ISDA’s GED and Work Study Program serves students from low income and at-risk backgrounds in Ajo. The description of the work study portion of the program boasts that “our work-study coordinator and supervisors from the local business community serve as mentors to the students to help them build life skills including being on time, calling employers if they’re unable to work, and good decision making- working through any difficulty that arises in their day” (ISDA Pamphlet 2017.) As I mentioned in my class presentation, this language and focus on trying to teach students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds how to better work through difficulties refers to a concept called “grit” or resilience/perseverance, which is frequently discussed in education literature. Recently popularized by works such as psychologist Angela Duckworth’s book titled Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, the idea is that teaching grit explicitly to at-risk students may be a powerful tool for empowering them to overcome obstacles. However, there are many criticisms associated with this paradigm due to grit education being targeted specifically at at-risk students and to issues with how it might best be taught.
First, one might examine the historical basis of grit within an educational context. Since the late 1800s the term has been associated with Horatio Alger-type stories of individuals overcoming disadvantages such as poverty, racism, etc. to succeed against the odds. Such stories were largely written to inspire upper middle class and wealthy children to learn a lesson from their lower income peers and work harder to overcome obstacles in their own lives: “[Grit] has been a useful concept that middle and upper-class adults can employ to justify their own children’s shortcomings, and perhaps to overcome them. Grit functions as a proxy for a type of character-building that privilege prevents” (“Grit: A Short History of a Useful Concept” by Ethan Ris; Journal of Educational Controversy: 2015).
In tandem with contemporary educational emphasis and research on reducing high school dropout rates and the continued War on Poverty, grit has continued to be cited as a prized noncognitive skill, but it has recently been applied to capacity-building programs, such as ISDA’s GED/Work Study Program, for at-risk students. The problem with suddenly focusing capacity-building programs on instilling grit in students from disadvantaged backgrounds is that for the most part these children have been developing grit their whole lives. Indeed, “what better milieu for developing grit than facing the hardships of poverty and surviving? Poor children, therefore, are not the ones who need to be taught grit […] they are the ones who have historically taught it to the rest of us” (Ris 2015).
Admittedly, one may argue that even if students from disadvantaged backgrounds already possess a certain amount of grit, there is no harm in trying to augment this characteristic, a point on which scholars may concur. However, as educational scholar Mike Rose notes, “when the emphasis on character focuses on the individual attributes of poor children as the reason for their sub-par academic performance, that can distract us from making bigger and deeper policy changes that will address poverty and educational inequality” (“Being Careful About Character” by Mike Rose; Phi Delta Kappan: 2013). This might be a particular criticism of ISDA’s approach not just to student education but also to addressing problems in Ajo, that the organization focuses heavily on individual efforts but, outside of economic development, does not necessarily work to address structural causes of those issues.