Is Grit the Magic Elixir of Good Character?

MacArthur-prize ‘genius’ Angela Duckworth has published her long awaited first book, GRIT: The Power of Passion and Perseverance (Scriber, 2016). Previously, Duckworth’s co-authored 2007 academic paper on the topic has been cited 1,157 times, according to Google Scholar, and her six-minute Ted Talk from 2013 on the subject of grit has been watched more than 8.4 million times.

The new book has been receiving copious attention and raving reviews, especially in the popular media. Judging from those, grit is the best thing since sliced bread, and realising its potential to transform lives marks a true epiphany in the field of character studies. Notably, there have also been some scathing reviews from academics who accuse Duckworth of conservatism, anti-egalitarianism and even racism.

As often the truth lies, in our view, somewhere in between those extreme reactions. The research on grit is interesting, but there is so far too little of it. Hence, Duckworth’s conceptualisations, the empirical work underlying those conceptualisations and, in particular, the developmental and educational implications she draws from her work are all under-developed and premature. The jury is still out – and is likely to be so for a while yet – on whether grit is the new magic elixir of good character or just another snake-oil.

The fundamental thesis about grit is simple. It is a trait of character more powerful than IQ or talent in predicting life satisfaction and life success. The ‘plodders’ (p. 21) can tread where the luminaries stumble, just if they have enough grit. Those who come to this book expecting a deep philosophical argument, or summaries of extensive psychological and educational research, will be disappointed.

GRIT is, after all, not a scholarly work but one written in the style of self-help books, with generous helpings of ‘just-so’ stories about Duckworth herself and her family and friends, and also various other ‘grit paragons’ from whom we are prompted to take our cue. Readers must begin by ploughing through numerous stories of this kind and wait until Chapter 3 for any show of an argument. Duckworth seems insensitive to worries that have been expressed about the potential of paragon-and-role-model education to disempower rather than empower, and to produce grovelling, uncritical hero-worship.

There are many other and more substantive worries, however, lurking in the background, and when we read through the book, we were concerned by Duckworth’s lack of attention to many of those.

Partly this lack can be explained by the nature of the readership at which the book is pitched: enlightened members of the general public rather than academics. Partly it may be traceable to Duckworth’s self-confessed dislike of confrontations and conflict (p. 130). There is precious little of the gladiatorial mind-set in Duckworth that revels in anticipating objections, chewing on counter-examples and spurting out fiery retorts. Rather, Duckworth prefers the tone of the charismatic educator who draws the audience in with an uncomplicated, buoyant message.

In a review essay that has been posted on the Jubilee Centre’s Insight Series, we explore our worries in some detail. We hope readers take time to read through this essay and reflect critically on the pros and cons of Duckworth’s conceptualisations.

Despite all our misgivings, we do not think that GRIT has been written in vain. It provides considerable food for thought and suggests exciting venues for future research. It also does well in reminding us of the proverbial truth of how far sheer determination can take you in life even if the odds are stacked against you. We particularly appreciate pages 273–274 in the book, where Duckworth talks about the limited scope of grit and the need for a moral compass. If Duckworth had started, rather than ended, with the content of those pages, and used it as a springboard of her argumentation, the core message of the book would have been much more persuasive.

Professor James Arthur, Director, Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues

Professor Kristján Kristjánsson, Deputy Director, Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues

Professor Steve Thoma, Professor of Moral Psychology and Psychometrics, Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, and University of Alabama

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