Considering grit. Considering Dr. Duckworth.

People do not give it credence that a young girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father’s blood. But it did happen. I was just 14 years of age when….

True Grit by Charles Portis book coverTrue Grit, a novel by Charles Portis was written in 1968. The plot is a pretty basic revenge story: A man is killed. The killer’s identity is known to the man’s family. A member of the man’s family seeks out assistance and tracks down the killer. What makes the story unique is that the family member is a fourteen-year-old girl. A girl who initially seeks out the help of a man she feels has the strength of character to do what she needs to be done. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear to the reader that Mattie is the one with the traits to do what must be done. True Grit is her story.


The first time I saw this billboard, I seriously considered road raging. I did yell to my imaginary, sympathetic passengers as I drove by, “The movie isn’t about him! Who is he talking to? Whose son? What is the message you’re trying to send here?!?” Because come on! What is the point of this billboard?

So, it’s Mattie Ross that comes to mind when I hear the word. It was her name, face, and character that was firmly tucked in my background knowledge storage banks when I heard of Duckworth’s research around the concept of “grit.” My initial response was, “That’s awesome! I love Mattie Ross!” I was also excited to see Duckworth herself getting attention as it’s surprisingly uncommon for female researchers in education to reach the level of one word status*. Even rarer for that woman to be Asian American.

She did a lot of thinking and wondering and writing and testing her ideas. Her work was noticed. She received the McArthur Genius grant. She did a TedTalk. She did a Reddit AMA. She wrote a book. In all of these things, she references her definition of grit:

Grit is passion and perseverance for very long-term goals

This, to me, seems pretty simple. Mattie was grit made manifest not because someone was telling her she had to avenge her father’s death. She persevered because revenge mattered to her (as morally questionable as it might be.) My take away? If you’re asking kids to do things they have no interest in doing, that doesn’t connect to the long-term goals they hold, then it’s not about grit, it’s about something else.

Grit speaks to me on a fundamental level. I’ve spent time trying to figure out why that is and I’m still rolling it around. So I read the history of grit and I suspect some of why I connect comes from my German-Irish, white, middle-class upbringing which gets to aspects of privilege that are a part of my lived experiences. Which I’m always working to better understand. Yet, even as I sift and unpack the implications of privilege, grit doesn’t budge for me. I get it. I like it. It makes sense to me. Is it because I’ve achieved some things that were really hard and I want – or need  – a word to describe the thing in me that made it possible? At the same time, I know that KIPP’s “No Excuse” policy existed almost a decade before Duckworth came along so when I read comments that claim those who defend the concept of grit are doing harm to black and brown children, I feel my jaw clench.

Which is not to say the concept is above reproach. EduColor members critiqued issues with grit and the possible misuse several years ago. Ethan Ris suggests that grit has been packaged and sold in schools in a way that’s akin to what Ruby Payne did – offering a nice framework for white teachers and an inherently racist system to use as an excuse with regards to children of color. Those claims are absolutely worthy of discussion about what catches schools’ attention. About why some ideas feel like a balm to the teacher’s soul and just *feel* right.  That’s not about grit, though. That’s the “something else” I mentioned before and there is no magic number of essays on the problems of grit that’s going to solve whatever that else is.

That said, Duckworth doesn’t sell a product. She’s a researcher. She had a hunch, she followed it, and continues to follow it. Meanwhile, her research sits inside a world that is racist, sexist, and classist. As does the work of every single researcher. When you read Duckworth’s own words – not articles that talk about how others interpret her work – she’s incredibly nuanced and above all, very cautions about how her work can and should be used. She’s as bothered by the misuse as those writing so many words about the misuse.  Nothing I’ve seen in her writing suggests she’s offering a solution to poverty or that she thinks “grit” without “slack” is sufficient to right the wrongs in our schools. So why so much hate for Duckworth herself?

So here we are. A female, Asian American researcher saw a glimmer of something in the sparkly mess that is the human mind and moved in closer to inspect it. Since then, she’s been called racist. She’s been accused of  romanticizing poverty. She’s been called irresponsible and a sloppy researcher for citing psychologists who made eugenics a foundation for their work+. And not necessarily in academic journals but in her Twitter mentions and Facebook posts. I’ve tried to engage with those who attack her personally, not the idea but the researcher herself, and when the exchanges ends, I walk away with the sense they won’t be mollified unless she packs up her checklists, apologizes, and disappears from public view. That she owes them a “thank you, sir, for pointing out how wrong I was.”

She’s been called names. She’s been insulted and accused of being bad at her job. She kept writing. She kept researching and wondering. She keeps working on something she’s passionate about, despite being told she should stop and go away. If that’s not grit, what is it?

It’s a strange thing, Duckworth said, to have played a significant part in the creation of an idea, only to have that idea run away from you and create a life of its own. Source

*Make a list of the number of education researchers you know by their last name. Betcha more have male first names than female. (Results may vary based on your background.)

+The funniest/saddest part of making history a hobby is realizing that nearly everything in education is steeped in racism and sexism. Sexism runs so deep in the American education system that I can promise that almost any “schoolman” or education researcher from the 1800’s or early 1900’s had misogynistic beliefs that went to the bone. Heck – the man who is basically responsible for Kindergarten had disdain for women that is breathtaking in its candor.

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