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In Which I Confess to Lacking Grit, Apparently, and Blame It on Family


The most exciting place I knew growing up was the “everyday” living room of my grandparents’ house. It was just across the street, so I could go there whenever I wanted. 
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.”

What a shocking line from a respected educator! But yet, he had a point that I fully and completely embrace: that one doesn’t need to be an past master, a single-minded obsessive, a ninth-degree adept to enjoy doing something or learning about it. The Expert may be an American icon, but there is no reason that someone should have to be fluent in, say, Dutch to be interested in it as a language or to memorize the scientific names and characteristics of every apple in the Empire State to appreciate the glory of upstate apple-ness.

For my grandfather, this dilettante’s approach to learning a few things (and sometimes more) about quite a lot of things was a source of intellectual and emotional joy. He wasn’t interested in throwing his knowledge around at cocktail parties, although I daresay he might have unintentionally done so; he just liked learning stuff. 

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.

I realize that my own household has taken on some of the characteristics of that living room; my Amazon account and my forays into the world of library book sales, where my spouse is a disciplined shopper and I buy like a sailor on a spree, are all the proof anyone would need to convict me of sharing my grandfather’s lack of grit.

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.

The point of my grandfather’s saying, I think, is that in the end a thing worth doing is a thing worth doing. Sometimes we may achieve full mastery, and sometimes we can only do the best we can. Whether we’re up for 10,000 repetitions, or whether we just want a taste and then to move on, his belief and mine are that curiosity and enthusiasm are felicitous starting points for the exploration of a world of wonders. I’d rather have my recollections of poking around in my grandfather’s library than be under the compulsion to prove how much grit I have. I think, old-school teacher that he was, that my grandfather would agree.

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.

  1. I’ll echo the comment above and point out the similarities of your thoughts to the practices at Sudbury valley School and schools like it. Thanks for writing this piece.

    • And you may know that I am a former SVS parent, so I guess I have already passed down my comfort with the exploration of multiple interests and curiosity driving action to yet another generation.

      Here’s an example: One of my non-SVS kids became interested in fencing. He worked hard at it for a few years, set himself a couple of goals, and achieved them. He could have been highly recruited for college, but he decided before senior year he wanted to have the time and energy to explore all the opportunities that a college would offer, and he refused to engage in the recruiting process. He fenced hard through the school season his senior year, ended the season with a great victory, and put away his sword. His club coaches were disappointed, and even his parents had mixed emotions, but he was clear on who he was and what he wanted. Enough was enough. We won’t be watching him at the NCAAs or perhaps even the Olympic Trials, but he found what he needed to find in the sport and moved on. Gritless? Not to me, but if Paul Tough and Malcolm Gladwell might judge him so, I say, “Tough.”

      I’d love to get away from the perceived need to unschool by designing more schools and school experiences that honor and nourish the interests of kids. We seem to believe that every interest must become a passion, but sometimes an interest is just an interest. How, for example, do we discover what really doesn’t interest us without a bit of exploration?

  2. Peter, thank you for this. I’m a career educator and decided to unschool my 4 boys. I want them to experience anything and everything to learn and be curious, with zero pressure to master it or even be good at it. Otherwise they aren’t learning for themselves; they are learning for someone else. I’m thrilled that schools are finally discussing how to put the students at the center of the education process. And I would argue that in these conversations we want to make sure that we talk not about “schooling” but rather about “learning.” Thanks for what you do to facilitate these conversations!