A review of Paul Tough's "How Children Succeed"
How Children Succeed:
Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character
By Paul Tough
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt,
Less than a week before the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Fisher v. Texas, the latest case to test the constitutionality of affirmative action, the Chronicle of Higher Education published an article about a meeting of college-admissions counselors. Race, it turns out, wasn’t “the four-letter-word everybody’s talking about.” Rather, it was grit. It appears that college administrators now want to test for this quality—“the habit of overcoming challenges, of learning from mistakes instead of being defeated by them”—and incorporate their findings into the application process.
This is largely due to the work of Paul Tough, whose new book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, has created a sensation, and for good reason.
Tough begins his account of how children succeed with some explanation of the latest research on why they fail. The primary cause, he writes, is stress. Scientists have come to believe that our stress-response system “evolved to react to brief and acute stresses [that] worked well when humans were out on the savanna running from predators.” In our time, though, that stress-response system kicks into gear when we consider issues that are not life-threatening—from whether we’ll get promotions at work to whether our romantic relationships will work out. The process of managing this intense physical reaction, known as allostasis, creates “wear and tear on the body.”
For children who have grown up in unstable environments, the effects of allostasis—high blood pressure, heart disease, cancer, diabetes—can be devastating. Some of the behaviors associated with these environments (smoking, overeating, and drug use) account for those health effects. But scientists have found that even absent these behaviors, the health of people who grow up with childhood trauma is far worse. It isn’t the traumas themselves, as Tough explains, so much as the body’s constant reactions to them.
Tough compares these reactions to an internal fleet of “superdeluxe firetrucks” sent out to respond to every problem. Of one 18-year-old he interviewed he writes: “When she was a child, her fire alarm went off constantly at top volume: My mom and stepmom are punching each other; I’m never going to see my dad again; no one’s home to make me dinner; my foster family isn’t going to take care of me. Every time the alarm went off, her stress-response system sent out all the trucks, sirens blaring. The firefighters smashed in some windows and soaked some carpets, and by the time [she] turned 18, her biggest problem wasn’t the threats she faced from the world around her. It was the damage the firefighters had done.”
The research is depressing, because it seems to diagnose a problem without a solution. But Tough insists that there are ways around it. Just as a study of rats showed that mothers who licked and groomed their young with greater frequency produced offspring who were better at mazes, so babies who form a secure attachment to their caregivers in early childhood can overcome a greater degree of stress when they get older. In one case, foster parents were given a particular kind of training in responding to infants’ cues “more attentively and warmly and calmly.” Researchers found that “after just 10 home visits, children…show higher rates of secure attachment and their cortisol levels [a stress hormone] are indistinguishable from those of typical, well-functioning, non-foster-care children.”
Different strategies must be used when children reach a certain age in order to improve their chances of success. Once children feel secure, parents must foster other traits. As with babies, biology and environment can affect the outcomes of older children, but Tough describes how the inculcation of a set of character traits can help students overcome these challenges.
He describes how KIPP Academy, the successful charter-school network that began in 1995, initially had a very good record of getting kids into college but a low level of college completion. Tough describes founder David Levin’s reaction: “Every month or so, it seemed, he would get word that another student had decided to drop out. He took the college data personally: What could he have done differently?” Over time, “Levin noticed something curious: The students who persisted in college were not necessarily the ones who had excelled academically at KIPP. Instead they seemed to be the ones who possessed certain other gifts, skills like optimism and resilience and social agility.”
Levin had tried to incorporate the teaching of “character education” into KIPP, but it was not until he read Learned Optimism by the University of Pennsylvania researcher Martin E.P. Seligman that he understood “optimism is a learnable skill, not an inborn trait.”
Tough writes that Levin recognized many of the problematic attitudes of his students in Seligman’s writing. Pessimists, he learned,
tend to react to negative events by explaining them as permanent, personal and pervasive….Failed a test? It’s not because you didn’t prepare well; it’s because you’re stupid. If you get turned down for a date, there’s no point in asking someone else; you’re simply unlovable. Optimists, by contrast, look for specific, limited, short term explanations for bad events, and as a result, in the face of a setback, they’re more likely to pick themselves up and try again.
In collaboration with Seligman and the headmaster of Riverdale Academy (a wealthy prep school near KIPP in the Bronx), Levin developed a character-education program to teach kids grit. When Tough visited KIPP afterward, the effects were stark. The six-year college-graduation rate of KIPP alums went from 21 percent for the class of 2003 to 46 percent for the class of 2005.
What makes this notion about grit so appealing is not just that it fits in with an American sense of fairness, which it does, but that it offers teachers, parents, and policymakers strategies for improving the outcomes of kids who were born into difficult circumstances. While biology plays a significant role in how we turn out physically, emotionally, intellectually—it is even more significant than we once thought—Tough argues that biology can be overcome.
In the famous “marshmallow test,” researchers offered children the choice between one marshmallow now or two later if they could resist eating the first marshmallow for 15 minutes. The children who resisted had consistently better outcomes later in life. It is not merely that the ability to delay gratification is beneficial. It is also that the children who succeeded employed certain strategies to do so. They created their own distractions, talking or singing to themselves. Researchers were also able to help children wait longer by encouraging them to think about the marshmallow differently.
But kids want marshmallows. Even if they wait 15 minutes, they know they will be rewarded. Matters get more complex when you tell kids that if they try hard for 13 years of school and then another four years of college, a good job and a steady income will follow. The tangible value of postponing gratification until adulthood to secure benefits that don’t seem like benefits will never be apparent to children. In another experiment, researchers were able to increase the IQ scores of children in low-income homes by offering them M&Ms as an incentive to do well. But in terms of life outcomes, it was their first score—the one before being offered the candy—that was more indicative of life outcomes. It’s the kids who have a kind of “internal motivation,” who are willing to do their best on tests even when there is no chocolate or any other immediate benefit waiting at the other end, who do well.
Tough explains how a study of results on something called the “coding speed test,” a straight-forward yet mind-numbing exam, turned out to be a good indicator of “conscientiousness.” Intelligence didn’t matter so much as whether the test takers were willing to try hard on a boring test. Scores on the coding test “were every bit as reliable a predictor of [the test takers’] adult wages as their cognitive test scores.” Conscientious people commit fewer crimes, stay married longer, and smoke and drink less.
Tough’s book goes far in explaining how teaching cognitive skills will not be enough to help underprivileged children succeed. It is a smart, concise, and well-documented case. But in his effort to present the diagnoses and prescriptions in the book as bipartisan, he gives short shrift to those who have argued most fervently against the panacea of self-esteem above all and building character as the key to human achievement.
Tough acknowledges that conservatives have always said character matters. He writes: “Where the typical conservative argument on poverty falls short is that it often stops right there: Character matters…and that’s it. There’s not much society can do until poor people shape up and somehow develop better character. In the meantime, the rest of us are off the hook. We can lecture poor people and we can punish them if they don’t behave the way we tell them to, but that’s where our responsibility ends.”
Tough is wrong here both on the general level and the specific. One of the most generous conservative philanthropies around today is the John Templeton Foundation. Tough might have come across the name because it has been a great supporter of the research of Martin Seligman and others who have followed in his footsteps.
Generally speaking, though, Tough misses the point. Conservatives don’t believe that “there’s not much society can do.” We believe there’s not much government can do. But that won’t stop government from trying. While Tough waits around for a federal bureaucracy to implement the changes he recommends, there is research in his own book that families, churches, mentoring programs, urban Catholic schools, and other private entities might want to consider in their quests to help kids succeed.
All in all, How Children Succeed is a highly readable tour through some interesting research—although, as with all such books of the Malcolm Gladwell type, it is hard for a layperson to determine how much the author is cherrypicking from hundreds of studies. And much of what is here is far from novel.
The idea that infants need to form secure attachments in order to grow into well-adjusted adults has been a moot point since the British psychiatrist John Bowlby developed attachment theory in the 1950s from studying orphaned children. It’s one thing to adapt Bowlby’s ideas to the lives of children growing up in one-parent families in the midst of general social and behavioral chaos. It’s quite another for Tough to summon up the psychologist Madeline Levine (author of The Price of Privilege, a book leaning heavily on her practice with affluent kids in Silicon Valley) to broaden his claim about the dangers of faulty attachment to the very rich.
He writes that wealthy parents “are more likely than others to be emotionally distant from their children,” and he suggests that distance may be the reason for the higher level of depression in adolescent girls in upper-class families. To be sure, rich adolescent girls have their share of Gossip Girl problems, but Paul Tough may want to pay a visit to the Mommy and Me classes in New York City and Westchester before assuming the key issue for such children is a too-distant mother. Quite the opposite.
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Meddling with Mettle
Must-Reads from Magazine
With the demise of the filibuster for judicial nominations, the Senate has become a more partisan body. Members of the opposition party no longer have to take difficult votes to confirm presidential nominees, and so they no longer have to moderate their rhetoric to avoid the appearance of hypocrisy. Many expected, therefore, that Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings would tempt Democrats to engage in theatrics and hyperbole. Few, however, foresaw just how recklessly the Judiciary Committee’s Democratic members would behave.
The sordid performance to which Americans were privy was not the harmless kind that can be chalked up to presidential ambitions. Right from the start, Democratic committee members took a sledgehammer to the foundations of the institution in which they are privileged to serve.
Sen. Cory Booker made national headlines by declaring himself “Spartacus,” but the actions he undertook deserved closer attention than did the scenery he chewed. Booker insisted that it was his deliberate intention to violate longstanding Senate confidentiality rules supposedly in service to transparency. It turns out, however, that the documents Booker tried to release to the public had already been exempted from confidentiality. Booker was adamant, however, that he had undermined the Senate’s integrity. You see, that, not transparency, was his true objective. It was what he believed his constituents wanted from him.
Booker wasn’t alone. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse appeared to share his colleague’s political instincts. “I want to make it absolutely clear that I do not accept the process,” he said of the committee’s vetting of Kavanaugh’s documents. “Because I do not accept its legitimacy or validity,” Whitehouse added, he did not have to abide by the rules and conventions that governed Senate conduct.
When the committee’s Democratic members were not trying to subvert the Senate’s credibility, they were attempting to impugn Judge Kavanaugh’s character via innuendo or outright fabrications.
Sen. Kamala Harris managed to secure a rare rebuke from the fact-checking institution PolitiFact, which is charitably inclined toward Democratic claims. “Kavanaugh chooses his words very carefully, and this is a dog whistle for going after birth control,” read her comments on Twitter accompanying an 11-second clip in which Kavanaugh characterized certain forms of birth control as “abortion-inducing drugs.” “Make no mistake,” Harris wrote, “this is about punishing women.” But the senator had failed to include mitigating context in that clip, which would have made it clear that Kavanaugh was simply restating the arguments made by the plaintiffs in the case in question.
Later, Harris probed Kavanaugh as to whether he believed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which has never been explicitly ruled unconstitutional, was wrongly upheld by the Supreme Court. Despite calling the decisions of this period “discriminatory,” Kavanaugh declined to elaborate on a case that could theoretically come before the Supreme Court. This, the judge’s detractors insisted, was “alarming” and perhaps evidence of latent racial hostility. In fact, it was an unremarkable example of how Supreme Court nominees tend to avoid offering “forecasts” of how they will decide cases without having heard the arguments—a routine deemed “the Ginsburg Rule” after Ruth Bader, who perfected the practice.
Over a week later, Harris had still not explained what she was getting at. But she doesn’t have to. The vagueness of her claim was designed to allow Kavanaugh’s opponents’ imaginations to run wild, leading them to draw the worst possible conclusions about this likely Supreme Court justice and to conclude that the process by which he was confirmed was a sham.
Harris may not have been alone in appealing to this shameful tactic. On Thursday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein shocked observers when she released a cryptic statement revealing that she had “referred” to “federal investigative authorities” a letter involving Kavanaugh’s conduct. It’s human nature to arrive at the worst imaginable conclusion as to what these unstated claims might be, and that’s precisely what Kavanaugh’s opponents did. It turned out that the 35-year-old accusations involve an anonymous woman who was allegedly cornered in a bedroom by Kavanaugh and a friend during a high-school party. Kavanaugh, the letter alleged, put a hand over her mouth, but the woman removed herself from the situation before anything else occurred. All were minors at the time of this alleged episode, and Kavanaugh denies the allegations.
Some thought it was odd for Feinstein to refer these potentially serious allegations to the FBI this week and in such a public fashion when the allegations contained in a letter were known to Democrats for months. The letter was, after all, obtained by Democratic Rep. Anna Eshoo in July. But it doesn’t seem confusing when considering the facts that the FBI all but dismissed the referral off-hand and reporting on the episode lacks any corroboration to substantiate the claims made by the alleged victim here. It is hard not to conclude that this is an attempt to affix an asterisk to Brett Kavanaugh’s name. Democrats will not only claim that this confirmation process was tainted but may now contend that Kavanaugh cannot be an impartial arbitrator—not with unresolved clouds of suspicion involving sexual assault hanging over his head.
Ultimately, as public polling suggests, the Democratic Party’s effort to tarnish Kavanaugh’s reputation through insinuation and theatrics has had the intended effect. Support for this nominee now falls squarely along party lines. But the collateral damage Senate Democrats have done to America’s governing institutions amid this scorched-earth campaign could have lasting and terrible consequences for the country.
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While the nation’s attention is focused on the Carolina coast, something very odd is happening across the country in Sunspot, New Mexico.
Sunspot is hardly a town at all–the nearest stores are 18 miles away. It’s actually a solar observatory 9,200 feet up in the Sacramento Mountains. It is open to the public and has a visitor’s center, but don’t visit it right now. On September 6th, the FBI moved in and evacuated all personnel using Black Hawk helicopters. Local police were told to stay away. The only explanation being given by the FBI is that an unresolved “security issue” is the cause of the evacuation.
The sun is the only astronomical body capable of doing major damage to planet earth without actually hitting us. A coronal mass ejection aimed at the earth could have a devastating impact on satellites, radio transmission, and the electrical grid, possibly causing massive power outages that could last for weeks, even months. (It would also produce spectacular auroras. During the Carrington Event of 1859, the northern lights were seen as far south as the Caribbean and people in New England could read newspapers by the light.)
So, there are very practical, not just intellectual reasons, to know what the sun is up to. But the National Solar Observatory right now is a ghost town, and no one will say why. Such a story should be catnip for journalists.
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It's not paranoia if they're really out to get you.
Americans awoke Thursday morning to a familiar noise: The president of the United States waxing conspiratorial and declaring himself the victim of a nefarious plot.
“3,000 people did not die in the two hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico,” Donald Trump declared on Twitter. He insisted that the loss of life in the immediate aftermath of 2017’s Hurricane Maria topped out in the low double-digits and ballooned into the thousands well after the fact because of faulty accounting. The president did not claim that this misleading figure was attributable to flaws in the studies conducted in the aftermath of last year’s disaster by institutions like George Washington University or the New England Journal of Medicine but to a deliberate misinformation campaign orchestrated by his political opponents. “This was done by the Democrats in order to make me look as bad as possible,” Trump insisted.
If, for some mysterious reason, Trump wanted to attack the validity of these studies, he might have questioned the assumptions and biases that even their authors admit had an unavoidable effect on their confidence intervals. But Trump’s interest is not in accuracy. His desire is to shield himself from blame and to project his administration’s failings—even those as debatable as the disaster that afflicted Puerto Rico for the better part of a year—onto others. The president’s self-consciousness is so transparent at this point that even his defenders in Congress have begun directly confronting the insecurities that fuel these tweets.
Donald Trump has rarely encountered a conspiracy theory he declined to legitimize, and this tendency did not abate when he won the presidency. From his repeated assertions that Moscow’s intervention in the 2016 election was a “hoax,” to the idea that the FBI shielded Hillary Clinton from due scrutiny, to the baseless notion that “millions and millions” of illegal-immigrant voters deprived him of a popular vote victory, all of this alleged sedition has a common theme: Trump is the injured party.
The oddest thing about all this is that these are the golden days. Trump-era Republicans will look back on this as the halcyon period in which all of Washington’s doors were open to them. The president’s ostensible allies control every chamber of government. The power his adversaries command is of the soft sort—cultural and moral authority—but not the kind of legal power that could prevent Trump and Republicans from realizing their agenda. That could be about to change.
The signs that a backlash to unified Republican rule in Washington was brewing have been obvious almost since the moment Trump took the oath of office. Democrats have consistently overperformed in special and off-year elections, their candidates have outraised the GOP, and a near-record number of Republicans opted to retire rather than face reelection in 2018. The Democratic Party’s performance in the generic ballot test has outpaced the GOP for well over a year, sometimes by double-digits, leading many to speculate that Democrats are well positioned to retake control of the House of Representatives. Now, despite the opposition party’s structural disadvantages, some are even beginning to entertain the prospect of a Democratic takeover in the Senate.
Until this point, the Trump administration has faced no real adversity. Sure, the administration’s executive overreach has been rejected in the courts and occasionally public outcry has forced the White House to abandon ill-considered initiatives, but it’s always been able to rely on the GOP majorities in Congress to shield it from the worst consequences of its actions. That phase of the Trump presidency could be over by January. For the first time, this president could have to contend with at least one truly adversarial chamber of the legislature, and opposition will manifest first in the form of investigations.
How will the White House respond when House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings is tasked with investigating the president’s response to a natural disaster or when he subpoenas the president’s personal records? How will Trump respond when Judiciary Committee Chair Jerrold Nadler is overseeing the investigation into the FBI’s response to Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election, not Bob Goodlatte? Will the Department of Homeland Security’s border policies withstand public scrutiny when it’s Mississippi’s Bennie Thompson, not Texas’s Michael McCaul, doing the scrutinizing? How will Wall Street react to a Washington where financial-services oversight is no longer led by Jeb Hensarling but Maxine Waters? If the Democrats take the House, the legislative phase of the Trump era be over, but the investigative phase will have only just begun.
In many ways, this presidency behaved as though it were operating in a bunker from day one, and not without reason. Trump had every reason to fear that the culture of Washington and even many of the members of his own party were secretly aligned against him, but the key word there is “secret.” The secret is about to be out. The Trump White House hasn’t yet faced a truly adversarial Washington institution with teeth, but it is about to. If you think you’ve seen a bunker mentality in this White House, you haven’t seen anything yet.
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Podcast: Google and Kavanaugh.
Will Google survive the revelations of its political bias, or are those revelations nothing new? We delve into the complexities of the world in which important tech companies think they are above politics until they decide they’re not. Also some stuff on the Supreme Court and on polls. Give a listen.
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Smeared for doing the job.
When then-presidential candidate Donald Trump famously declared his intention to be a “neutral” arbiter of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian territories and put the onus for resolving the conflict on Jerusalem, few observers could have predicted that Trump would run one of the most pro-Israel administrations in American history.
This year, the Trump administration began relocating the U.S. embassy in Israel to the nation’s capital city, fulfilling a promise that began in 1995 with the passage of a law mandating this precise course of action. The administration also declined to blame Israel for defending its Gaza border against a Hamas-led attack. Last week, the administration shuttered the PLO’s offices in Washington.
The Trump administration’s commitment to shedding the contradictions and moral equivalencies that have plagued past administrations has exposed anti-Zionism for what its critics so often alleged it to be.
This week, Department of Education Assistant Secretary of Education for Civil Rights Kenneth Marcus announced his intention to vacate an Obama-era decision that dismissed an alleged act of anti-Semitism at Rutgers University. Marcus’s decision to reopen that particularly deserving case has led the New York Times to publish an article by Erica L. Green full of misconceptions, myths, and dissimulations about the nature of the anti-Israel groups in question and the essential characteristics of anti-Semitism itself.
In reporting on Marcus’s move, Green declared the education activist and opponent of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement a “longtime opponent of Palestinian rights causes,” a designation the paper’s editor felt fine printing without any substantiating evidence. You could be forgiven for thinking that BDS itself constituted a cause of “Palestinian rights” and not an international effort to stigmatize and harm both Israel and its supporters. If you kept reading beyond that second paragraph, your suspicions were confirmed.
Green contended that Marcus’s decision has paved the way for the Education Department to adopt a “hotly contested definition of anti-Semitism” that includes: denying Jews “the right to self-determination,” claiming that the state of Israel is a “racist endeavor,” and applying a double standard to Israel not “expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.” As Jerusalem Post reporter and COMMENTARY contributor Lahav Harkov observed, this allegedly “hotly contested definition” is precisely the same definition used by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. In 2010, the IHRA’s working definition was adopted almost in total by Barack Obama’s State Department.
Green went so far as to say that this not-so-new definition for anti-Semitism has, according to Arab-American activists, declared “the Palestinian cause anti-Semitic.” So that is the Palestinian cause? Denying Jews the right to self-determination, calling the state of Israel itself a racist enterprise, and holding it to nakedly biased double standards? So much for the two-state solution.
Perhaps the biggest tell in the Times piece was its reporters’ inability to distinguish between pro-Palestinian activism and anti-Israeli agitation. The complaint the Education Department is preparing to reinvestigate involves a 2011 incident in which an event hosted by the group Belief Awareness Knowledge and Action (BAKA) allegedly imposed an admissions fee on Jewish and pro-Israel activists after unexpected numbers arrived to protest the event. An internal email confirmed that the group only charged this fee because “150 Zionists” “just showed up,” but the Obama administration dismissed the claim, saying that the organization’s excuse—that it expected heftier university fees following greater-than-expected attendance—was innocuous enough.
Green did not dwell on the group, which allegedly discriminated against Jews and pro-Israeli activists. If she had, she’d have reported that, just a few weeks before this incident, BAKA staged another event on Rutgers’s campus—a fundraiser for the organization USTOGAZA, which provided aid to the campaign of “flotillas” challenging an Israeli blockade of Gaza. USTOGAZA’s links to the Turkey-based organization Insani Yardim Vakfi (IHH), which has long been associated with support for Hamas-led terrorist activities, rendered the money raised in this event legally suspect. Eventually, as Brooke Goldstein wrote for COMMENTARY, even BAKA conceded the point:
After community members demanded that Rutgers, a state-funded university, hold an investigation before handing over any money to USTOGAZA, the school responded by offering to keep the money raised in an escrow account until a suitable recipient could be found. In June 2011, BAKA sent out an e-mail admitting the University had, after “much deliberation” and despite their initial approval, “decided that they are not willing to release the funds to the US to Gaza effort” due to concerns of being found liable for violating the material-support statutes.
Rutgers prudently limited BAKA’s ability to participate in on-campus events after these incidents, but the organization that took their place—Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP)—is no better. The Times quoted officials with the Center for Law and Justice who praised Marcus’s move and cited SJP as a source of particular consternation, but the reporters did not delve into the group’s activities. If they had, they’d find that the organization’s activities—among them declaring that “Zionists are racists,” supporting anti-Zionist individuals despite credible accusations of child abuse, and endorsing Hamas’s governing platform, which labels the entire state of Israel “occupied territory”—fits any cogent definition of anti-Semitism. This is to say nothing of the abuse and harassment that American Jews experience on college campuses that play host to SJP’s regular “Israel apartheid weeks.”
Some might attribute the Times’ neutral portrayal of groups that tacitly support violence and people like Omar Barghouti—an activist who “will never accept a Jewish state in Palestine” and has explicitly endorsed “armed resistance” against Jews, who he insists are “not a people”—to ignorance, as though that would neutralize the harm this dispatch might cause. But the Times piece has emboldened those who see Israel’s Jewish character as a threat both to its political culture and our own. That worrying sentiment was succinctly expressed by New York Magazine’s Eric Levitz: “You don’t have to be a staunch supporter of the Palestinian cause to question Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.”
The benefit of the doubt only extends so far. Even the charitably inclined should have discovered its limits by now.