grit, or the moralist’s fable about education

Pour more dirt on grit. It seems that, with a representative sample, when you throw grit into a regression along with measures of intelligence, grit just explains very little on its own. Grit just doesn’t contribute much at all to educational outcomes and has limited application in job-market success. In fact intelligence “contributes 48–90 times more than grit to educational success.” 1 More study is needed etc etc and I’ll wait for a good metastudy but still, it really isn’t looking good.

Grit has been the subject of a great deal of media attention, in part because of Angela Duckworth’s talent for promotion but more because people desperately wanted it to be true: hard work is what matters. Stick-to-it-tiveness. If you believe you can achieve. The only place where success comes before work is in the dictionary. And so on. The story of grit was the story that people wanted to tell. It suggested a moral universe, a benevolent order to things. It’s a nice story to tell people, that you can achieve anything with hard work. But better research suggests, nope, it’s more important to be intelligent and (I’m sorry folks) intelligence is not evenly distributed throughout the population.

And this explains a lot of reactions to my book. People don’t want it to be true that different students have different levels of baseline ability. It offends their sense of justice. They insist to believe it means you are willing to “leave kids behind.” It undermines the Horatio Alger myth of the self-made man, which is the American gospel. It undermines people’s ability to bash teachers and their unions, which is often the ultimate purpose of these discussions. It challenges the education-economic system in which all of them have been winners. It’s unfair, and Lord knows, unfair things can’t be true.

Ultimately, my response to people who reject any talk of any genetic influence on academic ability whatsoever is to say, “I don’t believe you.” Because I don’t. I don’t think they believe that; I think they want to believe that.

I sometimes want to ask, do people think I want it to be the case that some students have a higher level of baseline ability? That I would prefer that some students be born at third base while others struggle at the plate? I viscerally rejected the conclusion that some people have a different level of baseline academic ability than others. The idea offended my sensibilities as a supporter of existentialism, which is a belief in the capacity for radical self-invention. And it offended my egalitarian impulses as a leftist.

But I have been a teacher for 20 years, despite not yet turning 40, and every day it became clearer and clearer that not all students had the same gifts. Yes, of course, some of this variation is environmental. Of course it’s complicated. Of course I’ll never be able to understand all the science. But the realities of teaching and of having grown up in a school system where some students were so similar in so many ways but had such vastly different outcomes just wore me down every day. And then I discovered the behavioral genetics research and its description of how, for example, adopted siblings growing up in the same house and family would go on to totally different academic outcomes. I did not celebrate. I did give in. Because life’s not fair, and neither is school. And pretending like everyone has an equal shot at succeeding in either is the greatest cruelty I know.

  1. Older studies, this study asserts, have failed due to a restriction of range; I wrote about restriction of range and its problems here