BOOK REVIEW: Paul Tough, KIPP, and the Character Con: A Review of 'How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character'
"When we look a these kids and their behavior, it can all seem so mysterious. But at some point, what you are seeing is just a complex series of chemical reactions. It is the folding of a protein or the activation of a neuron. And what is exciting about that is that those things are treatable. When you get down to the molecules, you realize, that is where the healing is. That is where you are discovering a solution." (p. 26). Paul Tough quoting Nadine Burke Harris
Two days before the 2012 presidential election, Rachel Maddow ran a clip from an interview with uber-conservative, Paul Ryan, who not so long ago had plans, you might recall, to be Vice-President of the U. S. The interview was conducted by a local reporter in Flint, MI, one of the poorest and most violent urban areas of America. Ryan offered this suggestion for solving the crime and violence problems of Flint:
"...the best thing to help prevent violent crime in the inner cities is to bring opportunity in the inner cities, is to help people get out of poverty in the inner cities, is to help teach people good discipline, good character. That is civil society."
Maddow and most other progressives were aghast when they heard an Ayn Rand conservative like Paul Ryan say such a thing. Oddly, however, when a New York Times writer/reporter draws the same conclusion, as Paul Tough does in his bestseller, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, the "progressive" establishment is either silent as church mice or ready to throw contributions (tax deductible) into the corporate offering plate to actively support school programs like KIPP that are aimed to do just what Paul Ryan had the temerity to admit, and for which we are rightfully indignant.
Tough's liberal framing of Paul Ryan's goal to teach America's urban poor good discipline and character is imbued with a thinly-veiled social engineering urge that is growing stronger by the day. It is based on a messy collection of far-fetched extrapolations from a science-seeming psychological intervention that is now being employed in the education reform schools by non-professionals who haven't the foggiest notion of what kind of damage they are doing to the children of the poor who are, otherwise, being "cured" of the ill effects of poverty. Tough is a good writer, too good to have written such an implausible promo for the kinds of neo-eugenic ministrations that he supports in this book as a solution to the "character problem" and the "executive functioning" problem of those among us who are now viewed by elites in much the same way that the grandfathers of Tough's generation might have viewed the "culturally deprived" version of the "white man's burden" during the 1950s and 1960s.
There are significant differences between then and now, however, and the most obvious one has to do with money. In the 1960s, the War on Poverty poured billions into job training programs and educational interventions like Title I, all aimed to ameliorate some of the grosser educational inequities with programs that left in place structural inequalities like segregated housing that were viewed by liberals as too entrenched and controversial to garner support for changing.
Today poverty rates are higher than when President Johnson declared the War on Poverty in 1964, but the preferred solution over economic intervention is a thoroughly unproven and un-researched form of psychological programming for children that hopes to excavate new roadways in the cognitive maps of young brains in order to inoculate them from the effects of poverty, which remains a problem too expensive to fix for the elites who advocate this new form of eugenics. Today's concentration of social efficiency goals would make the advocates of scientific management a hundred years ago blush, with even the charity by the rich, now called venture philanthropy, turned into tax-sheltered investments with immediate returns as well as a big future payoff. Cashing in down the road will come as a result of the systematic indoctrination of a whole generation of urban poor, to be accomplished through corporate reform schools that are given free rein to run their psychological experiments on America's most vulnerable children.
The old eugenics of our great-grandfathers advanced the belief that those deemed a threat to the health of society, by way of inheritable behaviors, mental disorders, character malfunctions, and physical disabilities, had defective "germ plasma" that could not be improved but, rather, needed curtailing from further reproduction in offspring. That "crisis" led to 30-plus states passing mandatory sterilization laws that produced over 60,000 individual sterilizations. The unfinished legacy of that dark episode lives on, with victims even today hoping to be somehow compensated for their sexual maiming during another "progressive" era that eagerly embraced social steering based on a crackpot pseudo-science over the rights of its most vulnerable citizens.
The new eugenics is not nearly so pessimistic about changing the defective character of the poor. In fact, today's equally arrogant and misguided scheme to save poor children from their defective character is full of positivity, you might say, from the guru of positive psychology, himself — Dr. Martin Seligman. Seligman's pioneering work on learned helplessness and learned optimism are central, in fact, to the carving of new cognitive tracks in the malleable brains of elementary and middle school children, whose structural plasticity lends itself well to alternating jolts of learned helplessness and learned optimism — the mainstays of the new and improved post-New Age version of breaking 'em down to build 'em up.
And what kind of character flaws is Tough trying to find scientific justification for altering? Well, it's not children's moral character that the white missionary girls from TFA are trying their darnedest to improve in these charter reform schools like KIPP; it is, rather, something Tough calls "performance character," which is a distillation of the more expansive list of traits developed by Seligman and Peterson that, if developed fully, will create an unending psychological drip of happiness memes.
Think of it as if the power of an invisible hand had writ these qualities on every poor child's digital tablet to carry around with them and apply as each situation demands: grit, self-control, zest, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism, curiosity (p. 76). Gone are those old-school character traits such as honesty, integrity, loving thy cubicle companion, etc. Tough, in fact, attempts to make the case that moral character is based on moral law that, by necessity, is imposed by some higher authority. In following Seligman and Peterson, Tough claims "moral laws were limiting when it came to character because they reduced virtuous conduct to a simple matter of obedience to a higher authority" (p. 59).
Moral character is traded in, then, for "performance character." The new "performance character" traits that KIPP co-founder, David Levin, has boiled down for child consumption focuses first and foremost on "grit," which is to say the individual possession of a kind of crusty abrasiveness or personality pumice that may turn any barrier into "zest," we might suppose. According to Tough, Levin believes his approach stands far above any charge of cultural colonialism because "the character-strength approach is "fundamentally devoid of value judgment" (p. 60).
Tough doesn't bother to explain how Levin's derived values of grit, self-control, and gratitude are any less of an imposition than, let's say, wisdom, justice, and temperance. We may only surmise that Levin's blindness to his own imposition of corporate ethics is intended to cloak any sign of force feeding for the children who are imposed upon daily to view their own mistreatment as an indicator that they, themselves, are not working hard or being good enough to be treated with dignity. The drawing below is a copy of a worksheet that Seligman disciple, Angela Duckworth, has used in developing the performance character curriculum for poor kids in Philadelphia schools. Note that children are taught to swallow and digest the abuse handed down by authority figures whose verbal abuse is to be viewed as a sure sign of their care for children who must do better in order to avoid the well-deserved denigration.
Tough's book is out to promote an abusively-deployed variety of moral colonialism disguised as character building, even if he takes the most roundabout way to reach the conclusion from which he started, which may be stated thusly for those disinclined to read the book: KIPP and the education reform schools like it are doing the necessary work to save non-privileged, defective cultures from their own defective character, by making their children salable commodities in the future job market through a psychological regimen we would call brainwashing if it were used by a drug-crazed preacher in a faraway jungle like Guyana.
Tough's defense of the new eugenics is built upon a shaky collection of scientific tidbits and inappropriate analogies to other more humane interventions that Tough apparently believes are not unalike the pedagogical brutality and mind alteration practices that occur in the corporate reform schools such as KIPP. For instance, Tough analogizes from his experiences reporting on New York City's chess champion school, IS 318, and through a number of examples of single-minded obsession paying off in the world of chess, suggests there is some lesson that may be transferred to understand KIPP's 10,000 hours of total compliance test preparation and psychological throttling. As in other examples that Tough employs in his book, there are more differences between KIPP's academic rigor mortis and becoming a chess champ than there are similarities.
The first and most glaring difference has to do with a significant word that Tough advocates for and uses a good deal in the book -- volition. Now while the great chess champions do, indeed, choose at some point in their lives to be champions, as Scottish grandmaster, Jonathan Rowson, exemplifies in Tough's retelling, the children of KIPP do not choose an education based on an unyielding behavioral catechism enforced by non-psychologists imposing behavioral-cognitive treatments to produce total compliance and complicity by children in their own subjugation.
Secondly, if the single-minded pursuit of becoming a grand master allows one to conclude that "chess is a creative and beautiful pursuit" and a "celebration of existential freedom," what does the manipulative pursuit of scholar dollars teach, or years of enforced silence, or the thousands of hours of lockdown test prep accompanied by endless reams of mindless worksheets? Is there some celebration of existential freedom in this â€œproductiveâ€ performance of KIPPsterism?
Thirdly, if 10,000 hours of chess practice makes one a master, what does 10,000 hours of KIPP provide? A slave who has learned how to accept her bondage, along with a mediocre score that earns a seat in a third-tier university where the odds are 5:1 of washing out? This college outcome remains a stubborn fact, even with KIPP's river of tax-sheltered cash to provide counselors, college academic coaches, and other interventions to raise the KIPP college graduation rate.
Fourthly, the "joyousness" that results from chess is produced by the analysis of a problem and application of a solution from a repertoire of proven solutions or novel ones. How is this at all analogous to the entirely rule-bound and low-level imitative and rote anesthesia of KIPP learning? Tough offers no clues but seems to believe that sitting these two very different phenomena side by side will somehow lead readers to assume they are similar.
Tough does something similar at other places in the book. For instance, the subject of stress reduction among children of impoverished families occupies a significant section in the first half of the book. Stress levels are closely tied to "executive functioning" among children, and stress overloads are predictive of low executive functioning. Since the improvement of "executive functioning," as defined by increased memory skills, is the Holy Grail of the education reform industry, the industry has to pay attention to stress.
According to Tough's interpretation of the research literature, however, it is not really stress that is the problem but, rather, the body's response to stress. Just as poverty is not the problem, but the stressed reactions to poverty: "It wasn't poverty itself that was compromising the executive function abilities of the poor kids. It was the stress that went along with it" (p. 20).
Now if this distinction seems too stupid for words, stick with me for a moment. Since poverty is not the problem but, rather, the stress that goes along with it, and since the stress is not the problem but, rather, the body's reaction to it, it stands to reform industry reason that changing the body's reaction may now be viewed as the way to short-circuit the effects of poverty. And, of course, to change the body, we must change the mind, which is to say, we must change the brain: "The reason that researchers who care about the gap between rich and poor are so excited about executive functions is that these skills are not only highly predictive of success; they are also quite malleable, much more so than other cognitive skills. The prefrontal cortex is more responsive to intervention than other parts of the brain, and it stays flexible well into adolescence and early adulthood. So if we can improve a child's environment in the specific ways that lead to better executive functioning, we can increase his prospects for success in a particularly efficient way..." (p. 21).
In the pursuit of "better executive functioning," Tough appears totally oblivious to the fact that KIPP adds another form of stress atop the ones already at work on children living in poverty. It seems, too, that Tough finds nothing breath-taking about the neo-eugenic agenda of these new 21st Century efficiency zealots, who prefer child brain tinkering to the more expensive structural interventions and resource reallocations required for addressing poverty. If KIPP and the KIPP wannabe reform schools can improve a child's environment in the specific ways that lead to better executive functioning [better memorization skills], then who needs to be concerned, it would seem, that these new environments are segregated, total compliance reform families run by young, white missionary types who have been treated generously, themselves, to Seligman's performance character regimen during their six weeks of TFA teacher training.
The quote above certainly clears up what Tough meant back in the Introduction when he waxed poetic about using "the tools of science to peel back the mysteries of childhood" (p. xxiv).
In this entirely creepy form of scientific reductionism practiced on children deemed defective by their poverty, the sociological and psychological manifestations of poverty are boiled down from actions to behaviors to neuronal reactions to molecular and protein interactions. And these most basic interactions are, then, alterable with the right "cognitive control system" that can re-regulate anti-social urges by altering the brain chemistry that controls them. If you think this sounds too much like a variation on Clockwork Orange, you would be right, and if you think that Paul Tough surely could not be promoting such a system, I invite you to read the book.
In the end, Tough's zeal for pseudo-scientific psychological experimentation on children by non-professionals is driven by his own misplaced anger on behalf of poor children. As the angry do-gooder, then, he represents the liberal element of the coalition in support of the new eugenics. He is joined by the college presidents such as liberal ethicist and president of UPenn, Amy Gutmann and over twenty other Ivy League presidents who share Tough's misdirected anger and who have created a special category of affirmative action for former KIPPsters.
For conservatives who support KIPP and the other learning chain gangs that emulate them, the goal of social control is as transparent as was Paul Ryan's calloused comments in Flint, Michigan. For liberals like Tough, however, who blame parents, teachers, and schools in these poorest neighborhoods for failures that the inequitable system of schooling has guaranteed and its high stakes testing perpetuates, the goal becomes masked by a technicist indignation and a privileged arrogance that is used by liberals to set themselves apart from the racist and classist system from which all of us privileged folks benefit. And if Tough could make the case that he, indeed, acknowledges his own role in the system that we, the privileged, perpetuate, which would create the moral necessity to change things for the better, he fails to keep in mind that children's brains are not things that are to be changed so that our economic privileges may be kept inoculated from the required financial sacrifices that could help us avoid, perhaps, the further rotting away of our moral fiber.
Teachers who have taught at KIPP and who are sharing their stories know why children refer to KIPP as Kids in Prison Program. They know about enforced silence that keeps them from getting to know and connect with their students. They know about their screaming colleagues who rant and rave to maintain order, and they know about the humiliation children are made to feel at even minor infractions of the rules. They know about barking orders to "Track Me," and they know about the constant surveillance that leaves no peace for students or teachers. They know about the special education children whose IEPs are ignored. They know, too about the management methods that always made them feel as if the 70-90 hours they were giving each week was not enough, and they know about the sense of personal weakness they felt on those rare occasions when they had to use a sick day. They know all about the guilt they felt for having a life outside KIPP. They know about children who have been mistreated and abused, and they know about administrators and teachers who lost jobs because their humanity got in the way of rule enforcement to subdue children and to make them as hard as the psychological catechism they are brainwashed to live by. They know about the children whose emotional family histories kept them from making it through the KIPP gauntlet, and they know those children blamed themselves, rather than the draconian "no excuses" school model that provides millionaire investors with tax breaks to fund the cheapest of all solutions to the problems that arise from poverty.
I think that Paul Tough is probably ignorant of all these things that teachers know, but I am not at all sure he has any curiosity to find out what teachers, children, and parents know. I do hope the next book that he is paid to write about education reform schools goes beyond the search for evidence to support some hare-brained theory meted out upon poor children in ways that thoroughly displace the humane responsiveness and humility required to help any children, poor or otherwise, to become whole adults, rather than emotional eunuchs trained to perform, and not to think and feel.
Tough, P. (2012). How children succeed: Grit, curiosity, and the hidden power of character. New York: Houghton Miflin Harcourt.