Beside/s: Davis, Gardner and Ahmed

I’ve spent too many hours today trying to figure out how to compose a critical response to Paul Tough’s recent book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character. While I was initially excited about the book, I found it to be very problematic. I disliked his overemphasis on discipline and controlling impulses (in the opening pages, he praises a preschool for having children fill out a “play plan” in which they detail how they plan to play that day! wow). I was bothered by his narrow visions of success (getting into a good college, having a good job) and the “good” life (living a socially acceptable life, making choices that have “long-term benefits”). And, I disagreed with his efforts to understand the 7 important character qualities as being practical/performative and not ethical/moral.

But, it wasn’t until I really started to think about the implications of his claims about helping kids to rise above their “disadvantaged” situations and to “pull themselves up one more rung on the ladder to a more successful future” that I realized that I want to stop thinking about how to write a critique. I don’t want to bother.* I don’t even want to spend time fully explaining why I’m critical of the things that I’ve just mentioned. Instead, I’d rather spend time thinking about other authors that offer alternatives to Tough’s limited idea of success, the good life, and how to help kids who have been left out of our narrow models of education and success. Since I’ve spent way too much time on this blog post already, I only offer a few links right now.

1. Howard Gardner/Katie Davis. Five Minds Our Children Deserve: Why They’re Needed, How to Nurture Them.
2. Howard Gardner. Truth, Beauty, and Goodness Reframed: Educating for the Virtues in the Age of Truthiness and Twitter.
3. Sara Ahmed. Willful Parts: Problem Characters or the Problem of Character.
4. Sara Ahmed. A Willfulness Archive.

I want to conclude this post with an amusing/disturbing story from Rousseau (via Ahmed) about training a young student’s character so that they will behave and follow the will of their teacher. This story demonstrates the troubling consequences of training kids to always follow what is socially acceptable/the norm (and what Ahmed describes as the will of the state):

Rousseau is explicit about how the “child’s will” can be directed without being compelled. In one rather notorious example, the narrator in Émile describes how he undertook the charge of a child who “was accustomed not only to have his own way, but to make everyone else do as he pleases” (101). He calls this child “capricious” (this charming word derives from a wild goat, a rather appropriate figure for willfulness). The narrator describes how whenever the child wanted to go out, his tutors would take him out. The child’s will thus determines what happens; the child’s will is the ruler of the house. When the child insists on going out, the narrator does not go with him, but nor does he forbid the child from going. When the child goes out (exercising his own free will), the narrator arranges for people to oppress and tease the child (although he also arranges for a stranger to follow him and ensure the child’s wellbeing – the implication is that he does not want to harm the child even if the lesson must be experienced as severity). In other words, he arranges for the child to experience first-hand the unpleasant consequences of insisting on his own will. The narrator comments rather triumphantly that he had “succeeded … in getting him to do everything I wanted without bidding him or forbidding him to do anything” (105). The child thus comes to will what the tutor wants him to will, without that will being made the subject of a command.

*Note: Since I spent some time crafting it, I decided I couldn’t just delete my original paragraph for this post. So, here it is:

After reading a huge chunk of Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed, I’ve determined some of the reasons why the book/theory is such a problem for me. On the surface level, I agree with his emphasis on character over cognitive ability, his valuing of failure and his efforts to challenge the dangerous belief that some are just born to succeed while others are not. I also appreciate his focus on habit and repeated practices. But, the underlying ethos that shapes and drives his vision of character and success, did not resonate with me. It is too focused on the autonomous Individual and a limited vision of success as getting into a good college, getting a good job and following “the most reliable path” to a good, as in a socially acceptable, life.