Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

Pedagogical Perseverance Past and Present: Chaucer Grades Grit

Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

Pedagogical Perseverance Past and Present: Chaucer Grades Grit

Article excerpt

Malcolm Gladwells latest bestseller examines the role of the underdog. In David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, he implores readers to reconsider the hidden strengths underdogs typically possess. Gladwell argues that "being an underdog can change people in ways that we often fail to appreciate: it can open doors and create opportunities and educate and enlighten and make possible what might otherwise have seemed unthinkable" (6, emphasis in original). Through illustrations of both famous and ordinary individuals, Gladwell frames their mindsets with these questions: "Should I play by the rules or follow my own instincts? Should I persevere or give up? Should I strike back or forgive?" (5). The second question echoes a trend that is now firmly entrenched in the educational milieu: the search for grit. Perhaps bolstered by pushback against cognitive-centered high-stakes testing, grit is a component of a newer focus upon the importance of noncognitive skills from scholars, teachers, and policymakers. Critics contend that

    These so-called noncognitive qualities are diverse and collectively
   facilitate goal-directed effort (e.g., grit, self-control, growth
   mind-set), healthy social relationships (e.g., gratitude, emotional
   intelligence, social belonging), and sound judgment and decision
   making (e.g., curiosity, open-mindedness). Longitudinal research
   has confirmed such qualities powerfully predict academic, economic,
   social, psychological, and physical well-being. (Duckworth and
   Yeager 237)

Grit is being championed as critical to student success, as important as cognitive ability and IQ. The importance of this ability to work hard and diligently for long-term goals, goals that do not produce instant gratification, can be seen in the work of practitioners and scholars, and even in mainstream culture, such as in Gladwell's most recent book.

Cultivating character has been a primary focus of education from Plato through the Middle Ages and remains so today. Today's increased focus on grit is the most recent manifestation of character education and stands in an interesting and, perhaps, challenging relation to how theologians and poets in the Middle Ages defined and illustrated grit. Grit, for the medievals, was a more-nuanced and complex idea, encompassing a wider-ranging spectrum of possibilities. Not only was grit played out on a supernatural scale (i.e., how grit assisted in achieving salvation), but the medievals more clearly saw the negative results that could accrue from misguided and misapplied grit. Medieval definitions and illustrations of this far-reaching spectrum were, paradoxically, much more precise. Such distinctions are for the most part lacking in today's debates over the efficacy of grit and how to foster it in students. "Grit," today, is largely positive in connotation, though recently critics have begun to question possible negative effects caused by certain forms of intellectual obsession. Medieval distinctions can, therefore, help us to map the space between beneficial and detrimental forms of grit.

Grit entered the contemporary educational scene through the work of Angela Duckworth. In a study led by her, Duckworth et al. define grit as

    working strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and
   interest over years despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in
   progress. The gritty individual approaches achievement as a
   marathon; his or her advantage is stamina. Whereas disappointment
   or boredom signals to others that it is time to change trajectory
   and cut losses, the gritty individual stays the course. (1087-88)

Research was conducted on cadets at West Point, adults in the workforce, and national spelling bee champions. In finding that "individuals high in grit deliberately set for themselves extremely long-term objectives and do not swerve from them--even in the absence of positive feedback," Duckworth et al. …

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