Wednesday, September 21, 2011

True grit

New York Times’ columnist David Brooks recently wrote a depressing column about the morality of the current generation of students. In essence, they act on the principle “if it feels good, it is okay.” These students have difficulty identifying moral questions and even more difficulty developing their own moral analysis. Although they widely agree that rape and murder are wrong, few can explain why that is true and have few moral precepts beyond those two. The column so bothered two friends that they sent me links to it. (David Brooks, “If It Feels Right ...,” New York Times, September 12, 2011)

Two days later, I read an article about a school that attempts to develop character in its students. (Paul Tough, “What If the Secret to Success Is Failure?New York Times, September 14, 2011) Researchers are leaning toward the conclusion that grit, not intelligence, may be the key to human success.

One researcher, Angela Duckworth at the University of Pennsylvania, has developed a self-administered test GRIT to measure an individual’s grit. West Point has discovered that the grit test is a better predictor of success for plebes going through Beast Barracks (the cadet’s initial summer at West Point) than the test that the academy had used. For more information on the scale, its validity, and interpreting results, cf. “Development and Validation of the Short Grit Scale,” Journal of Personality Assessment, 91(2), 166-174, 2009.

Anecdotally, perseverance and consistency (measured by the Grit Scale) seem more correlated with success and happiness than is intelligence (measured by IQ or in other ways). Intuitively, that assessment also seems correct. The Duke (John Wayne, for those who are not cinema fans) had it right: grit can and often does overcome apparently insurmountable obstacles.

Thankfully, adults can inculcate into children habits that lead to success and happiness. Consistency and perseverance, as measured by the Grit Scale, are two habits critical for success that adults should strive to teach to children.

But success does not consist of perseverance and consistency alone. Hitler, Stalin, and a host of other evil people had lots of both.

An essential set of habits is discerning the ethical from the unethical (or moral from the immoral, for those who prefer that language). Two of those habits are not killing and not raping, which a person adopts out of respect for life and the integrity of others. Several other habits are important (this is not an exhaustive list): truth telling, respect for property, and respect for liberty. These moral habits, also known as virtues, are aspects of success that go beyond perseverance and consistency.

Duckworth’s research, while not a panacea or a counter to what Brooks’ reports, certainly implies a direction that optimists and others concerned about ethics can adopt.


Ted said...

I heard on talk radio that in the history of mankind and all the animal kingdom, only a very small number has learned about life by reading. We need good examples on how to live, work, communicate, play, and to understand what is right and wrong. In our present situation, finding good examples is very rare.
Where do we find these examples to help our youth acquire a set of morals and ethics to pass on to the next generation?

Anonymous said...

George, I have a problem with the Brooks article. Past generations of God-fearing people thought that it was OK to conquer the heathen, enslave the black man, discriminate against the homosexual, and smoke in unventilated offices. They were taught these things. Most young among us now that I know believe that these things were wrong then and are wrong now. No doubt that there remain plenty of misguided values today, but I am not sure that we can say anything has gotten worse. Only that there has been little net improvement.

George Clifford said...

I find good examples, role models, in healthy religious congregations of all faiths (and far from all congregations below to this category!) and in many civic and non-profit organizations. The military also has a number of servant leaders who exemplify exceptional character.

George Clifford said...

Anonymous, I find assessing moral progress impossible: there are too many factors, some representing progress and others regression, with no universal weighting system that would enable a bottom line assessment. In other words, I take your point.