Due to the success of Paul Tough’s book “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character,” the corporate reformers seized on the idea that what is needed for academic success is not just strict discipline and constant test prep, but GRIT. Grit, meaning perseverance.

As Alfie Kohn writes, the original interest in noncognitive skills focused on emotional intelligence.

He writes:

“Education experts have long known that there is more to success — in school or in life — than cognitive ability. That recognition got a big boost with science writer Dan Goleman’s book Emotional Intelligence in 1996, which emphasized the importance of self-awareness, altruism, personal motivation, empathy, and the ability to love and be loved.

“But a funny thing has happened to the message since then. When you hear about the limits of IQ these days, it’s usually in the context of a conservative narrative that emphasizes not altruism or empathy but something that sounds suspiciously like the Protestant work ethic. More than smarts, we’re told, what kids need to succeed is old-fashioned grit and perseverance, self-discipline and will power. The goal is to make sure they’ll be able to resist temptation, override their unconstructive impulses, and put off doing what they enjoy in order to grind through whatever they’ve been told to do. (I examined this issue in an earlier essay called “Why Self-Discipline is Overrated.”)

“Closely connected to this sensibility is the proposition that children benefit from plenty of bracing experiences with frustration and failure. Ostensibly this will motivate them to try even harder next time and prepare them for the rigors of the unforgiving Real World. However, it’s also said that children don’t get enough of these experiences because they’re overprotected by well-meaning but clueless adults who hover too close and catch them every time they stumble.”

Grit is the new term for an emotional disposition to comply, obey, do the job no matter how unpleasant. Persevere.

Now, perseverance is a good trait. Teachers have always taught children to persevere. But the US DOE is now trying to figure out how to measure grit. Another opportunity to measure, rank, and rate kids.

A few months ago, Paul Tough wrote a gripping story about a commercial fisherman who fell off the boat at 3 a.m,, with no life preserver, forty miles from land. It was a cover story on the Néw York Times magazine. The man ingeniously came up with strategies of survival, and he miraculously stayed afloat until he was found by a helicopter rescue team.

I sent an email to Paul to tell him how much I enjoyed reading the story. I added, “that guy really had grit, but how were his test scores?” Paul responded that he did indeed demonstrate grit, and he doubted his test scores were very high.

What can we learn from this story?