The Teaching Workshop: Should Philosophy Classrooms Get Gritty?

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Question: How should we respond to increasing pressure from students to make our courses easier? Put another way: “Should philosophy classrooms get gritty?”

Nathan King

It seems like my students used to be tougher. When I began teaching a decade ago, they understood that anything I said in class was fair game for the final exam. They finished writing assignments without much extra help from me. Sure, they sometimes complained about challenging readings. But no one seriously suggested cutting Plato from the syllabus because his works are too demanding. Today, many students crumble if I don’t provide detailed study guides for exams. They require extensive hand-holding in order to complete writing assignments. And they seem indignant if I assign difficult-but-classic works that former students felt honored to read. Some days, I wonder if I’m imagining all of this. Maybe my sense of things just means I’m turning from an enthusiastic young professor to a grumpy old one. However, my own experience accords with the recently reported decline of resilience on college campuses. Many of my colleagues—across several disciplines and different kinds of universities—report similar trends.

The problem that concerns me is this: Today’s students seem to find it increasingly hard to do intellectually challenging tasks; and professors find it increasingly hard to ask students to do such tasks. If typical syllabi in philosophy, English, history, political science, etc. reflect our educational goals, we professors want our students to be able to do things like:

  • Read challenging texts with care and patience;
  • Write papers that contain careful, well-reasoned arguments;
  • Display deep understanding and critical engagement (not mere memorization);
  • Interact fairly and open-mindedly with dissenters;
  • Accept feedback from a non-defensive posture, and
  • Develop reasonable convictions about morality, society, science, religion, politics, etc.

When I say it’s getting harder to ask students to do difficult things like these, I mean that it’s becoming rarer to make such requests without their giving rise to student anxiety, failure, or resistance. If this trend is real, it’s a significant problem. For it is not as though the skills and virtues listed above are mere ornaments, “value added” to an education. In large measure, they constitute any education worthy of the name—and the cost.

Suppose there’s a problem here. (Strictly speaking, to motivate the discussion below, I don’t require the claim that the problem is getting worse—only that it is genuine and worth addressing.) How should professors respond?

We shouldn’t blame the students, who often find themselves unprepared for college through little fault of their own. Nor should we blame pre-college instructors, many of whom labor tirelessly amidst difficult conditions. Nor should we waste our time whining about how the K-12 education system is broken. Rather, we professors should focus on our duty to help students navigate academic difficulty while they are in our care. How can we do this?

It is natural to suggest that we should help our students acquire grit. Psychologist Angela Duckworth drew national attention to this trait in a popular TED Talk, and in her bestseller, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. In numerous studies, Duckworth and her colleagues have found that grit is strongly correlated with good outcomes in activities ranging from academics to the National Spelling Bee to graduation from Beast Barracks, the U.S. Military Academy’s rigorous introduction for West Point cadets.

If grit is such a good predictor of success in other venues, should we educate for grit in college classrooms?

I suspect that doing so would produce much good. I am in general enthusiastic both about grit and about Duckworth’s research. But I have some reservations about the notion of grit as an intellectual ideal. Some conceptual clarification will reveal why.

Duckworth defines grit as perseverance and passion for long-term goals (Grit, 269). Grit requires: (a) perseverance in continuing a task over an extended period of time; (b) passion for the goals pursued; and (c) that one’s passion and perseverance aim at one’s long-term goals.

I have two main reservations about making grit a central educational ideal. First, grit is too restrictive. Second, and in different ways, it is too permissive.

As an educational goal, grit is too restrictive because it concerns only long-term activities. By definition, short and mid-range goals don’t fall under the concept. But many challenging and worthwhile academic activities fall within shorter intervals. (Think of tasks like completing today’s essay, re-reading tomorrow’s assignment, or staying engaged in a politically-charged classroom discussion.) It requires a kind of intellectual perseverance to complete these activities well. (I borrow this point from Heather Battaly’s helpful paper on intellectual perseverance, available here and here.) In sum, the concept of grit doesn’t capture the value of short and mid-range perseverance.

Grit is too permissive as an educational goal because it places no restrictions on the content of one’s goals, nor on the motives behind them. But whether continued pursuit of a goal is virtuous depends on whether the goal is viable, valuable, and sought with good motives. On viability: we can imagine someone persisting for years in trying to square the circle or design a perpetual motion machine. But because there’s good reason to think such projects can’t succeed, the gritty pursuit of them fails to display excellence. On value: although it might take a lot of grit to count all the blades of grass on my front lawn, there’s nothing intellectually valuable in this pursuit, even if I succeed. Finally, whether continued pursuit of even a worthy goal is virtuous depends upon one’s motivations for pursuing it. This is why we don’t make heroes out of scientists who persist in research just for the sake of the Nobel Prize. It’s why we’re grieved to find out that the student who just aced our final exam studied just to earn a good grade. Intellectually virtuous pursuits stem from a desire for truth and knowledge, not just for the earthly goods these can deliver.

These concerns don’t undermine the value of recent psychological work on grit. They are not intended to. They show at most that grit, taken by itself, is not a central educational ideal. In my next post, I will consider a trait that might suitably fill this role: intellectually virtuous perseverance.

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