“The G.P.A. ethos takes spirited children and pushes them to be hard working but complaisant.” So said David Brooks in the New York Times in a column I want to keep, hence I’m writing about it now. Read it here and we can compare notes. Brooks says striving for the highest grades is “one of the more destructive elements in American education.”
I’ve been thinking about this since the ’70s when I watched children enrolled at a private progressive school, School in Rose Valley, which encouraged individual enthusiasm. I taught there for a year, as at left. When students transferred to public school. I saw lust for creativity at least temporarily squashed. At least those children didn’t succumb to “high GPA fever” as evidenced by OK but not outstanding grade averages.
Then we moved to Princeton where some fight tooth and nail for GPA honors. Grade mongering is also rampant in neighboring districts, dare I finger West Windsor-Plainsboro? (As an aside, parents choose this value when they buy a house according to a column in the Washington Post: “Forty to fifty years of social-science research tells us what an important context neighborhoods are, so buying a neighborhood is probably one of the most important things you can do for your kid,” says Ann Owens, a sociologist at the University of Southern California.)
But arduous pursuit of grades is not all bad, according to Angela Duckworth, a MacArthur fellow and author of the new book “Grit: the power of passion and perseverance” as quoted by Brooks. People with grit also have a high moral purpose, she says, and “they know in a very very deep way what it is that they want. Everybody’s life is organized around some longing.”
That helps explain my own motivation. I grew up with parents who took their work home, who worked all hours of the day and night to Get Things Done. My father taught medical school, did cancer research, and edited anatomy volumes. My mother helped him. They exemplified grit, a passion to succeed that was organized, not around grades, but around what you could accomplish. Drawn in also, to help, my sister and I absorbed the self discipline that, as Brooks points out, can lead to career success.
How do you teach this, or can it be taught? Can it be only absorbed? Brooks says that people with grit have a strong inner desire. “Grit is thus downstream from desire. People need a powerful why if they are going to be able to endure any how.”
Duckworth says that schools could be designed — not to encourage scrabbling for grades but to “elevate and intensify longings.” In a school like that, Brooks suggests, “you might even deemphasize the G.P.A. mentality, which puts a tether on passionate interests and substitutes other people’s longings for the student’s own.”
When I talk to high school seniors, as an alumna interviewer of a selective college, it’s hard to differentiate between an overprogrammed student who has been coached to be enthusiastic about a cause and one who has a true deep passion for a cause. Then I wonder — isn’t it OK to find your passion later in life? Yes, I decided, if you established your “grit” when you were young.– Barbara Fox