Lauren Anderson, a professor at Connecticut
probes the upsurge in interest in the concept of “grit”

and “character” and concludes that it is just another form of
“blaming the victim.” She is especially critical of the work of
Angela Duckworth, who recently won a MacArthur “genius” award.
Duckworth has emerged as the leading academic in “grit” studies.
Anderson takes the “grit” narrative to mean that students could
cure their own poverty if only they were willing to try harder. In
that sense, their failure in the classroom or in life is their own
fault, not the fault of social and economic structures into which
they were born and which they do not control.

Anderson situates the current attention to “grit” in a historical
context as “an appealing policy target for those who believe that
if we could just cultivate the “right” qualities among the
“low-achieving” then they would be able to transcend conditions of
poverty and other obstacles in their way. With more grit, they.
Could overcome. Couched in the language of innovation, these ideas
are among the least innovative in our field.
They reflect long legacies of victim-blaming, the tendency
(especially among the privileged) to emphasize individualism and
personal traits over material conditions and social structures, as
the core determinants of academic “success.” And they help to
perpetuate dual, deeply-held myths about equality of opportunity
and meritocracy–myths that hold intuitive appeal for many of us
because, like the Horatio Alger tale, they explain our achievements
as the earned products of our own hard work.”

reviewing Duckworth’s statement for the MacArthur award, Anderson
was surprised to see her reference and quote from the work of Sir
Frances Galton, who had views that today are recognized as racist,
deeply rooted in the belief that different races have different
intellectual levels. Anderson asks,

  • What are we to make of a
    2013 “genius” award winner quoting unproblematically the ‘founding
    father’ of eugenics in the opening paragraph of her research
    statement, even as her research engages young people of color? What
    are we to make of this particular line of scholarship–so
    individualistic in nature, so far from a structural
    critique–gaining such favor in these times of gross inequity? If
    education is ‘the civil rights issue’ of our time–as so many
    reform entities, including those supporting the scholarship in
    question, often claim–what are we to make of a research agenda
    that explicitly names as its foundation a text steeped in eugenic

The underlying
question is to what extent the current interest in “grit,” even in
the highest policy circles in Washington, D.C., represents a deeply
disturbing way of framing problems not as a need to change society
but as a problem inherent in those individuals who don’t “make it.”
If they live in poverty, it is because they have not cultivated the
right kind of character traits, like

Funny, if we look at the issue from the
other end of the telescope, we might ask whether the children who
live in affluent circumstances are possessed of unusual amounts of
“grit” and “character.” Well, no, they were born to families that
already had a lot of money. They have no more grit or character
than children living in housing projects. They are what Michael
Young, in a preface to The Rise of the
, calls “the Lucky Sperm Club.” Lauren
Anderson opens up a line of questioning that the political elites
of our day would rather not confront. Character and grit will get
you just so far. What matters ultimately is a society that truly
provides equality of opportunity. You don’t have to be a genius to
see that inequality of income is growing, inequality of wealth is
growing, and that inequality of opportunity has become the norm.

No amount of grit on the part of teens can change those
facts unless we have leadership with the grit to make it