Grit, Policy, and Politics

I was affected and inspired by Paul Tough’s recent book, “How Children Succeed.”  In this book, Tough combines neuroscience, educational research, and striking stories to explain how both sides of the political spectrum are both right and wrong about how to fix America.

Conservatives are correct that character is the keystone of success.  Over, and over, the research shows that the students who have the greatest grit and resilience, not those with the highest IQ scores, are the ones who succeed in school and in life.  Character matters, and there’s such a thing as good character and bad character.  The liberal desire to avoid blaming the victim prevents them from acknowledging the truth of this, which in turn means that many well-meaning government interventions do little good.

On the other hand, liberals (in the American political sense, I might add, as opposed to the classical liberalism of The Economist) are correct that we as a society would be wise to provide a stronger social safety net for children.  Poverty and stress actually impact the way that the brain develops, causing lifelong issues (and adding additional costs to society).  Private charities and religious institutions help, but are inconsistent and insufficient.  From an economic standpoint, we would be better off collectively making an up front investment in the well-being of poor kids.

I’m a firm capitalist, but I’ve concluded that America would be better off if we had a comprehensive social safety net that would provide the essentials of food, healthcare, and education to all.

Here’s a brief excerpt from the book:

  • The new science of adversity presents a real challenge to deeply held political beliefs on the left and the right.
    • To liberals, the science is saying that conservatives are
      correct on one very important point: character matters.  There is no
      antipoverty tool we can provide for disadvantaged young people that will
      be more valuable than the character strengths of conscientiousness,
      grit, resilience, and optimism. 
    • But the character strengths that matter so much to young people’s
      success are not innate, and they are not simply a choice.  They are
      molded, in measurable and predictable ways, by the environment in which
      children grow up.  That means the rest of us–society as a whole–can do
      an enormous amount to influence their development in children.  Parents
      are an excellent vehicle for those interventions, but they are not the
      only vehicle

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