It isn’t enough to be strong and resolute. We all need each other’s help.
In the past year, I’ve read a torrent of articles and papers about college students. Two concepts receiving considerable attention are the traits of grit and resilience. I’ve read how the lack of these qualities has purportedly left today’s students ill-equipped to succeed.
I’ve read about college student “snowflakes” who, according to a Washington Post op-ed, routinely “run crying to daddy administrator.” I’ve read an editorial in the Los Angeles Times pleading “Enough of the Bubble-Wrapped College Student.” Well, I too have had enough — enough of these pieces that eagerly find flaws in the character of today’s students. Even more so, I have had enough of educational theorists and sociologists who claim that success is mainly a function of grit and resilience, and that discount the role that supportive communities play in promoting student success.
Angela Duckworth, a leading advocate for grit and resilience, defines grit as “the tendency to sustain interest in and effort toward very long-term goals.” This requires resilience, which the American Psychological Association (APA) defines as “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress — such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems or workplace and financial stressors.”
I could not help but notice that the APA classifies families and coworkers, as “problems,” “stressors,” and barriers to growth and development. Individualism, grit and resilience have been embraced so enthusiastically that there seems to be a countervailing decline in an understanding of the importance of the support others provide and its contribution to personal achievement and well-being.
Within a recent 12-month span, our college community experienced four student deaths. Our entire college, and especially our students, were called to summon their grit and prove their resilience in the face of these tragedies. I was also witness to the empathy, forgiveness and solidarity that has enabled our students to sustain their academic pursuits, personal goals, and to persevere.
Those who work closely with college students understand the need for multiple levels of support and the role of community in fostering student success. So then, why have so many zealously embraced the more individualistic goal of cultivating grit and resilience?
Perhaps we are just living in an age of heightened individualism. Nonetheless, the literature on human motivation and persistence posits that to be stewards of environments that both challenge and support students requires more. University of Rochester psychology professors Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, have hypothesized that individual motivation is a function of three distinct human needs: competence, autonomy and personal connection. The latter, which other theorists have called a sense of mattering or belonging, seems significantly less acknowledged — if not missing outright — from my readings.
In extreme cases, gritty behavior can have negative consequences; it can create winners and losers. Even for the “winners,” relentless self-reliance can be draining and even debilitating. On the other hand, manifestations of connectedness in social situations enable people to support each other. They have energizing and empowering qualities. People who experience personal connection are more adept at emerging from crises of confidence or competence, or even life-changing tragedies, than those who are not connected to others. Do we ultimately seek to nurture a society of gritty, resilient, citizen soloists, or do we aspire to cultivate connectedness and co-reliance?
Surely there are higher stages of individual development than the survival instincts manifested in grit and resilience that incorporate moral and social elements in personal decision making. As the humorist P.J. O’Rourke wrote, “if determination, drive and persistence … were the sole qualities of success, toddlers would rule the world.”
I know that Geneseo students come to college seeking more than merely the ability to be strong and resolute. I believe they are seeking to make sense of their lives and their place in the world, and among those around them.
Let’s encourage our students to be gritty and resilient. But let’s also expect students grow in ways that ensure those qualities result in greater social awareness and integration. Let’s all aim to cultivate not only confidence and competence, but meaning and purpose, empathy and community. Let’s all aim to build something bigger than ourselves.
Bob Bonfiglio has been vice president of student and campus life at Geneseofor 19 years. A longer version of this article appeared in About Campus magazine, Vol. 22, No. 5, November-December 2017, 29-31.