Teaching Grit to Poor Kids Won’t Magically Make Poverty Disappear

I recently read an article from Brain Pickings on the work of Angela Duckworth, McKinsey consultant turned math teacher turned research psychologist and recipient of the 2013 Macarthur Genius Grant for her inquiries into the relationship between grit and success.

Duckworth’s research has consistently found that people with more grit – an admittedly nebulous collection of character traits that include curiosity, self-discipline, optimism, and perseverance – are more likely to lead successful lives (at least according to conventional definitions of success). Talent isn’t inconsequential, but it’s less indicative than – and may even have a slightly inverse relationship with – grit. Her TED talk (shown above) is a fascinating introduction to her work.

But even more interestingly, the findings appear to hold true across economic backgrounds. Grit, it seems, is a constant for success across poverty and privilege alike. Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed, a book that draws heavily from Duckworth’s research, explores the impact of grit (or lack thereof) for children both wealthy and poor, and ultimately argues that teaching grit to impoverished children can help them overcome the inherent disadvantages of inequality.

On the surface, this is a very satisfying way to look at success, for it seems to fit quite neatly into the meritocracy meets Protestant work ethic narrative that Americans are so in love with –  the idea that anyone, regardless of their circumstances, can succeed with enough hard work, determination, and grit.

But there’s something uncomfortably absent from this conversation, and that is the other side of the inequality coin – privilege. For all the hand-wringing (Tough included) over wealthy helicopter parents who jeopardize their children’s ability to be functioning, autonomous, “gritty” adults, the stubborn fact remains that privilege and poverty alike tend to beget themselves.

Grit may help everyone become more successful, but for poor kids, the stakes, and for that matter, the consequences of not being gritty enough, are much higher.

Why aren’t we talking about that?

The answer may be that it’s easier (not to mention more politically expedient and socially palatable) to talk about teaching kids grit than it is to break the insidious cycle of poverty. Duckworth’s own unwavering optimism in her approach seems itself born of privilege, of a lack of understanding of poverty’s many nuances – that if we just teach kids to be grittier, more resilient, more self-controlled and self-reliant, then perhaps this whole poverty problem might eventually solve itself.

I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t teach kids to be curious, resilient, self-reliant, perseverant, or any of the other characteristics that comprise this thing we call grit. I’m not even suggesting that Duckworth is indifferent to the structural forces that drive poverty, or that her work isn’t valuable.

I believe it is, but it still doesn’t account for the problem of inequality, which is a prerequisite for any honest discussion about the relationship between poverty, education, grit, and success.

Ultimately, I get the discomfiting sense that teaching grit is an unconscious proxy for a deeper desire to “fix” poor children, to mold them into articulate, well-behaved images of the very well-meaning privileged activists who are trying to help them, rather than gaze deeply and earnestly at the destructive effects of poverty and the complex forces that perpetuate it.

It feels naive to suggest that grit alone could be the solution.


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2 Responses to Teaching Grit to Poor Kids Won’t Magically Make Poverty Disappear

  1. Peter Bensley 10/04/2013 at #

    Bootstraps arguments like this remind me of the old joke about a man buying a pair of really nice running shoes in case he and his friend get chased by a tiger. His friend asks “you don’t really think those will let you outrun a tiger, do you?” and the man says “I don’t need to outrun the tiger. I just need to outrun you.”

    Obviously being able to work hard and put your plans into practice is useful, but it’s not a panacea, and often it forms the basis for a moralistic ignorance of real problems. If there are 7 applicants per job on the market it’s possible to say truthfully to any given applicant “you have the opportunity to get a job if you work hard at it” – but no matter how hard everyone works, 6 people are still going to be unemployed.

  2. Steve 11/11/2013 at #

    What do you suggest activists focus on?

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