Ever since Paul Tough popularized the idea of “grit” (e.g., determination, persistence) in his best-selling book How Children Succeed as the key ingredient in how children can succeed despite their circumstances, grit has entered educational discourse as a remedy for poverty. Character education, always an embedded staple in American education, went explicit. It was not enough to have a code of behavior or discipline, but it became a necessity in some schools to teach grit or character. KIPP, which was a major player in Tough’s book, became an exemplar for teaching “grit” to poor kids.


Jeff Snyder of Carleton College signed up to take a month-long online course with Dave Levin, the co-founder of KIPP to learn more about KIPP’s character education program. He was enthusiastic when he started but disillusioned by the time the course ended.


First, he asserts, despite the hoopla, no one really knows how to teach character or even grit.


Second, it may be impossible to teach character without any relationship to morality. The current approach, he writes, “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.” He suggests that fraudster Bernie Madoff had “grit,” he was certainly hard-working and persistent, but he lacked morality.


Third, this mode of education drastically constricts the overall purpose of education. Grit is supposed to facilitate college and career readiness. It is supposed to close the achievement gap. It is utilitarian. It drives towards certain goals and necessarily overlooks other goals of schooling. Snyder writes: “Gone are any traditional concerns with good and evil or citizenship and the commonweal. Gone, too, the impetus to bring youngsters into the fold of a community that is larger than themselves—a hopelessly outdated sentiment, according to the new character education evangelists. Virtue is no longer its own reward.”