Faith, Hope, and Grit

I listened to an episode of Radiolab about American football (the only real football). In the back half of the episode, they examined the declining enrollment in youth sports. In calling up coaches, they heard a recurring theme:

“You can’t just hit reset.”

Coaches were saying that kids won’t play if they can’t win. It’s not like a video game, they said, where if you’re losing, you can start over. Teams that don’t win have a hard time getting and keeping kids.

I felt like I had heard this story somewhere before. Kids don’t stick it out when things get hard. Hmm. I swear there’s an educationish reformy word for this.

There was also an interview with an 8-year-old kid, who rejected the entire model of winning and losing. Playing is for fun, he said. Winning and trophies was just for people to be bullies.

I started considering whether this growing mindset is really a bad thing. Do we still live in a world where sticking it out when you’re losing is an important lesson?

The Radiolab episode pointed out how football, in particular, developed as a war substitute. The grandsons of Civil War combatants, the sons of men who fought in the wars against the American Indians, were in the Ivy League, bless their little cotton socks, and needed a way to prove their manliness. Enter football: a brutal, regularly scheduled turf war in which, under the original rules, young men regularly died.

Team sports function under this war model: the good guys win, and the bad guys lose. Or the bad guys win, and the good guys lose. No matter how it turns out, there’s only one winner.

But today’s 8-year-old isn’t (we hope) entering this world. Globalization means cooperation; it means trying to find a way that we can all win. That’s the point. If someone’s losing, that’s a problem for everyone. It’s no longer the foundation of the system.

The coaches are basically complaining that kids lack- what was that word? Oh yeah: grit. There’s this idea, this new virtue, called “grit” that means you should keep going even if you are suffering in the present. It is considered a mark of moral fiber and an indicator of future success.

But the only reason to pursue that strategy is if there is some kind of payoff at the end. Maybe for Ivy League white boys at the turn of the 20th century, that payoff was honor: there was social prestige in losing with dignity. “Sportsmanship”: playing sports like a person with class. And maybe a coach can sell the kids on the idea that they will become better players by sticking it out through the seasons when their team, frankly, sucks.

But what if there’s no visible payoff? If you’re losing, and there’s no way to win, why is quitting not an acceptable strategy? We exist in a world where there are many, many, many, many enjoyable possibilities when it comes to extracurricular activities. There are many fun-having, time-spending options that don’t involve spending three months getting your butt kicked.

It’s the same reason kids do so much better on the infamous marshmallow test when they trust the adult making the promise. If kids don’t think there’s going to be a real payoff, it’s entirely logical not to deploy the “grit” strategy. Eat the marshmallow and call it a day. (See also: the cake is a lie.)

It’s not that kids lack grit, and therefore they need to develop a tolerance for pain and suffering in order to get better grit scores. (Standardized grit scores, by the way, are likely to be an actual thing, because humanity sucks.) No, when kids are displaying non-gritty behavior, what they lack is hope.

What kids need in order to keep going is a sense that there will be a payoff. They (and we) need a light at the end of the tunnel if we’re going to bother with the tunnel. That’s not a moral failure. Actually, that’s faith. We keep going, because someone made us a promise, and we trust the person who made us the promise, and we trust them enough to persevere. (See Hebrews 11.)

Part of our job, then, as teachers, is to provide a believable promise for the future. And that is no small task, especially since many of the old promises are blowing up. College as a guaranteed ticket to the middle class is now exposed as a lie. #BlackLivesMatter has left us all without any excuse for believing that just staying out of trouble will prevent our students from being assaulted or murdered by people with badges. Technology will not solve all our troubles (no matter what Gates, Zuckerberg, Google, or your favorite edtech hashtag tells you), neither theocracy nor secularism will bring us peace, and sometimes people who are clearly destined for each other don’t wind up together after all. (Exhibit A: Neville and Luna. I really thought that was canon.)

What promises are we going to make? What promises can we make? What hope will we provide the kids who are forced to show up, day after day, and struggle through the process of learning- or decide to quit?

The rest of the problem is left as an exercise for the reader.