By Paul L. Thomas
Nov 23, 2014
Lessons that promote 'effort' as a mask for privilege do far more harm to our students than good.
When it comes to academic success, what matters most: effort – or something altogether different?
If you follow the prevailing winds, it would be easy to surmise that something called “grit” means everything in the education world these days, thanks in large part to Angela Duckworth, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. According to Duckworth and her colleagues, grit can be defined as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Grit entails working strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress.” Duckworth’s research on this topic has been so widely embraced that it is not only the dominant educational narrative of our time; it is also increasingly influencing both how and what children learn in school.
In one middle school visited by Tovia Smith of NPR, a “typical lesson” in social studies is spent exploring the career of Steve Jobs. The goal of the lesson, per the influence of Duckworth’s claims, is to instill in these students the value of risk-taking and persistence. As Smith explains:
One way to make kids more tenacious, the thinking goes, is to show them how grit has been important to the success of others, and how mistakes and failures are normal parts of learning — not reasons to quit.
The children observed by Smith quickly grasped the lesson about Jobs:
Kids raise their hands to offer examples of Jobs' grit.
"He had failed one of the Mac projects he was creating," says one student.
"He used his mistakes to help him along his journey," says another.
Compelling as such narratives of triumph over adversity may be, they are also deeply flawed, not to mention potentially dangerous to students' budding conceptions of self. During a discussion in which I challenged claims about “grit” with my first-year university students, we examined novelist Roxane Gay’s essay on her success in the context of being black, and explored the messages my students had received in school and other formal settings about the relative value of opportunity, talent, and effort. Without hesitation—and like the middle school students above—these college students both identified and embraced the claim that effort trumps opportunity and talent.
In many ways, these highly motivated and successful first-year students represent what career strategist and author of The Good Student TrapAdele Scheele labeled as the “good student”: “Most of us learned as early as junior high that we would pass, even excel, if we did the work assigned to us by our teachers.”
But in America, is hard work actually enough to guarantee success? Will disadvataged students be more likely to suceed as Jobs did, or find themselves floundering when grit turns out not to be enough? Scheele herself recognized what relatively few others like to admit: that lessons about effort and following directions often create a trap for so-called “good students,” because in college, as in life, many factors beyond effort impact one’s ability to succeed. That’s not merely an opinion; despite what Duckworth’s assertions might lead one to believe, agrowing body of evidence reveals that both social class and race trump effort when it comes to academic success.
Confronting Opportunity, Talent and Effort
For a more nuanced representation of how large social forces often outweigh any individual’s effort than popular narratives of “grit” provide, it’s worth taking a dip into George Saunders’ children’s story The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip.
The people living on Frip, as the story opens, are equally burdened by burr-like creatures, called gappers, that swarm the family goats, requiring the children to brush them off daily. The conflict of this allegory occurs when the gappers suddenly swarm only the goats owned by a girl named Capable and her father.
Suddenly, like lifting the burdens of inequity and poverty, those families and children not required to spend each day removing the gappers have much different lives than Capable. With the other children are now allowed to lead lives free of tending to gappers, Capable suffers the double burden of fending off the gappers and providing for her father and herself. Meanwhile, two neighbor boys are free to pursue their gifts as singers.
Alongside the clear depiction of how inequality impacts opportunity, the tale imparts another important lesson, as well, exposing a second layer of the American myth about effort:
“It’s a miracle!” Mrs. Romo shouted next morning, when she came out and discovered that her yard was free of gappers. “This is wonderful! Capable, dear, you poor thing. The miracle didn’t happen to you, did it? I feel so sorry for you. God has been good to us, by taking our gappers away. Why? I can’t say. God knows what God is doing, I guess! I suppose we must somehow deserve it!”
Poverty and privilege, Mrs. Romo suggests, come to those who deserve them—either as the result of laziness or of hard work.She, like most in the U.S., fails to acknowledge the role inequality plays in how anyone behaves, or in what opportunities are afforded to individuals.
Saunders’s allegory opens a window to the fatal flaw of grit research and claims: effort among people in the same status may well distinguish who succeeds, but relative privilege or poverty erases the impact of effort in most cases, especially when connected to social class and race, which often cancel out the promise of grit.
Evidence Trumps Cultural Myths
From a wide range of reports detailing how success is impacted by social class and race, here are just a few examples highlighting just how divorced educational attainment --which should be a solid marker of “effort”-- is from economic success:
- On the Washington Post’s Wonkblog, Matt O’Brien reports about the inequity of class status and educational attainment: “Even poor kids who do everything right [achieve more education] don’t do much better than rich kids who do everything wrong [less education]. Advantages and disadvantages, in other words, tend to perpetuate themselves.”
- Based on data from Pew’s Economic Mobility Project, Matt Bruenig reaches a similar conclusion: “So, you are 2.5x more likely to be a rich adult if you were born rich and never bothered to go to college than if you were born poor and, against all odds, went to college and graduated….Therefore, the answer to the question in the title is that you are better off being born rich regardless of whether you go to college than being born poor and getting a college degree.”
- Drawing on the report Closing the Race Gap by the nonprofit advocacy group Young Invincibles, Forbes’ Susan Adams explains: “African-Americans college students are about as likely to get hired as whites who have dropped out of high school.” Therefore, inequities of opportunity based on race, like class, trump effort.
- Via Demos, Bruenig also notes: “Black families with college degrees have a mean wealth of $162.8k, which is effectively the same as the mean wealth of white families with less than a high school education.”
The upshot? Despite the effort demonstrated by advanced educational attainment, impoverished and racial minorities make no gains over affluent and white contemporaries who demonstrate less effort in term of educational attainment. Ultimately, then, privilege and race, not effort, remain the strongest indicators of who succeeds economically, and in their professions.
Class, Race and the Burden of Effort
A common response to the evidence above is to suggest that, at the least, fostering tenacity and effort (“grit”) in children can’t be harmful. But that too seems misguided.
Gay, for example, examines her own struggle with “effort” ideology under the burden of race. “As a black girl in these United States—I was the daughter of Haitian immigrants—I had no choice but to work toward being the best,” she writes, concluding:
I cannot merely be good enough because I am chased by the pernicious whispers that I might only be “good enough for a black woman.” There is the shame of sometimes believing they might be right because that’s how profound racism in this country can break any woman down. … It is often unbearable to consider what half as much to work with means for those who are doing their damndest to make do.
If even successful people like Gay feel the burden of claims about grit against the realities of biases based on class and race, children still seeking not only achievement but also clear visions of themselves are likely harmed by unjustified claims that grit alone is the key to their success. In fact, if we make promises or claims about effort that are unlikely to come true, we teach children that effort is a waste of both their time and energy.
Like Gay, the Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates has little space for the effort narrative, and dismantles it as follows:
There is no evidence that black people are less responsible, less moral, or less upstanding in their dealings with America nor with themselves. But there is overwhelming evidence that America is irresponsible, immoral, and unconscionable in its dealings with black people and with itself. Urging African-Americans to become superhuman is great advice if you are concerned with creating extraordinary individuals. It is terrible advice if you are concerned with creating an equitable society. The black freedom struggle is not about raising a race of hyper-moral super-humans. It is about all people garnering the right to live like the normal humans they are.
Moralistic lessons based on the successes of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates are no more than twisted fairy tales, stories that promote effort as a mask for privilege, and hide the lesson we do not want to admit: opportunity and talent trump effort in this country, a fact that can be proven along both race and class lines.
Without equal opportunity, individual talent and effort pale against the advantages of class and racial privilege. Thus, despite cultural myths about effort, the U.S. remains a country where the accident of anyone’s birth is a greater indicator of success than how hard anyone tries. It’s time we stopped pretending otherwise.
Paul L. Thomas is an associate professor of education at Furman University.