researchers have found a deep psychological hurt which it can engender.

Duckworth is hardly the only person in the business of blaming poor children, African-American children, and Latino children for their position in society, but she is the one making most clear the ugly foundation for this blame.

As we note that relatively few New York City taxi drivers were white, middle class, American-born in 1997 (or today) we see Duckworth's eugenics at work. OK, she wants us to "fix" the undesirables through "re-education," but that's just a small step away from Galton's ultimate solution if that "fix" doesn't take.

So as I read Duckworth's view of New York City's multi-ethnic cabbies, I thought back to a flight from Dublin to Chicago years ago. I was sitting next to a physician, born in Nigeria, educated in London, working in Dublin. He told me that he really hated American conferences, such as the one he was on his way to, "they always harass me because I make less than they do," he said. Then he told me that he worked 37 hours a week, never worried about billing, never asked a patient about insurance, and had days to play soccer with his kids. "I earn €90,000 a year," he added. "I live in a great house. We have two nice cars. Why would I need anything more?" Yes, this was a classic - an African-Irish from lazy, non-grit cultures. A failure by every Duckworth measure just as much as he would have been a 'drag on civilisation' to Galton.

To Duckworth, as to Galton, the problem with the poor is the poor. In a presentation typical of her pitch
Duckworth PowerPoint
no mention of how wealthy daddy is
or of race or economics
, she never once mentions society, or cultural issues, or economic issues. The problem, if kids fail, is that her "talent multiplied by effort" equation indicates that the child is either stupid or lazy or both. She doesn't use the words, but her "grit tests" make it clear that those failing to succeed in our schools and our society are "lazy and shiftless," and fail to meet the decorum standards of the Leave it to Beaver all white, all middle class, all compliant, fantasy school. "I
interrupted other students while they were talking," is one negative on Duckworth's "Grit Test" for students. "My mind wandered when I should have been listening," is another. "I talked back to my teacher or parent when I was upset," a third.

The 'blame the poor' narrative runs deep in America, in Protestant nations informed by the New England belief that wealth equaled moral right. Of course poverty can also be linked, very powerfully, to those groups Galton found unable to measure up to his expectations. It's the issue Ta-Nehisi Coates addressed in the March 21, 2014 Atlantic. Coates begins by quoting Jonathan Chait over the question of Coates conflating Paul Ryan's social policies towards African-Americans with Barack Obama's:
"The argument is that structural conditions shape culture, and culture, in turn, can take on a life of its own independent of the forces that created it. It would be bizarre to imagine that centuries of slavery, followed by systematic terrorism, segregation, discrimination, a legacy wealth gap, and so on did not leave a cultural residue that itself became an impediment to success."
Coates then responds:
If only he had grit.
The Jim Crow Museum
at Ferris State University
"The "structural conditions" Chait outlines above can be summed up under the phrase "white supremacy." I have spent the past two days searching for an era when black culture could be said to be "independent" of white supremacy. I have not found one. Certainly the antebellum period, when one third of all enslaved black people found themselves on the auction block, is not such an era. And surely we would not consider postbellum America, when freedpeople were regularly subjected to terrorism, to be such an era. 

"We certainly do not find such a period during the Roosevelt-Truman era, when this country erected a racist social safety, leaving the NAACP to quip that the New Deal was "like a sieve with holes just big enough for the majority of Negroes to fall through." Nor do we find it during the 1940s, '50s and '60s, when African-Americans—as a matter of federal policy—were largely excluded from the legitimate housing market. Nor during the 1980s when we began the erection of a prison-industrial complex so vast that black males now comprise 8 percent of the world's entire incarcerated population.


"And we do not find an era free of white supremacy in our times either, when the rising number of arrests for marijuana are mostly borne by African-Americans; when segregation drives a foreclosure crisis that helped expand the wealth gap; when big banks busy themselves baiting black people with "wealth-building seminars" and instead offering "ghetto loans" for "mud people"; when studies find that black low-wage applicants with no criminal record "fared no better than a white applicant just released from prison"; when, even after controlling for neighborhoods and crime rates, my son finds himself more likely to be stopped and frisked. Chait's theory of independent black cultural pathologies sounds reasonable. But it can't actually be demonstrated in the American record, and thus has no applicability."
Coates describes the cultural structure that locks people into poverty, a trap set by those in power, people like Angela Duckworth. Duckworth has now provided a new round of racist ammunition, whether she is assaulting the heavily Caribbean and African taxi workforce in New York, or children of color. "They lack grit," people will now say, "they can't succeed because of their own weakness."

This is vicious. I repeat, vicious. Not just vicious, but quite clearly untrue. And the blame, the need for an explanation, lies with two key American institutions. The University of Pennsylvania which gave Duckworth her PhD., hired her as a professor, and promoted her, and The MacArthur Foundation, which called her a "genius."

Which brings me to the deep problem I have with the University of Pennsylvania, the MacArthur Foundation, the Gates Foundation-supported TED Talks, and all the other organizations from The New York Times to ASCD who have treated Dr. Duckworth like a superstar savior of children. 

There is a fundamental irresponsibility here. Either the university and the foundation never looked up Francis Galton - a massive failure of academic capability and competence - or they didn't mind his rehabilitation - a massive failure of ethics. Either the university and the foundation and others support this kind of use of eugenics research, or they haven't actually read any of Duckworth's work - and either would lead us to doubt any right they have to lead in our society. I have emailed Dr. Duckworth, her dean, and the University of Pennsylvania President Amy Gutman, seeking any kind of justification or explanation, but all have been silent. I haven't emailed MacArthur. I'm pretty sure I've already blown any chance I'd ever get to be a "MacArthur Fellow," but I'm not sure I want to eliminate every possibility...

But the fundamental irresponsibility is to children. Children I deeply care about. I absolutely believe that "the grit narrative" damages our children because it lets society and the powerful off the hook. "Why change anything?" they'll ask, "the kids just need grit." "Grit" is one more excuse, its one more hammer to beat children with.

"I’d never give that little boy Duckworth’s survey. It would only reinforce all the negatives in his life." Pam Moran writes in a beautiful blog post about this subject, one I desperately want you to read, "And, I don’t think he lacked self-control at all. Every seemingly impulsive action he took -  from his anger to his distractedness -  was motivated to give him space to breathe and control over a world gone awry."

For our children who have nothing need "slack" from us. They need "abundance." They need the outstretched hand that raises them up and comforts them. The last thing they need is to be told to "get themselves up." They know all about that. They do it every day and the scarcity of support is what threatens to defeat them.

So please University of Pennsylvania, please MacArthur Foundation. please TED, The New York Times, NPR, et al... please stop. Duckworth's Grit is bad research based in horrific research. You cannot condone this return to eugenics. You just cannot.
"For hundreds of years our society allowed skin color and economic success to serve as facile proxies for the content of a person's character, and for a long time I was pleased to think that in my lifetime we might be getting beyond that," Peter Gow wrote in EdWeek earlier this month. He continued, "How wrong I seem to have been; the Grit Narrative, its shadow spreading back over the land under the guise of "research," threatens to take us straight back to an era where poverty is about laziness and where failure, unless it's the "failing up" of a revered entrepreneur, carries the stain of moral bankruptcy."
- Ira Socol

3 comments:

Gale Lewis said...

Wow, very powerful. Thanks for alerting me to an issue I need to be concerned about.

curious said...

Is she actually just citing Galton and not doing independent research? Because if that's the case, what on earth did MacArthur pay for?

(To the contrary, if her conclusions don't rely on cites to Galton, this whole post is sad ad hominem).

Ira Socol said...

As I indicate, she cites Galton in everything she has published. He is usually the ONLY author she cites besides herself.