David Gooblar

Columnist at Chronicle Vitae

Yes, We Should Teach Character

Full vitae front building character

Image: iStock

Angela Lee Duckworth’s research into the benefits of "grit" — which she defines as a blend of perseverance and passion — did more than spark 1,000 blog posts and editorial hot takes. Disseminated via a hugely popular TED Talk, a successful book by Paul Tough, and a best-selling book of her own, her theory suggests that character — and, in particular, the tendency to stay the course in pursuing difficult long-term goals — might be as important as academic knowledge and skills in determining student success.

Elementary and secondary schools across the country began integrating measures of gritinto their assessment of students and teachers. Organizations, nonprofit and for-profit alike, began popping up all over to help schools and students "get more grit" in their education. And in short order, grit became one of the more controversial topics in recent educational discourse.

I stumbled almost inevitably onto the grit debate when I was mulling the issue of how to teach character in a college classroom. This month, I wrote a column on why we as faculty members should be trying to help our students develop into more capable, ethical, and critical citizens — and not just helping them master certain knowledge and skills. I’m late to the subject of grit, but I see three main problems with the phenomenon around grit theory:

  • The way it has entered the national conversation is simplistic. Whether this is Duckworth’s fault or that of the concept’s populizers, the narrative around grit suggests a magic bullet. Even if grit is as important as its most ardent supporters suggest, pushing one characteristic as the secret to student success says more about our culture’s love of easy answers than it does about the way students actually experience their education. There is no single characteristic that will account for whether a student succeeds in school or not.
  • Grit theory is still in its infancy. Most assessments of grit have relied on students self-reporting their attitudes and behavior — perhaps useful for understanding how students see themselves, but nearly useless in evaluating how well institutions teach grit as a skill. Duckworth herself has strongly criticized schools that have attempted to use measures of grit to assess teacher and student performance: "We’re nowhere near ready — and perhaps never will be — to use feedback on character as a metric for judging the effectiveness of teachers and schools." Until the science catches up with the initial enthusiasm, there’s reason for tapping the brakes.
  • It indulges in student blaming. As many critics have pointed out, a focus on grit as the key to student success seems to, at best, ignore the structural barriers that beset some students, and, at worst, to strengthen those barriers. To be fair, almost any metric of student success does that, because those structural barriers are so powerful, and our culture is so determined to ignore them. But because grit maps so easily onto traditional American narratives of self-reliance and meritocracy — narratives used for centuries to justify a "natural" racist, sexist, and classist hierarchy — it seems particularly problematic. Publicizing grit as the secret to student success suggests that struggling students lack the character to overcome their origins and, as Valerie Strauss suggests, "creates a purported path out of poverty that does not involve any sacrifice on the part of the privileged classes." Poor students are performing worse than rich students? They’re just not gritty enough.

But if I don’t want to teach grit in my own classroom, where does that leave me? A little bit of research pointed me toward Jason Baehr, a professor of philosophy at Loyola Marymount University, and his work on "intellectual virtues." The Chronicle wrote about Baehr’s work in 2012, and since then, he has led a project that’s produced a website on intellectual virtues in education, a 500-page resource guide for educators, and a charter school in Long Beach, Calif.

The intellectual-virtues approach initially appealed to me because it seemed to avoid the simplistic logic of the grit-promoters. Rather than a single characteristic, Baehr argues that there are nine core virtues we should be encouraging in our students: curiosity, intellectual humility, intellectual autonomy, attentiveness, intellectual carefulness, intellectual thoroughness, open-mindedness, intellectual courage, and intellectual tenacity. Note: Those nine intellectual virtues are different from moral or ethical ones. Whereas moral virtues describe a good neighbor, and ethical virtues characterize a good citizen, intellectual virtues are the traits of a good thinker or learner.

It is in answering this question — What makes up the character of a good thinker? — that I find the intellectual-virtues theory most useful.

To my mind, academics can’t help but teach character. Whether we are trying to or not, we are valuing and encouraging certain character traits through the way we teach. The activities we make our students do, the readings we choose for them, the ways we assess them — in all of those things, we are encouraging or discouraging certain habits of mind. We can either let the chips fall where they may, or we can try to think about which character traits we most want to encourage, enumerate them, and consciously design our courses to help students become more curious, open-minded, or whatever other characteristics we value.

As Baehr writes in a 2013 article in the Journal of Philosophy of Education, "An intellectual virtues framework can provide educators with the concepts and language to better understand, articulate, and practice much of what they already value and are trying to accomplish with students."

It helps that he is so specific in defining the nine virtues. As a result, those intellectual virtues can give us a more concrete and robust way to think and talk about sometimes-fuzzy concepts — like critical thinking and lifelong learning. In his 2013 article, Baehr offers specific ways to teach those virtues, including via direct instruction, instructor modeling, and, most important, opportunities for students to practice the virtues. He’s created an introductory guide for college instructors on the subject.

These ideas have much to offer even the skeptics among us, who don’t want to adopt Baehr’s approach whole hog. Whether you agree about the particular virtues he uses, or some other combination, it’s valuable to try to think through and list the virtues you do want to promote in your own classroom. Then — in designing your courses for the spring, coming up with assignments, and planning class periods — look for ways to encourage students to exercise these habits of mind. Use your list of virtues to help your pedagogical practice line up better with your aspirations for your students.

The grit phenomenon falls short because it suggests that teaching and learning are simple, when they are anything but. But we shouldn’t let that failure convince us that character education has no place in our classrooms. Just because we resist using a simplistic shorthand doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be attentive to issues of character that will help our students succeed, in class and elsewhere.

Character matters. It’s up to you, as an instructor, to decide what that means.

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