“Do. Or do not. There is no try.” – Yoda
The Star Wars franchise continues on with Christmas seeing the release of the latest edition. Star Wars is a modern version of old myths, and because of this, it is an easy trap to fall for some of the glib statements that have become truisms. The famous ‘Do. Or do not. There is no try". Comes from the wisest of characters when he chastises the young Luke Skywalker for giving up.
There are three similar truisms that persist in modern education circles. Teachers, bureaucrats and for that matter politicians are drawn to the proverbial wisdom of their concepts, and they are promoted as the secrets of success. These are:
- Meritocracy – This is the idea that success in life depends on an individual’s talent, ability and the effort they are prepared to make to achieve their goals. Modern democracies promote this idea that anyone can reach the top of any enterprise as long as they have the raw ability and put in the effort. This concept is in direct contrast to aristocracy where success in life was closely linked to the status and titles of your family and relationships.
- Grit – Grit is a lot like meritocracy in that it has effort at its core but unlike the former, Grit discounts the value of innate ability. Psychologist Angela Lee Duckworth who pointed out that success was more reliant on ‘grit’ than intelligence, first defined ‘grit’ when it came to predicting success. She showed that if an individual possessed perseverance, hardiness, resilience, and self-control they would succeed.
- Delayed Gratification – This is the third member of the trilogy of the lessons of success. This concept exploded onto the world through the work of Walter Mischel in 1972. His famous experiment demonstrated that children with the ability to pass up eating a marshmallow immediately for the promise of an additional one, would be successful later in life. In follow-up studies, he showed that those children who could resist the temptation of immediately eating the marshmallow had better long-term success in their academic achievement, social competence and a feeling of assurance and self-worth.
There is no doubt there is a lot of truth and wisdom in all of these concepts, but there is just as much deception especially for those children that experience failure at school. The three principles outlined have at their core the principle that success depends on the individual and in this lies the attraction and the expectation. But for so many kids that have only experienced failure, adherence to these principles draws the inevitable conclusion that any failure they experience will be their fault.
A closer examination of these three maxims reveals their limitations. For example:
- Meritocracy – this concept relies on the structural equality of our population. It assumes we all have the same quality of parenting; same socioeconomic life-style, attend the same schools, etc. Of course, this is not a reflection of the real world. Communities are structurally inequitable; this is reflected in the quality of the resources in their schools. Children in very disadvantaged socioeconomic areas have limited opportunities. There are other structural disadvantages that are based on gender, sexuality and race not to mention those children who have been subjected to abuse and neglect.
- Grit – I have a nagging feeling that I could have won an Olympic Gold Medal if I had just tried harder. Those who know me and my sporting prowess understand that this is such an idiotic concept. I just don't have the talent to become the best in the world at any sport nor am I likely to win the Nobel Prize in Physics. Even if I did have the talent does that mean I have to spend all my time pursuing just one goal? And finally there is nothing wrong with changing your goals, in fact, it is probably quite healthy to diversify your interests.
- Delayed Gratification – Celeste Kidd of the University of Rochester challenged this concept. High in her findings was the amount of trust the children had in the adult making the deal. For many children who lived in chaotic homes they would find the guaranteed consumption of a marshmallow now at least gave some pay-off. In their lives, the offer of a double serving in the future was too much of a risk. They are in fact making a rational decision. Their decisions confirm the significant connection between the ability to delay the intake and the family’s socioeconomic status. Finally the ability to delay gratification lies in the child's prefrontal lobes to over-rule the drive of the hedonistic limbic system, particularly the amygdala. Children with a history of abuse and/or neglect have a considerable disadvantage in this as for these kids the prefrontal lobes are reduced, and the amygdala is enlarged, so they are not even on the same playing field.
So what are we to do? There is an obvious benefit for children to show determination, believe in their ability to succeed and put off spending time on Face Book instead of trying to understand some mathematical concept. We all want our kids to have these qualities. But we must be careful to differentiate these qualities from the worth of each child. When they fail, they fail at something – for now. When kids with a history of failure do fail, we must ensure that this does not reinforce their distorted sense of self.
Yoda was not right, there is ‘trying’ and sometimes as much as we try we will not succeed. But there is nobility in the exercise and humility in the acceptance we are not at all perfect.