The “Grit” Argument Continues: Paul Thomas responds to Author Ethan Ris

by LORRAINE KASPRISIN on Journal of Educational Controversy Blog

Editor: In our anniversary issue of the journal, we published an article by Ethan Ris entitled, “Grit: A Short History of a Useful Concept.”  It continued both the conversation that we have been having in the journal and added also to the current debates found in a number of recent books on the topic.   Below, author Paul Thomas responds to Ris’ argument.

A Friendly Rebuttal to Ris on “Grit”

P.L. Thomas, Furman University

In his “Grit: A Short History of a Useful Concept,” Ethan W. Ris offers, I think, a rare and significant contribution to the scholarly discourse on “grit”—one that has been mostly uncritical.

 Powerfully, Ris presents a discourse analysis of “grit” with a historical lens and argues that “the grit discourse allows privileged socioeconomic groups to preserve their position under the guise of creative pedagogy” (p. 2).

Ris makes a strong case that Angela Duckworth and popular advocates of “grit” (such as journalist Paul Tough) have contributed to policies and practices aimed at mostly black/brown and poor populations of students, conceding “[t]he critics, however, are right that poor children are the inevitable losers of this game” (p. 10).

It is here, where Ris confronts both advocates and critics of “grit” that I want to offer a friendly rebuttal. 

Again, Ris’s discourse analysis and historical couching of the “grit” narrative are very important, but his argument that “grit” has been mostly an idealized character trait embraced by the privileged does not, as Ris suggests, discredit assertions “grit” is racist (and classist); in fact, Ris’s historical context proves “grit” is racist. 

Part of the problem here is Ris’s “[b]oth sides have the story wrong” (p. 2)—the both sides being:

To its champions, the concept of grit offers a solution to the intractable low performance in these schools: help the kids get grittier, and they can claw their way out of poverty (Tough, 2011; Tough, 2012; Rock Center, 2012; Lipman, 2013). To its skeptics, grit is at best an empty buzzword, at worst a Social Darwinist explanation for why poor communities remain poor – one that blames the victims of entrenched poverty, racism, or inferior schooling for character flaws that caused their own disadvantage (Shapiro, 2013; Thomas, 2013; Anderson, 2014; Isquith, 2014; Noguera & Kundu, 2014; Ravitch, 2014a; Snyder, 2014; Ravitch, 2015). (p. 2)

I am on the “skeptics” side that asserts “grit” as a narrative and as a character quality formal schooling needs to instill in black/brown and poor students is racist, but I see in Ris’s analysis a direct relationship between “grit” as a domain of the privileged and how that has created the context within which many in the U.S. assume black/brown and poor students lack that quality.

My rebuttal, then, revolves around “skeptics” being wrong because we agree wholeheartedly with one of Ris’s central argument: “Here, though, is the fundamental problem with the perception that the importance of grit has to do with bettering the chances of disadvantaged students. Children raised in poverty display ample amounts of grit every day, and they don’t need more of it in school” (p. 8).

 So I would like to pose that Ris has not proven “both sides are wrong,” but has failed to recognize why we skeptics have been calling out “grit” policies and practices.

 As Christopher Emdin explains in For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…and the Rest of Y’all Too, vulnerable populations of students are plenty “gritty,” but they remain the primary targets of “no excuses” schooling grounded in “grit” discourse and lessons.

Therefore, the formula to me (one made clear by Ris’s work) is that the privileged have historically promoted and continue to promote the “grit” narrative (the work ethic the working class has imposed on itself out of fear of not measuring up to the affluent)—and needlessly worry about the “grit” of their own children—because they need the wider public to believe that success is the result of effort (merit) and not the consequence of privilege.

So I agree with Ris that the “grit” narrative and “grit” as educational policy are tools to keep the class (and race) divisions in the U.S. intact—all of which confirms that “grit” is racist and classist because the narrative speaks to and perpetuates race and class stereotypes that black/brown and poor people are inherently lazy, deserving their stations in life.

Ris’s work is really important, and I would not have felt compelled to offer what may appear to be a minor quibble from someone labeled as “wrong” in Ris’s essay, but one of the ways in which privilege is maintained is our reluctance to name racism, our urge to find any other cause possible.

Duckworth, Tough, and the growing legions of advocates in the “grit” industry—these people are invested in “grit” and they are surely wrong.

We skeptics? I think we are making a case reinforced by Ris’s work, and I invite him to consider this carefully because I believe his work is crucial in reclaiming the value of effort and engagement for all children, but especially for vulnerable populations who are being mis-served by the “no excuses” and “grit” movements.