08 February 2014

Summarizing Grit: The Abundance Narratives

Procter&Gamble has the tagline very wrong, but their Olympics ads explain what is crucially wrong with the argument espoused by those writing the "Grit Narratives"...

...for what P&G is saying in their "#BecauseOfMom" campaign is that what children need is not "grit" but abundance. They need the support, time, resources, and love which makes persistence possible.

It is not "falling down" which makes you stronger, it is the people who help you get up after you've fallen, who teach you to get up after you've fallen, who tend your wounds after you've fallen, and who supply the resources which allow you to keep trying with a growing expectation of success.

I don't know if I've been a good father or not - as a long-term single dad I kind of object to the #becauseofmom meme, I bought the Tide for our house - for that analysis you'd have to ask the kid. But despite real money struggles, real resource issues, I tried to offer abundance when I could. The musical instruments he played, the soccer equipment he used (for which I often traded work), the drives to a distant high school which met his needs, the access to the computers he learned to build and control. But for the ability to do that I am grateful for the abundance I received as a child. My parents rarely had any money, but they had essential things. They both had university educations, they both had wide-ranging interests in the world, they both talked - in front of us kids - about anything and everything. The offered us a home in a place where everything from high culture to the fascinations of the natural world were easily accessible from very early ages. They lived in a place with a high school which brought all kinds of children - all socio-economic classes - together so I could see choices and opportunities. And they knew how to stand up for me, to prevent huge problems from becoming a death sentence.

Abundance being a relative term, measured on a sliding scale.

Abundance also being an inherited opportunity in a nation of vastly unequal wealth and opportunity. And if we do not work towards offering abundance to children in poverty, nothing we do via "intervention" will alter these facts of inheritance.
"But we have to be very careful, given the political tenor of our time, not to assume that we have the long-awaited key to helping the poor overcome the assaults of poverty," Mike Rose writes, "My worry is that we will embrace these essentially individual and technocratic fixes—mental conditioning for the poor—and abandon broader social policy aimed at poverty itself.

"We have a long-standing shameful tendency in America to attribute all sorts of pathologies to the poor. Writing in the mid-nineteenth century, the authors of a report from the Boston School Committee bemoaned the “undisciplined, uninstructed…inveterate forwardness and obstinacy” of their working-class and immigrant students. There was much talk in the Boston Report and elsewhere about teaching the poor “self-control,” “discipline,” “earnestness” and “planning for the future.” This language is way too familiar."
In a study of those proposing character education as a primary solution, those like Angela Duckworth and Paul Tough,  Smagorinsky and Taxel (pdf) noted, "We inferred from this list of at-risk students that the proposal authors believed that those most in need of character education were largely poor students from uneducated families in which standard English is not spoken at home. These young people, according to the proposals, tend to be sexually active, have histories of violence, abuse drugs, and have absentee parents. We further inferred that the document authors assumed that people not fitting these categories were not particularly in need of character education. We then classified this discourse as being in the category of class-based morality."

"Class-based morality," and class-based colonialism in my mind, for as James Gee asked, "What sort of social group do I intend to apprentice the learner into?" Not that you can't say, "I need my children to learn to act, to be, like white middle class Americans." You certainly can, and you can for some very good reasons. But you need to be aware of what you are saying.

The "Everyday Effect" - middle-class privilege in action

The debate about "the grit narrative" has ranged widely across the digital networks recently, which is a great thing. Because the next time a school administrator rises and quotes Paul Tough's book title, or shows Angela Duckworth's TEDtalk, there will now be other voices in the room, voices calling for the "abundandance narrative" as our essential foundation.

Here are some of the conversations:
Mike Rose: The Misguided Effort to Teach Character (Washington Post)
Paul Thomas: The Poverty Trap   
Paul Thomas: The Grit Narrative  
Nancy Flanagan: Kiss My Grit

Grant Lichtman: Does Grit Need a Deeper Discussion?
which includes a Paul Tough vs. Me "debate."

Josie Holford: Grit Hits the Fan

Joe Bower:
Let them eat grit - 4 reasons why "grit" is garbage  
SpeEdChange: Grit: Part One
SpeEdChange: Grit: Part Two
(Slack, not Grit)

SpeEdChange: Grit: Part Three (Abundance)
SpeEdChange: Grit: Part Four (Abundance, Authenticity, and the Multi-Year Mentor)
Eric Juli: Grit or Slack? Are we asking the right questions? 
Eric Juli: Grit: Context Matters   
Peter Gow: In Which I Confess to Lacking Grit    
Vicki Davis: True Grit

I, of course, cannot tell you how to think about this. I cannot tell you how to read Tough's book, or how to consider Duckworth finding most of her inspiration in the work of "the father of eugenics." But I do hope you will wonder about, and perhaps challenge, the current pop psychology of "grit" education. I hope you will ask, if we do not go after the causes of the pathologies of poverty, how can we ever "cure" children fast enough to keep up with the damage we are doing?

The other side of #becauseof mom, the feminization of poverty

- Ira Socol

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