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Character, the Project of Life:

An Interview with Angela Duckworth, Ph.D.

 

My recommendation is to have more conversations between scientists, educators, and parents. Right now, there’s often total silence between the world of academic research on character and the millions of grown-ups who are trying to raise kids to thrive.

Q: In your research on character, you define the concept of grit as encompassing passion and perseverance for long-term goals, including
four features: interest, practice, purpose, and hope. Tell us briefly how you discovered grit and its features.


A:
When I started looking at the characteristics of high achievers, I found that they had lots of things that made them special, but grit emerged as an important common denominator, whether you’re talking about a prima ballerina, a grand chess master, a mathematician, or a writer. That’s what makes grit so interesting: it seems to be a hallmark of high achievers across very different domains. Grit includes passion and perseverance. Interest and purpose are the generators of passion—being deeply interested in what you’re doing and seeing how it’s meaningful. Practice and hope are the complements to perseverance, how it plays out in people’s lives: continuously trying to improve through daily practice and weathering those really bad days with an optimistic growth mindset to persevere.

Q: How does grit relate to traditional features of character—things like justice, self-control, courage, etc.?


A:
I adopt the Aristotelian definition of character and virtue, incorporating those admirable qualities that benefit others as much as they benefit ourselves. Grit is one character strength among many others that enable people to lead happy, productive, and ethical lives. But, there are a lot of other things: empathy and compassion, generosity, forgiveness, wisdom, curiosity, intellectual humility, creativity, etc. I like to say that the first thing about character is that character is plural. So, grit is not the only thing—or even the most important thing. I’ve got two girls at home, and when I think of the plurality of character—strengths that Aristotle meant when he described living a good life—higher on the list are honesty and kindness, and other virtues that I don’t study as a scientist, but as a person. I think those virtues are paramount.

Q: Two years ago in The New York Times, you said that we should not grade schools on grit. So, what suggestions would you have for bringing these psychological insights to schools?


A:
There’s a real tension for scientists to act carefully when giving advice. As a parent of kids, I really want scientists to be more liberal in what they are willing to share. But there’s always a tension because there isn’t enough known, and there isn’t enough precision. We need much more research. My recommendation is to have more conversations between scientists, educators, and parents. Right now, there’s often total silence between the world of academic research on character and the millions of grown-ups who are trying to raise kids to thrive.The other thing I will say is that the scientific research is fairly firm on one point: the collection of personal qualities that we call character is very consequential for life outcomes. Not only for your personal well-being—having a job, getting an education, being physically healthy, living a long life—but also for the well-being of others. Character has moral and civic consequences, meaning that the people around you are better off when you have self-control; democracy is better when you vote. We don’t have to wait any longer to say that science is on the side of character: these things matter. There is tremendous potential realized in some schools for the humanities to provide the opportunity for kids to learn about and talk about and think about character development. I am not a humanist by training, but I absolutely believe that psychological wisdom, and wisdom about living a good life, is not a monopoly held by scientists. The wonderful thing about studying character and virtue is that it’s the project of life, and so many, many people have contributed to advancing our understanding: poets and philosophers, novelists and musicians, painters and sculptors.

Q: Do you have any recommended resources on character for parents and teachers?


A:
CharacterLab.org is for parents and teachers—and increasingly for parents. There’s also a great non-profit called Vroom.org, with scientifically based advice for parents on how younger kids, preschool especially, can grow up in ways that are good for themselves and good for others. There are terrific resources on growth mindset at Stanford, a website called MindsetWorks.com, the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, and UC-Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center. That is a much longer list than if you had asked me five years ago. Which means that we’re at a moment in time where we’re starting to realize that living a full life (a) is something that science could help us do better and (b) goes beyond very narrow conceptions of success and achievement.

In due time, classical education touches upon every subject, through the arts of language and the sciences of inquiry, preparing students for an ever-expanding circle of knowledge and equipping them to apply that knowledge to the common good.

When I started looking at the characteristics of high achievers, I found that they had lots of things that made them special, but grit emerged as an important common denominator, whether you’re talking about a prima ballerina, a grand chess master, a mathematician, or a writer.

Westerners inherit A design for living Deeper into matter—Not without due patter Of a great misgiving. All the science zest To materialize By on-penetration Into earth and skies (Don’t forget the latter Is but further matter) Has been West Northwest…

In 2007, Meredith Palmer received her diploma from Veritas Preparatory Academy (Phoenix, AZ) as part of the first graduating class of that classical charter school. Eleven years later, she is pursuing her passions for research, biology, and the Serengeti.

When the SAT was founded in 1926, it helped to level the playing field for excellent students who lacked the pedigree to attend Ivy League colleges. It allowed the very best students to rise to positions of leadership and influence in business and politics, regardless of background.

The liberal arts, which teach us to consider at the same time the huge and the tiny, are the antidote par excellence to this microscopic approach. Moreover, the liberal arts teach about the human things—what we especially need to emphasize in an age of mechanism and simulation.

Virtue is the flagship publication of the Institute for Classical Education. It disseminates stories, ideas, research and experiences in classical education to readers across the nation, helping them pursue the classical ideals of truth, goodness, and beauty.

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