Friday, July 25, 2014

Hope, Poverty, and Grit

Calling on our political leaders and plutocrats to show some grit.

When I was a kid “grit” was the stuff that was left in the bottom of the bath tub after I showered following a full day spent on a dusty baseball field. “Grit” was also the stuff in the Lava soap my auto mechanic father used to get the grease off his hands at the end of the work day.

Now the word “grit” has morphed into one more way for the corporate education reformers to blame children, teachers and parents for what they perceive as the shortcomings of public education. Apparently, American school children lack grit and their teachers and parents are failing to instill it in them.

Angela Duckworth, the University of Pennsylvania psychology professor who coined the term, defines grit as "This quality of being able to sustain your passions, and also work really hard at them, over really disappointingly long periods of time.”

I admit by that definition I am not very gritty myself. My father didn’t know grit from shinola, but he often lamented my lack of it. I had a passion for baseball, but couldn’t hit a lick. My dad said I wasn’t trying hard enough. I believed him, so I practiced more, got extra coaching and still couldn’t hit a lick. My dad said I was too lazy to practice enough. I eventually gave up my dreams of being a major league baseball player. See – a grit deficit.

In ninth grade my grit was put to the ultimate test, I was assigned to read Silas Marner, by George Eliot. I tried to grit it out. I read the first chapter. I read most of the second chapter. That was it. I gave up the ghost. It didn’t make any sense of me and even thinking about the novel today makes start to yawn. Fortunately, my copy of the dreaded Silas had the John Steinbeck novella, The Red Pony, in the back. I loved that. I read it in one sitting. I then read every other book that Steinbeck had ever written (I started with the short ones and worked my up to The Grapes of Wrath). Once again my grit failed me, but fortunately a new passion was found, Steinbeck, and through that passion I developed some literary grit.

I am thinking about grit today in light of a column by Nicholas Kristof in Thursday’s New York Times, An Idiot’s Guide to Inequality. Among many other important things Kristof says is this, “Inequality causes problems by creating fissures in societies, leaving those at the bottom feeling marginalized or disenfranchised.”

This leads me to a question. How can we develop grit in children who feel marginalized and disenfranchised? I am reminded of a line in the song To Be a Man by the folk singer, Len Chandler, “If you give a boy just half a chance, he might become just half a man.” Becoming a fully functioning man or woman demands a full chance. With income inequality rising and 25% of our children living in poverty, we are guaranteeing that one-quarter of our kids don’t get even that half a chance.

The one element I believe we must acknowledge as a prerequisite to the development of grit is hope. Hope of achieving your goals. Hope that allows you to set goals. Hope of a life less burdened by material and emotional deprivation. Hope of fulfilling work. Hope of making an impact for better in the world. If you are feeling, in Kristof’s words, “marginalized and disenfranchised”, where does that hope come from? In this country, we are systematically destroying the hopes of 25% of our children through the pernicious effects of poverty and income inequality.

But the corporate education reformers say that teachers must help children develop grit. The truth is that teachers, including those working with our throw away children in poverty, have helped students cultivate their passions and learn to stick it out when the going gets tough. But it is also the truth that those who do emerge from grinding poverty to the kind of success we want for all of our kids are outliers, exceptions to the rule. Poverty, for far too many, defeats grit.

I would like to see some grit from the political leaders and wealthy plutocrats supporting education reform. I would like to see the kind of grit that makes them want to defeat poverty, not by battering teachers and teachers unions, but by championing policies that lessen inequality. As Paul Krugman has shown, inequality is not inevitable; it is political. Policies and practices can make a difference. It will be hard work. It will take determination. It will take time. It will take a huge effort.

Do our political leaders and 1%ers have the grit to see it through?