Grit, education and the Ancient Greeks

Janet Downs's picture
England will become a ‘global leader’ in teaching character and grit, education secretary Nicky Morgan said.

Speaking at the London Festival of Education, Martin Robinson, author of Trivium 21c, wondered if ‘Grit and Resilience have replaced Matthew Arnold’s Sweetness and Light.’ He feared a centrally-dictated definition of what comprises ‘character’.

Claire Fox, director of the Institute of Ideas, thought schools scrapping anti-bullying policies would encourage resilient pupils. They were too coddled, she said. Judith Suissa, reader in philosophy of education at the Institute of Education, thought this was ‘ridiculous’. She was concerned the stress on grit and resilience was telling teachers their role was not to encourage children to discuss ‘what’s wrong with society’ but to provide them with ‘grit and resilience to cope with poverty’.

Peter Hyman, head of School 21 in London, also rejected Fox’s argument: his school didn’t contain ‘cotton-wool kids’ but children ‘showing true grit by coping’ with difficult backgrounds. School 21 put great stress on communication: oracy was at the heart what they did.

Controversy over the teaching of character is not a modern trait. In Aristophanes' play, The Clouds, written in the Fifth Century BCE, two characters, Right and Wrong, debate how ‘Athens’ boys in bygone years’ were taught. The ‘future of Learning’ is at stake – and good old Greek Values. Right is asked to speak first because, the Leader says, Right’s education fostered ‘The glorious old traditions of our nation.’

Athenian youth is too soft, Right, says. In the old days they went to school with no coat even when it was ‘snowing confetti’. They were ‘seen and not heard’ and walked with modesty and decorum. They learned traditional songs; they were disciplined like those who fought at Marathon. They never took hot baths or hung about market squares. Sessions at the gym ensured they were ‘sleek and healthy’.

This being Aristophanes, Right becomes distracted as he tells chaste youths never to oil themselves below the belt and ‘dreamily’ he thinks of…

Wrong hits back. In a parody of the Socratic Method, he ties Right in knots until Right admits defeat. Wrong is charged with educating the young Pheidippides whose father, Strepsiades (meaning ‘Twister’), wants him taught how to speak out of both sides of his mouth. Wrong can do this well. The Chorus sings a warning:

‘You’ve sowed the wind, and we can see/Your harvest will the whirlwind be.’

Aristophanes’ character Right would have supported education for grit. He would have agreed with Claire Fox about lack of resilience in the young. But Fox also gave a warning: the approved character traits - grit, determination, singlemindedness – can be double-edged. They were shown in abundance in Jihadi John. And Martin Robinson feared the emphasis on character education combined the ‘two worst traits of education...Utopia and Utility: Utopian desire for the ‘uber-character’ and the utilitarian desire for the optimum worker.’
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Roger Titcombe's picture
Fri, 06/03/2015 - 18:07

'Learning Resilience' as in the 'Mathematical Resilience' (Sue Johnston-Wilder and Clare Lee) described in Section 5.4 of 'Learning Matters' and the 'Resilience that leads to a 'Positive Learning Disposition' (Guy Claxton) described in 5.5, are not what Nicky Morgan and Claire Fox seem to be talking about.

Pupils need a feeling of security, confidence and trust in their peers and teachers in order for cognitive and other forms of development to take place.

Morgan and Fox appear to be advocating a mean, nasty and tough, 'wild west' culture for our schools. Pupils would certainly learn something from having to survive in such a system but they would not be positive lessons.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Fri, 06/03/2015 - 18:22

I recall the general advice given by Homer Simpson to his son Bart on how to survive at school. I wish I could remember the details.

Leah K Stewart's picture
Fri, 06/03/2015 - 18:26

Perhaps the real issue is that the fear teachers live under by being too soft or too hard on students means that they tend to manifest a kind of beige nondescript character that can only react to whatever students decide to throw out. Then one day the teacher plucks up some courage and tries to be tough on students, and students laugh at the sudden Jekyll to Hyde transformation. Another day the teacher tries to be kind and compassionate and students call it 'weird' and back off. Maybe extra curricular clubs in the real world (not the ones teachers do because they feel they have to) are so good for students because it's in these places that we see people teaching in their own way: strict or flexible, drill-sergeant or reflective, facilitating or inspiring... it doesn't matter! The point is that we learn nothing about 'Character' when teachers don't show theirs. The last thing I'd ask a teacher to do is to squish their personality into the same box they get all their lessons from. Who are you teachers? Show your students who you are! Then maybe good students everywhere can stop feeling so crap about who they are!

Roger Titcombe's picture
Fri, 06/03/2015 - 18:36

There is a lot of wisdom in what you say Leah. We certainly don't want 'Operatives delivering Packages'.

Guest's picture
Fri, 06/03/2015 - 18:55

The obsession with Character, Grit and Resilience highlight what to me is a fundamental and profound misunderstanding of what is being spoken of. By that I mean that grit and resilience are positive components of a persons character, and can be nurtured and developed. Whereas it is not possible to teach character. The latter is formed of a collection of traits each person adopts, evolves, picks up along their life path. What character isn't is a single attribute that can be identified and taught. Character then is a plurality of personal traits not a singular aspect of a person. For example, it used to be said that national service was character building, which makes explicit that character is a single element but rather a composite of many attributes. Thus for me I hang by my head in my hands and inwardly wonder - in despair - as to where our politicians were educated?

At least the American's recognise this and speak in terms of teaching grit and resilience not teaching character.

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 07/03/2015 - 09:49

Alan Bennett, talking on the World at One, said what the English did best was hypocrisy. He complained that 'good and meaningful' words become meaningless soundbites when 'converted into political or PR slogans'.

This is evident in ministerial soundbites: 'autonomy' means the freedom to do what the Government says is best; 'character' comprises those attributes the Government thinks will produce compliance; encouraging 'grit' means the Gov't doesn't have to take steps to alleviate poverty. (Nick Boles, schools and business minister, had to retract his publicised remarks in Grantham that benefit sanctions were 'inhuman'.)

Hypocrisy allows the trashing of restaurants by the mostly Eton-educated Bullingdon Club to be dismissed as youthful high jinks instead of being described as crimes.

This isn't new, of course. Hypocrisy is ingrained. A character in Thomas Hughes' 'Tom Brown's Schooldays' says:

'There's nothing so mischievous as these school distinctions, which jumble up right and wrong, and justify things in us for which poor boys would be sent to prison'.

Guest's picture
Sat, 07/03/2015 - 10:29

And where plain straightforward deceit and disingenuity has been collapsed into a meaningless adjective, spin. On this basis a 'spin doctor' becomes a banal neutralised title for what my parent would termed a liar!

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