Can a New York Day School Teach True Grit?

Inner-city charter schools may have an advantage over expensive private ones -- they build character

Flickr/Santa Catalina School

With Stanley Bosworth gone, there's a vacancy for a New York City rock star headmaster. The Times Magazine's candidate: Riverdale School's Dominic Randolph. The crux of it is that expensive private schools like Riverdale groom students to be as close to total, all-around successes as possible, while failure can help build determination, perseverance, curiosity, and other qualities summarized as grit.

The article reviews the copious psychological literature behind the value of adversity in building success. It isn't as new as it seems. It's recently been invoked by luminaries from Steve Jobs to J. K. Rowling. Centuries earlier, grit and systematic, conscientious planning was a major theme of the archetypical American self-made genius, Benjamin Franklin, and the other Founders also displayed it, as I suggested here.

Samuel Smiles, the Scottish creator of the modern motivational book (and a not terribly successful physician before he turned to writing) wrote in Self-Help (1859; 1882 edition excerpted):

Daily experience shows that it is energetic individualism which produces the most powerful effects upon the life and action of others, and really constitutes the best practical education. Schools, academies, and colleges, give but the merest beginnings of culture in comparison with it. Far more influential is the life-education daily given in our homes, in the streets, behind counters, in workshops, at the loom and the plough, in counting-houses and manufactories, and in the busy haunts of men. This is that finishing instruction as members of society, which Schiller designated 1he education of the human race," consisting in action, conduct, self-culture, self-control,-all that tends to discipline a man truly, and fit him for the proper performance of the duties and business of life,-a kind of education not to be learnt from books, or acquired by any amount of mere literary training.

In fact psychologists studying underwater space simulation training of astronauts thirty years ago identified what they called a Teddy Roosevelt Effect -- those candidates who had been seriously ill as children had somehow developed more determination. And the Hygiene Hypothesis, the idea that playing in dirt helps children build their immune systems and that excessive cleanliness may lead to allergies and asthma, continues to gain ground.

The article, by the writer Paul Tough, suggests that inner-city charter schools may have an advantage over expensive private ones like Riverdale, if only because teachers consider themselves responsible primarily to the community rather than to parents. Some of the schools for inner-city young people are already introducing character report cards, though Mr. Randolph correctly warns that once schools start to measure character it will be gamed, and Mr. Tough also observes that the virtues of self-advancement aren't necessarily those of service to others. In fact, grit may work against compassion.This was a blind spot for most 19th-century character builders, including Smiles, who wrote:

The common life of every day... provides the workers with scope for EFFORT and SELF IMPROVEMENT. It is not eminent talent that is required to ensure success in any pursuit so much as PURPOSE -- not merely the power to achieve, but the WILL TO LABOUR ...PERSEVERINGLY. Even if a man fails in his efforts it will be a great satisfaction to him to enjoy the consciousness of having DONE HIS BEST. In humble life nothing can be more cheering than to see a man combating suffering by PATIENCE ... and who when his feet are bleeding and his limbs failing him, still walks upon his COURAGE.

Possibly the most intriguing question about the new resilience in education is what happened to the old. As president Theodore Roosevelt considered football so important for building character through perseverance that he personally intervened against excesses after an epidemic of deaths and severe injuries threatened the game's existence.The Los Alamos Ranch School, site of the future nuclear laboratory, offered its own version of the strenuous life; the coeducational Thacher School, in an isolated California valley, still does.

I suspect the real problem of an urban day school isn't the absence of ranch chores.There are lots of challenging urban projects for building character and teamwork. Nor is it the $38,000-plus annual tuition and expectations of advantages rather than challenging constraints. (By the logic of failure, could it be best to be rejected by schools like Riverdale and forced to make it in the public school system?) It may be that today's successful city people -- the parents of day school students -- are likely to have parents or grandparents who did defy adversity, overcoming failure. Many of them sacrificed precisely so that their grandchildren wouldn't have to. Private school costs may be stratospheric, but if you have to ask the price of some forms of resilience, you can't afford them.