Grit v. Knowledge: Round 2

For the past year, as part of a project on entrepreneurial education, I have been reading Adam Bryant’s smart and entertaining New York Times Corner Office” column Sunday mornings.  Each column profiles a successful entrepreneur or CEO, in a Q & A format, and focuses on the person’s background, his or her first business experiences, path to success, and opinions about what is most important in creating and managing a successful business.

Not surprisingly, these successful entrepreneurs share a number of characteristics, including determination and perseverance. In an interview from last August, for instance, Sunny Gupta, the C.E.O. of Apptio, which helps companies manage Internet technology spending, recalls that his father could only afford to give him $2,000 and a plane ticket from India to the U.S., so Sunny worked odd jobs, including washing dishes and moving furniture to help pay for his education. And, he wrote, “I studied like crazy and got a full scholarship. Then I applied to be the intern for the president of the university. I told them I was like Avis — I’m just going to work harder than anybody else.”

Or, a few weeks ago, Lynn Good, chief executive of Duke Energy, who told Bryant that she had an “ordinary” childhood, highlighted the fact that her parents “taught us about responsibility” and “demonstrated accountability to me through actions.”

Much of what we read in these “Corner Office” conversations would certainly justify Paul Tough’s applause for “persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit, and self-confidence” – traits that he wrote about in his recent bestseller, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character – and subject of an IdeaLab essay last week.  But reading between the lines of the “Corner Office” interviews I began to notice the unmistakable signs of the “cognitive hypothesis” that Tough argued was not important to success. Sunny Gupta’s father, for example, though not rich, was India’s secretary of education. His mother’s family “was all entrepreneurs,” and Sunny, before all his dishwashing and furniture moving hard work to earn a full scholarship at the University of South Carolina, had earned a partial scholarship there “because of my SAT scores.”

Lynn Good’s ordinary childhood included the fact that her WWII veteran father was a high school principal and her mother was a teacher.

I also began to notice, as I read Bryant’s interviews, that almost none of his subjects was African-American and few if any had grown up poor.* Alas, despite Tough’s assertion that “what matters most” is not “how much information” a person knows, Bryant’s subjects, though certainly gritty and persistent, all show signs of having a remarkable background in knowledge acquisition (e.g. professional parents, high SATs, college degrees) and, as Dan Willingham said in last week’s story, probably earned their success by putting their grit at the service of learning, including, most likely, making the most of vocabulary-building opportunities; opportunities, as Motoko Rich reported in a recent front-page New York Times story, are crucial to future success. (For a wonderfully succinct explication of the landmark study and what it means, see John Merrow 2011 essay. And in a similarly placed story (on the Times front page) a couple of weeks before Rich’s, colleague Pam Belluck reported that a new study in the journal Science had found that “after reading literary fiction, as opposed to popular fiction or serious nonfiction, people performed better on tests measuring empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence – skills that come in especially handy when you are trying to read someone’s body language or gauge what they might be thinking.”)

These studies, like the subjects of the “Corner Office,” undermine Tough’s assertion that “What matters most in a child’s development… is not how much information we can stuff into her brain in the first few years. What matters instead is whether we are able to help her develop a very different set of qualities, a list that includes “persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness…,” etc.

In other words, contrary to Tough’s assertion that “we have been focusing on the wrong skills and abilities in our children” (what he calls “the cognitive skills—the kind of intelligence that gets measured on IQ tests, including the abilities to recognize letters and words”), it would appear, especially for the poor in our inner cities, that we have not been focusing enough on those skills. Bryant’s successful entrepreneurs – as well as Rich’s vocabulary champs and Belluck’s literary cognoscenti –  suggest that Tough’s got it wrong.

As I noted in my first grit essay, Tough himself, on page 146 of his book, found “a fundamental qualification of his argument,” as E.D. Hirsch wrote in his review of the book. That qualification was a gritty young chess champion who “couldn’t locate Africa or Asia on a map” and couldn’t get into one of New York City’s selective high schools.

And why is this a ‘qualification’? Because it undermines the notion that content is irrelevant to future success. Although Tough does not carry this discovery to its logical conclusion, his is a tacit confession that this young chess champion’s options in life will be limited because of severe knowledge deficits, not grit deficits. It seems obvious to the reader why young James couldn’t read a map – he wasn’t taught it in school – but Tough himself avoids such a conclusion.

The fundamental error with Tough’s work is his attempt to take down the so-called ‘cognitive-hypothesis’ without acknowledging that hard knowledge is the “stuff” that perseverance must work with to advance meaningful life opportunities. They are not mutually exclusive. We learn grit through the hard work of doing homework, writing difficult essays, memorizing dates, and living in art history.

“The critical missing element in Tough’s otherwise informative book is the phrase `other things being equal,” says Hirsch. “He effectively shows that people who have more grit, character, and persistence will succeed better than those who have less, other things equal.”

Thus, Bryant’s “Corner Office” subjects succeed because of grit, character, and persistence – but only compared to their peers who come from vocabulary-rich households and have good (knowledge-based) educations. Compared to kids who come from vocabulary poor households and education systems that don’t emphasize rich curriculum – well, there is no comparison.  They don’t appear in the “Corner Office,” just as James, the chess-whiz from page 146 of How Children Succeed, won’t gain access to a good high school.

In a brief 2012 essay called “Kiss my Grit” Nancy Flanagan, a Michigan Teacher of the Year, frames the issue much more accurately, arguing that “grit–courage and tenacity–is a very real thing in life success. It’s a huge part of why a student who was a complete academic washout in the 7th grade could now own his own millions-sold realty business, while students who aced their ACTs now find themselves with six-figure loans and no job after they run out of degrees to earn–cases from my personal teaching experience.”

So, yes, America does offer academic washouts avenues to “millions-sold” futures and does fail to guarantee college-grads valium-free loans. But these are the exceptions that prove the rule.

Flanagan does not jump on the Tough bandwagon.  The success of his book, she argues, is “the kind of meme around which you could build a week-long media blabfest, not to mention a whole lot of curricula, grading templates, books, radio shows and grant opportunities.” But that’s not how you teach grit, which is, she suggests, “something you learn by example and experience.” Help the kid up. Encourage her to try again. You don’t teach Grit 101, she says, you teach character in every class.

And these are classes in history, geography, literature, music, art, science – classes filled with knowledge about the world and how it works.

It is unfortunate, to borrow a phrase Hirsch  aimed at John Dewey, that Tough got hold of half-a-truth and has mistaken it for the whole.  Character counts. But so does knowledge.

-Peter Meyer

Please also read Peter Meyer’s first blog entry on this topic, “Paul Tough’s Grit Hypothesis Doesn’t Help Poor Kids

This first appeared on IdeaLab on the website of the CUNY Institute for Education Policy.

*Not long after this essay was first published, “Corner Office” profiled Dara Richardson-Heron, an African-American woman who is CEO of the Y.W.C.A.

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