Resilience and “holy grit”

Published in January 2018

A recent piece in the Chronicle (“We’re teaching grit in the wrong way,” March 18, 2018) suggests that by focusing on the development of self-control, we are missing the importance of the cultivation of virtues such as compassion and gratitude as these may go further (or is it deeper?) in helping students achieve the needed “grit” to succeed in college and beyond. The author, David DeSteno, is a professor of psychology at Northeastern University who works on “the science that underlies human virtue,” and the piece seems to promote the key claims of his new book, Emotional Success: The Power of Gratitude, Compassion, and Pride (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018). Not surprisingly, given his discipline, DeSteno’s analysis emphasizes the psychology of self-control, yet in nudging us to consider gratitude and compassion something even more fundamental (or is it more encompassing?) seems to be missing. In DeSteno’s hands, developing strong interpersonal relationships and the ability to cooperate helps ensure “long-term success.” Students will have increased perseverance as well as a reduction in stress and loneliness and “enhanced well-being” when they can work toward a long-term goal.

Does the content or substance of the goal matter? What are they working toward? And why?

In his study of some of the early vocation-centered programs sponsored by NetVUE, sociologist Tim Clydesdale identified the qualities of “purposeful graduates.” The programs helped cultivate a

grounded idealism — the combination of intentionality, maturity, and dedication to a set of short- and long-term ideals… But it was grit focused less on private ends and more on shared ends…. Such grit was rooted in a resolute sense of life purpose; one could call it other-directed grit, purposeful grit, or,… “Godly grit.” (The Purposeful Graduate, 222-223)

Through their participation in vocation exploration programs, these students had what Clydesdale began to call “holy grit.”

There are plenty of reasons to be both skeptical about and beleaguered by “resilience,” often touted as the crucial element that is lacking in many of our students, and in our society. (See Lucy Ferriss’ sharp criticism in “I am not resilient” from the Lingua Franca section of the Chronicle last fall; Ferriss is concerned about the political cooptation of the term but much of what she has to say there applies to the term’s easy currency in Higher Ed, to my mind). Those of us who care about students’ exploration of vocation need to be careful that our work doesn’t become reduced to the language of “resilience,” even as vocation and resilience are (profoundly? intimately?) connected.

Take a look at DeSteno’s piece, and if you aren’t familiar yet with Clydesdale’s work, consider his argument for “why colleges must talk to students about vocation.”

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