Grit and its Discontents

Having been involved in creating media for K-12 teacher professional development (among many other educational topics over the years), I have seen many trends admirable or baleful blow through the zeitgeist.

A current obsession is ‘resilience’ (taking a role akin to positive psychology or learning styles in previous periods).  I am not qualified to say whether resilience, the practice of teaching with an eye to fostering individual self-agency, perseverance, learning from failure etc.  is actually, as is sometimes claimed, an approach with a neurological basis, or whether it reflects a sounder pedagogy that any others per se.  It certainly goes down easily (would a teacher want a kid not to be resilient? does anybody seek, except perhaps strategically in soap operas, want a reputation as ‘fragile’?)

And yet…

Some questions occur, prompted on my own and in part by a provocative talk called “Resilience, Grit, and Other Lies” given at a library conference and archived online.


A few natural questions, prompted by the talk and qualms I have had about this line of thinking. Individual self-efficacy is a fine notion, and experiences for students that foster it might have the potential to do good, but if they happen in circumstances that are structurally dysfunctional, couldn’t this backfire? Doesn’t self-efficacy (and by implication resilience) have a developmental dimension? How do you know what fosters it and when, versus just causing frustration. Is context not key?

More seriously, if individual resilience or grit is a key message, what happens to  responsibility beyond the individual student’s effort? Does it melt away when other units/dimensions are concerned? If you are in a significantly under-resourced school, are the inequalities that led to that reality ignored, are the people and systems responsible let off the hook with a shrug and the message that students can overcome based on grit?

I’m sure there is nuance I am missing–it can’t be just about individual merit full stop, and  good counter arguments to my skepticism must exist. To continue in the negative column, however, it is worth noting that resilience is a darling of Silicon Valley, which has among its ideological biases an emphasis on the individual rather than the any larger unit. (Shades of Maggie Thatcher’s “there is no such thing as society”). It is also true that resilience and its related pedagogies really caught fire around the time of the great recession, in which forces beyond most individuals’ personal control were abundant and highly visible. (And God knows, some solace, even if merely notional, was perhaps in order. )

Still, it seems on balance to perhaps to be notional in the sense that is mostly perhaps  a good story,  as if schooling was a narrative arc, ‘first there was such promise, then I struggled and there were terrible times, but I found my inner grit and triumphed.’  “You can do it, just hunker down and pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” It would make Dickens or better Horatio Alger smile.

Philosopher Robin James catches some of this “it makes a good story” –although situating it a sort of complicated context of pop music among other things.

“Resilience is a specific type of therapeutic overcoming. It has three steps: (1) perform damage so that others can see, feel, and understand it; (2) recycle or overcome that damage, so that you come out ahead of where you were even before the damage hit; (3) pay that surplus value–that value added by recycling–to some hegemonic institution, like white supremacist patriarchy, or capital, or the State, something like that. This isn’t just coping–it’s a very, very specific form of coping designed to get individuals to perform the superficial trappings of recovery from deep, systemic issues, all the while reinforcing and intensifying the very systemic issues it claims to solve. Resilience is how patriarchy hides behind superficial feminist liberation, how white supremacy hides behind superficial multiculturalism.” – Robin James, Resilience & Melancholy: Pop Music, Feminism, Neoliberalism

Horatio Alger, the apostle of grit from yesteryear.

​Not sure what I make of all of it…and still even see the appeal in “the story,” its potential to be an approach that could help inspire others, or yourself, to find perseverance and strength. But the ideological trappings are there too, and not at all comfortable. If you are interested in the topic, do listen to the presentation. One quotation, in particular, stayed with me, “We needed a revolution, we got resilience.” Alf Hornberg – Professor of Human Ecology, Lund University.


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