Other writers have criticized the concept of “grit” on grounds that it seems to suggest that poor kids are poor because they don’t try hard enough, and that this shifts the responsibility for poverty for the economic system to the individuals. So many privileged kids seem to float through life on a soft pillow that it is hard to credit their success in school or life to grit, since their families smooth their paths for them as much as possible.

Jeffrey Aaron Snyder has other objections to grit. He signed up for an online course on grit education taught by David Levin of KIPP and the more he learned, the less impressed he was.

What is grit? He explains:

“Inspired by the field of positive psychology, character education at KIPP focuses on seven character strengths—grit, zest, self-control, optimism, gratitude, social intelligence, and curiosity. These seven strengths are presented as positive predictors of success in “college and life.” Grit, for example—a term Angela Duckworth used to mean “perseverance and passion for long-term goals”—has been shown to correlate with grade point averages and graduation rates. Levin envisions that character education will be woven into “the DNA” of KIPP’s classrooms and schools, especially via “dual purpose” instruction that is intended to explicitly teach both academic and character aims.”

But Snyder found three reasons to doubt what he was taught.

“There are three major problems with the new character education. The first is that we do not know how to teach character. The second is that character-based education is untethered from any conception of morality. And lastly, this mode of education drastically constricts the overall purpose of education.

“There may be an increasingly cogent “science of character,” as Levin says in the introductory video to his online class, but there is no science of teaching character. “Do we even know for sure that you can teach it?” Duckworth asks about grit in the same online video. Her answer: “No, we don’t.” We may discover that the most “desirable” character traits are largely inherited; stubbornly resistant to educational interventions; or both. We already know that grit is strongly correlated with “conscientiousness,” one of the Big Five personality traits that psychologists view as stable and hereditary. A recent report emphasizes that simply “knowing that noncognitive factors matter is not the same as knowing how to develop them in students.” The report concludes that “clear, actionable strategies for classroom practice” are few and far between. Consider the fact that the world’s “grittiest” students, including Chinese students who log some of the longest hours on their homework, have never been exposed to a formal curriculum that teaches perseverance.”

Snyder finds grit detached from any moral values. He writes:

“The second problem with the new character education is that it unwittingly promotes an amoral and careerist “looking out for number one” point-of-view. Never before has character education been so completely untethered from morals, values, and ethics. From the inception of our public school system in the 1840s and 1850s, character education has revolved around religious and civic virtues. Steeped in Protestantism and republicanism, the key virtues taught during the nineteenth-century were piety, industry, kindness, honesty, thrift, and patriotism. During the Progressive era, character education concentrated on the twin ideas of citizenship and the “common good.” As an influential 1918 report on “moral values” put it, character education “makes for a better America by helping its pupils to make themselves better persons.” In the 1960s and 1970s, meanwhile, character education focused on justice and working through thorny moral dilemmas.

“Today’s grit and self-control are basically industry and temperance in the guise of psychological constructs rather than moral imperatives. Why is this distinction important? While it takes grit and self-control to be a successful heart surgeon, the same could be said about a suicide bomber. When your character education scheme fails to distinguish between doctors and terrorists, heroes and villains, it would appear to have a basic flaw. Following the KIPP growth card protocol, Bernie Madoff’s character point average, for instance, would be stellar. He was, by most accounts, an extremely hard working, charming, wildly optimistic man.”

It could be that grit is the same thing as character, in which case it is nothing new.

Funny, when I was in elementary school in the 1940s, we had one long row of grades for academics and another long row for behavior. Today it would be called grit.