All this talk about "grit" and "growth mindset" as a means to get students to think in such a way as to "erase" the realities of the difficult circumstances in which they live seems to me as a way for politicians and educators to absolve themselves from the guilt of the inequality and inequity that exists in our society. Instead of advocating for the less fortunate and calling attention to how those with the most resources are exploiting the system and rigging it in their favor, we are being told as educators we simply need to tell students to engage in the "power of positive thinking" and they will be able to overcome their lives of misery and misfortune. It is the "bootstrap myth" now wrapped up in new clothes termed as "grit" and "growth mindset." What do we tell students 10 or 20 years later with the myths have faded and their lives haven't been magically transformed by the "power of positive thinking?"
I didn't exactly grow up in the level of poverty and misery that I often hear many of my students experience, but I did grow up with a family of five kids and two parents who worked incessantly to provide for us. We perhaps did not live in hunger as some kids experience today, and I can say I always had a coat and shoes to wear. But, I was all too well aware that I did not always have the things my classmates had: a car to drive to school bought by my parents, the most fashionable clothes, or the latest gadgets. I was often aware that money was tight, which meant that I sometimes had to work in order to pay for some of the things I wanted, like my high school class ring or those senior field trips. Those who adhere to the "bootstrap mythology" would say I perhaps was a better person because of this. Perhaps, but is there not something fundamentally amiss here? Still, why is it that some don't even have to worry about "pulling themselves up by bootstraps" and others do not. All of this reminds of one instance where my own family circumstances had a direct impact on my class performance, and no one ever knew.
My sophomore year in high school I took a world history class. A major assignment for this class was the creation of a scrapbook of newspaper articles on current events. The teacher's requirement was that each article had to cover current events in a foreign country, and the final grade for the course was, in part, based on my ability to cut and paste articles from countries around the world. The broader the international representation of articles, the better the final grade at the end of the semester. Sounds like an easy assignment, right?
It turns out I did not do well with this assignment. Why? As I mentioned earlier, my family was large and money was tight, so it turned out that they only newspaper I had access to was our hometown newspaper, which, if I was lucky, during an entire week, it might have a single article covering an international event. This meant that it was very difficult for me to collect international current event articles for this major assignment. In the end, this translated into a much lower grade for this course, not because of my knowledge of the content, but because my parents did not subscribe the correct newspapers.
Now those who aspire to the "grit" philosophy would say that I was perhaps not resourceful enough; that I gave in too easily. Surely I could have scrounged up 25 cents for a more comprehensive and internationally focused newspaper, they say. Perhaps in my "closed mindset" I just discounted any opportunities that existed for me to properly complete the assignment. After all, I only needed to let the teacher know of my predicament and she would have helped me locate resources. Well, all that may be, but what about the lack of consideration by the teacher in the first place? This teacher just assumed that her students would have access to regular newspapers that consistently captured international current events. In the end I was not graded on my ability to understand world history, but on the simple fact that my family did not subscribe to a daily newspaper that covered more events than the local watermelon festival.
I say all this to emphasize that when we talk about "grit" and "growth mindsets," we have to be very careful that we do not use that as an excuse to totally ignore where our students are coming from. Putting unrealistic hurdles in front of our students, and justifying them by saying that they will help them grow is utter nonsense. We can't ignore the impact of our students' backgrounds when it comes to their achievement. Sometimes the deck is stacked against them, and it is our job to step forward, and not use it as an excuse for poor performance, but use it as an opportunity to advocate for equity and social justice. Long ago, I quietly accepted my mediocre grade in that world history course. No one ever knew the real reasons why I did not have 50 articles in my scrapbook. I suspect many of our students today do the same. The ideas of 'Grit' and 'Growth Mindset' should never be used to ignore the poverty and lack of our students; real worlds.