The room also served as the main reading room of the “library” that was their house, the room where the bound set of Thackeray and the Dr. Eliot’s Five Foot Shelf of books added a certain leathery patina and smell. It was also the room where I could explore the books my grandfather had acquired over the years in response to his serial enthusiasms of the moment. There were textbooks for dozens of languages, books on various facets of engineering and on photography, books on nature filled with gorgeous color plates of The Apples of New York and The Fishes of the Great Lakes, or maybe it was the North Atlantic. There were even a few books on sports, golf in particular.
I didn’t ever know my grandfather terribly well, as he was in ill-health for much of my sentient childhood, and I never heard him say it, but he was quoted by those who should know (that is, by students and teaching colleagues, the folks for whom he saved his best thoughts) as having proclaimed that “A thing worth doing is worth doing poorly.”
Of course, we live in an age when we are told that persistence, mastery—grit!—is the sine qua non of meaningful living. We’re told to devote our lives to whatever matters to us, to repeat as necessary (and The Gladwell has decreed that 10,000 times are necessary), until we have broken through the barriers of weakness of character and failure that leave those less gritty lying in the dust. Poor sad souls.
So there was my grandfather, child of immigrants and a college scholarship boy who gave up his chance to be a doctor in order to become a Latin teacher (thus alienating himself from his parents forever and aye). At the age of forty he chucked a steady teaching gig to start his own initially wobbly school. He would score low on the Grit Scale. Poor sad, quixotic soul.
So, Gritless Wonder that I must be, I find myself considering that the whole “grit” thing might just be more than a little over-blown. The recent critique that has been waged in the blogs of educators I admire (like Ira Socoland Josie Holford) seems to be onto something, suggesting as it does that prescribing persistence for victims as an band-aid for systemic social failures is more than a little bit facile and cruel.
There’s grit, and there’s grit: heavy-duty, damn-life’s-torpedoes streetwise stubbornness versus good do-bee persistence—and what educator isn’t for persistence when it matters when it comes to schoolwork? But an educator I worked for once noted that “sometimes giving up in a no-win situation is a sign of intelligence,” and there are students who have been dealt hands that no amount of extra effort on homework will turn into winners; grit alone won’t do it, and the mental and emotional energy to sustain this kind of grit are a price that no child should have to pay, although of course many do. I think that we need to focus more on fixing the no-win situations than on worrying about who has grit and who doesn’t.
And as for the grit enthusiasts among us, let’s keep in mind that there’s a difference between persistence and heroism, and that we oughtn’t to be demanding heroism from every disadvantaged kid—at least until we’re ready, 24/7, to demand it from ourselves. Let’s focus not on heroism, nor grit, nor “accepting no excuses,” but rather on something we can all own to.
In response to yet another post on this grit business, Laura Deisleycites Chris Lehman’s call for an “Ethic of Care,” a response to what she beautifully describes at kids’ “yearning for relationship and purpose.”
An Ethic of Care just beats grit all hollow.