A Grit Critic

Oh no he didn’t! Alfie Kohn just criticized grit. I didn’t think that was allowed. Better someone of Kohn’s stature than I. Ultimately, however, I think I have to side with grit on this one.

I should say up front that Alfie Kohn’s writing has helped change my thinking on a number of important topics in education and parenting over the last decade. His recent critique of “grit,” Angela Duckworth’s popular term for “the tendency to sustain perseverance and passion for challenging long-term goals,” however, is not his best work. I was excited when I first saw that Kohn chose to challenge this trendy topic because I’ve had vague doubts about it since it first emerged a little less than a decade ago. Kohn’s critique, however-and here the teacher in me will come out-is specious, lacking a single example and using, instead, a series of leading questions or truisms. It also takes a curious political turn that must make Angela Duckworth and other members of the UPenn positive psychology movement scratch their heads.

Kohn’s criticism appears in his newest book, in the April 6, 2014 Washington Post, and in the most recent edition of Independent School (to which I know you all subscribe…to be fair, it’s worth reading if you like thinking about schools). After reviewing the places that have popularized the idea of grit (Paul Tough’s book, How Children Succeed, and the KIPP academies, among others), Kohn begins to sow doubt:

“not everything is worth doing, let alone doing for extended periods, and not everyone who works hard is pursuing something worthwhile”
“persistence can be counterproductive and even unhealthy”
“Gritty people sometimes exhibit what psychologists call ‘nonproductive persistence’”
“The motives for displaying grit also raise important psychological questions. What matters isn’t just how long one persists, but why one does so.”

Hard to argue with such blanket statements. Though he points to specifics that reveal some of the assumptions underlying grit apologists (Kohn observes that though Paul Tough lists “persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit, and self-confidence” early in his book as important traits for student success, he doesn’t mention curiosity or self-confidence again throughout the book.), Kohn doesn’t use a single example of a student being too gritty in the wrong direction-a student who could benefit from giving up.

I think I understand Kohn’s concern. He doesn’t want American schools to turn into the caricatures we’ve read of education systems in South Korea and Singapore. He doesn’t want students to turn into what David Brooks described as “Organization Kids” in one of my favorite Atlantic articles-so focused on success-at-all-costs that they lose sight of life’s meaning. They become obedient lemmings rather than creative leaders. It reminds me of the backlash against Amy Chua, aka “Tiger Mom.” Up to a point, I agree. But at any high school in the country, including elite boarding schools, the group of students you need to worry about on this score represents a minority of the student body. The vast majority of students could stand to be a bit grittier-and they would enjoy school more if they developed this skill because the learning part of school actually becomes more fun the harder a student works at learning. Many teachers and parents pull their hair out wondering what it will take for a given student to achieve his or her potential. Often the answer is the combination of skills reflected in the word grit.

I really do hope I will have the chance to discuss this with Kohn at some point because he’s such a thoughtful observer of education. This last point-that learning, especially at the high school level, becomes more fun the grittier a student becomes (up to a point, and then they are just grinding it out, which isn’t all bad either)-bears spelling out. It’s true in academic pursuits, in the arts, athletics, and just about anything else you can think of. But don’t take my word for it. Here is a great example-if a little dated (most of us can’t fathom getting excited about Greek)-from C.S. Lewis, Oxford and Cambridge don and author of The Chronicles of Narnia:

An enjoyment of Greek poetry is certainly a proper, and not a mercenary, reward for learning Greek; but only those who have reached the stage of enjoying Greek poetry can tell from their own experience that this is so. The schoolboy beginning Greek grammar cannot look forward to his adult enjoyment of Sophocles as a lover looks forward to marriage or a general to victory. He has to begin by working for marks, or to escape punishment, or to please his parents, or, at best, in the hope of a future good which he cannot at present imagine or desire. His position, therefore, bears a certain resemblance to that of the mercenary; the reward he is going to get will, in actual fact, be a natural or proper reward, but he will not know that till he has got it. Of course, he gets it gradually; enjoyment creeps in upon the mere drudgery, and nobody could point to a day or an hour when the one ceased, and the other began. But it is just in so far as he approaches the reward that he becomes able to desire it for its own sake; indeed, the power of so desiring it is itself a preliminary reward. -C.S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory” 1942

This quotation comes from Lewis’s discussion of different types of rewards and motivations. He’s not trying to make a case for grit. But he puts his finger on long-term learning and what often (always?) must undergird it. I’m finding this to be true right now with the piano. I never learned to play an instrument as a child. I sang a little through high school but never very well, and I never learned how to read music. Now my children are learning the piano on the one in our home. It’s been a goal for many years so each week I have the last lesson after each of my kids go. I am having to learn all over again how to be gritty-how to delay gratification, avoid distractions and other urgent calls for my time so that I can spend 30 minutes with the teacher and, at most, five minutes a day in the intervening six days. It’s certainly kind of fun to experiment, less fun to practice scales over and over. But I go back to it-or try to-because I can anticipate a time down the road when, if I just consistently put in the effort now, I’ll be able to make music, at least at a basic level. Of course, my prefrontal lobes are as developed as they are probably going to get-may even be in decline already-so I have an advantage over a six year old or sixteen year old in terms of resisting temptation, but I can say that grit is a difficult thing to exercise. Yet it’s essential if I want to achieve this goal and if I hope to realize ever-deeper satisfaction from playing the piano.

Now, that anecdote doesn’t by itself disprove Kohn, but while I agree that intrinsic motivation is the best way for learning to happen, the fact is that there are all sorts of really important things that students of all ages should learn that they are not intrinsically motivated to learn. And that’s where grit comes in. Is it like a certain version of the Protestant work ethic, as Kohn suggests? Yes, and I see that as a good thing for most students. Great schools are comprised of great teachers who discern on a student-by-student basis where students needs grit, where they simply need to fall in love with a subject or discipline, and, in some cases-and to Kohn’s point-where they need to take time to stop and consider the broader purposes that animate all of this striving.

If I have/take/make the time, I hope to write soon about the key role that a wonderful English teacher named Steve Scheifflin played in helping me A) realize what I was capable of on my own as a student and, therefore, B) begin to love learning and, therefore, C) develop grit.

Formula for Success or Racism?

Most of you will remember Amy Chua, if not by that name then from the title of her first popular book, “Tiger Mom”. Chua and her husband, Jed Rubenfeld, both professors at Yale Law School, have a new book out, The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America. The book has attracted attention for two reasons. First, similar to books like Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, it implicitly promises that all your child needs is a simple cocktail of three traits or habits to be successful. (At least Tough told us what the three traits are in his subtitle. Chua and Rubenfeld make you have to read the introduction. But I’ll save you the suspense [spoiler alert]: superiority, insecurity, and impulse control.) Please don’t let my tone suggest that I don’t take these books and others like them seriously. Tough’s book is excellent and an important read for parents and teachers alike. They teach us about students and teaching and parenting and, ultimately, about ourselves. If we can resist the temptation to either become completely consumed by their promises or be completely cynical, they force us to reflect on what we do well and where we need to improve. But, as their most thoughtful critics also point out, they also make two questionable promises. First, they define success and achievement very narrowly as something measurable by GPA, SSAT, SAT, GRE, name brand of your child’s college, income, and net worth. That is a topic for another time and constant reflection, but the poverty of imagination and vision in that worldview is stultifying.(1) Second, they make it seem so easy. A logical conclusion of Chua’s argument is that if we could find a pill that would deliver these unlikely traits we should give it to our kids. Why wouldn’t we? These books play on our insecurities and fears as parents and while they offer important arguments for us to reflect on and integrate into our teaching and parenting, they sidestep the daily, gritty, hard work of teaching, mentoring, coaching, and parenting kids. Who doesn’t want to do that work in a way that leads kids to develop grit, curiosity, character, well founded/humble confidence (to combine Chua’s superiority/inferiority duality), and impulse control?

[My thanks to the parent of my son’s classmate who pointed me toward this New York Times piece by Chua and Rubenfeld that summarizes their book.]

The second reason The Triple Package has attracted attention is because the claims in it evidence what Suketu Mehta, writing for Time, called a “new racism” and historical inaccuracies. Mehta’s racism claim bears consideration for many reasons, including that she puts it in the context of similar claims made over the last century or so. I commend Mehta’s article to you, not only on this score but also because in her conclusion she speaks to other reasons to think twice before buying into Chua and Rubenfeld’s arguments completely. To give you a taste of her broader critique:

Chua and Rubenfeld make another mistake when they try to set up a hierarchy of good culture vs. bad culture-in which good culture invariably means getting rich. They take their definition of success from that of Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.: “the gaining of money and position.” Nowhere are cultural traits like kindness, community and public service or martial valor given any value. 

Immigrants, claim Chua and Rubenfeld, are wary of “an excessively permissive American culture”-the bogeyman that haunts the dreams of so many who see the U.S. as losing the vigor of a former age. But isn’t that permissiveness exactly what makes America work: this messy mix, this barbaric yawp, this redneck rondeau, this rude commingling? Isn’t that what permeates its films, movies, books? And isn’t that the principal product it can still export? It is American culture’s permissiveness, its new world energy, that still attracts the masses to the “golden door.”

As it did with my father, who in college in 1950s Calcutta was first exposed to the great rock-‘n’-yell of Chuck Berry and Elvis-music the Jesuit deans of St. Xavier’s tried to ban because they couldn’t stand to see students gyrating their pelvises. My father had never heard such an awesome caterwaul before, and-along with America’s decadent movies and books-it seeded the young man’s desire to go live there someday.

It’s not conformity that makes this country great; it’s an individual striking out against the expectations of his culture, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg dropping out of Harvard, Miles Davis coming out of heroin addiction to produce ‘Round About Midnight, the 14-year-old Billie Holiday turning the pain of her childhood into the bluest beauty, Sylvia Plath taking on death with pills and poetry, William S. Burroughs writing from the bowels of his addiction in Naked Lunch; it’s Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Cheever and Carver drinking and writing, writing and drinking through their demons. Imagine what American culture would be if American artists had kept a tight check on their impulses.

I love the tension between arguments for impulse control, on the one hand, and creative exploration on the other. For free, unstructured play on the one hand and “10,000 hours of practice” on the other. And I think Mehta points out another important thing to reflect on after reading the book—what is unique to America and how did it come to be and to continue? There are obviously bad ways to answer that question, lest Americans become too enamored of themselves for the wrong reasons, but, keeping that caution in mind, what can America and the world learn and emulate from America’s history and culture?

So, with all that said, it’s important to consider arguments like Chua’s and Rubenfeld’s and exercise the critical thinking we expect of our students and children: evaluate the strength of their claims without getting swept up by them or dismissing them as cynical, learn from them what we can and become more thoughtful thinkers, teachers, and parents as a result.

Though I include links to Amazon when I mention books, I strongly encourage you to order books through Washington’s Hickory Stick Bookshop or your own local book store.


(1) Among other things, the vision of life Chua holds out is essentially that of Nietzsche’s will to power. As he wrote in his book by that title, “My idea is that every specific body strives to become master over all space and to extend its force (its will to power) and to thrust back all that resists its extension. But it continually encounters similar efforts on the part of other bodies and ends by coming to an arrangement (“union”) with those of them that are sufficiently related to it: thus they then conspire together for power. And the process goes on.” We all need to take Nietzsche seriously because his is a serious vision of reality with a lot of merit. It’s one I ultimately reject, but only after spending a lot of time considering alternatives.