How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough

My first contact with the work of Paul Tough was in this This American Life episode, in which he reported on the awe-inspiring work of Geoffrey Canada and the Harlem Children’s Zone. Tough’s book on the same subject, Whatever It Takes, was published, praised, and widely discussed in 2008. In How Children Succeed, from 2012, Tough looks at the same concerns of the US and its dire need for education reform, but with a nationwide lens.

As the subtitle hints, in this book Tough is concerned with bringing to education the cluster of soft skills, character traits, and virtues that have been emphasized by the positive psychology movement (and which have spun off several bestsellers from 1991’s Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman to 2016’s Grit: Passion, Perseverance, and the Science of Success by Angela Duckworth). Tough argues–with plenty of test scores, statistics, and moving anecdotes to prove it–that character strengths and weaknesses have much more to do with student success and lifelong achievement than do IQ tests.

I love much of the foundation of the positive psychology movement, so named because of its desire to study and encourage mental wellness after more than a century of psychology’s (neurotic?) focus on mental illness. If that interests you, and especially if you are also fascinated by DISC, StrengthFinders, Myers-Briggs, et al, you should spend some time taking a few of these free tests connected to ongoing research at the University of Pennsylvania.

How Children Succeed is well-written and well-argued, for the most part. It’s inspiring to hear stories of children who seemingly should fail on paper, but who have taken flight in their educational and then professional and personal lives. It’s encouraging to learn about educators, thinkers, schools, and movements who are willing to reinvent themselves when initial hypotheses and reform attempts fail. I’m especially interested because it at least intends to create research-based interventions.

Where How Children Succeed falls short is its lack of intellectual modesty. Rather than adding the insights of positive psychology to other quality streams of thought in education reform, Tough presents “the hidden power of character” as a cure-all: IQ is out, and grit is in. And grit will fix all our problems, not only in schools but in adult happiness and life satisfaction.

Because Tough is so enthralled with the work of positive psychology researchers, he doesn’t seem to notice that he is replacing one overly simplistic answer to a complex problem with another overly simplistic answer. There is a star-struck quality to the arguments, and because of this partial blindness, there is little deep grappling in this book with the power of class, race, geography, or historical intertia. There is next-to-nothing in this book about teacher recruitment and retention (and instead an appalling number of references to the merits of Teach for America). And while it seems that this book would be incredibly timely in a year when everyone on social media seemed to have an opinion on education policy during Betsy DeVos’ confirmation hearings, it just isn’t. It makes literally zero public policy arguments with the power to serve more than a tiny percentage of the US’ public school student population. (In its defense, the narrow focus of the book could serve as a useful partial foundation for public policy proposals.)

For all that critique, it’s not a bad book. It just needs to be one ingredient in a gumbo, not the single-ingredient meal it sets out to be. I’d recommend it without hesitation to educators, because educators have the context of wider reading, training, and experience in education policy, theory, and practice. I have no doubt that the best educators and best teacher training programs are already using many of these insights. But for readers like me, people who simply want to be informed about important trends in education and public policy, it has serious flaws. Read it if you read a lot of education books or if you’re already interested in positive psychology and you want to think through further practical applications. Just don’t read it expecting it to be the one education book to finally tell you “How Children Succeed.”

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The Sign and the Sacrifice: The Meaning of the Cross and Resurrection by Rowan Williams

Rowan Williams numbers not only among the most influential theologians in the world, but among the top living minds, period. His career is both impressive and praiseworthy—dedication over the course of his career to both local church ministry and the Christian academy, faithful leadership at the top of the Anglican Communion through its recent global rupture, and no hesitation to use his weight as a public theologian and political figure in the UK and beyond.

Williams also keeps writing lovely little books for the church, like The Sign and the Sacrifice: The Meaning of the Cross and the Resurrection.

Rowan Williams Sign and the Sacrifice

This book is divided neatly in two. Part 1: The Meaning of the Cross is subdivided into “The sign,” “The sacrifice,” and “The victory.” Part 2: The Meaning of the Resurrection is split into “Christ’s resurrection—then” and “Christ resurrection—now.” Along the way Williams presents, analyzes, and invites us to contemplate just as wide of a swath through Christian history, theology, and practice as the book’s subtitle and organization suggest. Deep dives into Scripture and theology accompany references to literature as well as—in what turns out to be most distinctive in this book—the hymnody and prayers of the church.

The annoyance I have with this book is that points of theological argument and conversations in Biblical criticism are frustratingly lacking in footnotes. The bigger qualm I have is that in the second part of the book, I want Williams to unequivocally state, “I believe in the resurrection of the body,” and he never does. There are certainly statements that can be read that way, particularly a conversation on how Jewish conceptions of resurrection at the time of Jesus could not imagine a resurrection apart from this earth. In Part 2 as a whole, however, I find Williams to be equivocating on what the nature of Jesus’ resurrection is, and thus the nature of what our resurrection will be, although he certainly believes that God raised Jesus from the dead, and that it was the defining act of the new creation.

In terms of best audience and application, the book is successfully aimed at normal church folks. It is intellectually serious, but it isn’t unapproachable, and it even has helpful conversation questions at the end of each chapter. For me personally, I can think of several people to recommend it to, especially fellow pastors. It would be a tremendous book to plan a sermon series around, especially during Lent.

I’ll end with a longer quote to draw you in to take a chance on this excellent book:

Jesus’ death is not a ritual sacrifice. It doesn’t happen in a temple, it happens on a bleak hilltop on an execution ground. Jesus’ sacrifice is the sacrifice of obedience. At every moment of his life he has given his heart to God in such a way that God is able to work through him with no interruption, with no diversion. At every moment Jesus has fulfilled the law; not by ticking off at the end of every day a series of acts performed; not by obeying God like a reluctant corporal with a sergeant major ordering him around; but at every moment Jesus has done what God wants. So even before his crucifixion we could say in Jewish terms that he was offering a sacrifice, giving his heart to God in such a way that God is pleased with his gift.

But as with those martyrs in the period between the Testaments, it was an obedience that led to death. Jesus’ single-minded gift of his heart to the Father leads him to the shedding of his blood, because obedience to God in this world of sin, oppression and violence puts you lethally at risk. This is a world in which if you try to give your heart to God you may find your blood shed.

God’s Filing Cabinet

The X-Files

When I was growing up, I was taught to understand the daily Christian life as “walking by the Spirit” (cf. Gal. 5:16).  What that meant until perhaps ten years ago (and still means at times of high stress and low coping) was that there was some exactly right plan in God’s head, and I was anxiously trying not to fail it.

Things which aren’t psychologically healthy are never spiritually healthy.

They’re not theologically accurate either: that vision of God and God’s plan had nothing to do with Jesus or the Spirit of Jesus Christ (as the Holy Spirit is repeatedly named in Scripture).

Thomas Merton puts this all so well (from “Renunciation and Contemplation,” quoted in Fr. Albert Haase, Swimming in the Sun, pp. 123-124):

“Your vocation isn’t something that’s in a filing cabinet in Heaven that is kept secret from you and then sort of whipped out at the Last Judgment and [God says], ‘You missed, buddy! You didn’t guess right.’ But your vocation, or anything in life, is an invitation on the part of God which you’re not supposed to guess and you’re not supposed to figure out. It’s something you work out by free response.”

I still think “walk by the Spirit” is a decent, short description of the daily Christian life. But now I want to offer a bigger picture: “walk by the Spirit” when the Spirit is experienced through the whole Biblical canon; in community with other Christians, living and dead (the Tradition); via the Sacraments; and in lived experience, both my personal experience and in connection with the larger human experience.

Joyfully.

Not a Psalm of Asaph

Psalm LXXXII
And there was December and there was January,
A new year.

And in this new year, I will
I will, I will, I will, I will, I will
I will–

But what will I be?

I will be more beautiful
Than the angels,
Although with regard to me
The answer is zero
Can dance on the head of a pin.

But what shall I be
And what shall be and
What shall be
And what shall I be?

God has said, “You are gods,”
And God meant it.

16 in 2016: Best Books in the Year

Best Books of the Year lists make sense for trade awards, but people don’t read that way. Here are the best books–roughly the top 10%–I read in 2016. You can look at my full 2016 reading list on Goodreads. Friend me while you’re over there.

Flight by Sherman Alexie
I would feel better about the world if everyone would read this book. It’s painful and uplifting, with prose of a quality that shows there is no upper ceiling to YA writing.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
A black father writes an elegant, long-lasting memoir as a letter to his son in the present-day United States. If you can swing it, buy the audiobook to hear it straight from the author’s mouth to his child.

The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage by Paul Elie
If you’re interested in Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Flannery O’Connor, or Walker Percy, read this four-character biography. If you’re interested in just how well history and biography can be written, read this book.

The End of White Christian America by Robert P. Jones
Jones is the CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute. This is a brilliant book on history, politics, sociology, and American Christianity in our present moment. It might be the best book published in 2016 that I read in 2016.

Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem
Lethem has been in the back of my mind as someone to read for a long time. This story is sci-fi-warped reality, populated by well-drawn characters, written with great prose and humor. I’ll be reading more Lethem in 2017.

Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown
This is the book I have most widely recommended this year. I can’t speak to other “unclutter your life” books, but this one is directed at people who have too many good ideas to pursue them all, or who have too many claimants on their time to please them all. That’s just about everybody.

Journals of Thomas Merton
Although I’m a long-term Merton junkie, the collected journals are not mere arcana for Merton scholars. Most of his published writings were first birthed in these pages. In 2016, I read Volumes 1, 2, and 3. We’ll see how many of the other four volumes I can manage in 2017. If you’ve read no Merton, first try The Seven Storey Mountain (his classic autobiography) or No Man Is An Island. If you’ve already liked some Merton, there’s no reason to wait to dig into the journals.

The Index Card: Why Personal Finance Doesn’t Have to Be Complicated by Helaine Olen and Harold Pollack
Is this a lasting great? Maybe not. But it’s still great. Buy it for the new graduate in your life. Buy it for a wedding present. It’s useful, excellent, and short.

A Long Way from Chicago by Richard Peck
A brother and sister are sent to some small town in central Illinois to stay with their off-the-wall grandma. I would have adored this as a kid. I still do.

Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick
Several years ago, Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret invited me to create a new category of books in my brain: “Huggable.” There are some books so wonderful that they make you pause while literally hugging them for a slow inhale and exhale or three. And after a few moments you’re able to keep reading. With this book, Selznick created another one, following the same format of Cabret, with its alternating pages of texts and sketches. Here’s a picture of the main character traversing a scale model of New York City.

selznick-rose-on-the-pano

The Rabbi’s Cat by Joann Sfar
An Algerian rabbi’s cat eats a parrot and then is able to tell his master that he wants to be a Jew, drawn strikingly and originally, with great intelligence and humor. See?

Rabbi's Cat

Batman: Court of Owls by Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo
Batman is a very hit-and-miss dynasty, the New 52 is even worse, and yet this story was born out of both, and it’s tremendous. Familiar characters, deep history/mythology, Batman as detective (the best kind of Batman?), and great suspense-building and storytelling, alongside great art.

Collected Poems, 1928-1985 by Stephen Spender
Spender was of the same generation of W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood. I was introduced to him via Thomas Merton’s journals. If you like Auden, you’ll likely be a fan of Spender too. But buy this newer edition, instead of the one I have.

Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers
If you only know the marvelous Disney version, then you owe it to yourself and any kids in your life to read these. They’re magic.

Astonishing X-Men by Joss Whedon and John Cassaday
Whedon fans won’t be surprised that he’s good at writing literally anything, including this astonishing series from 2004 (that year between Firefly and Serenity).

Level Up by Gene Luen Yang, art by Thien Pham
I read Yang’s great Boxers & Saints and American-Born Chinese this year as well, but I list this because it’s the one I connected with the most emotionally.

Tuesday Reading Roundup

This past week I have been reading three wonderful books:

The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History by Robert M. Edsel with Bret Witter

This book had a slow start. First is the fact that it is two authors’ work, the former an oil-executive-turned-amateur-historian and the latter a self-described “professional co-author.” The bigger issue is the basic issue of reading about a group of men dedicated to protecting art in the midst of World War II: aren’t there enough important things which happened in that war that we never need to get to talking about art? Then there is the fact that there were never any “Monuments Men” there to protect anything but Western art.

I’m 65% of the way through, and there has yet to be a real discussion about what it says about human nature and its contradictions that a fabulously successful death cult also dedicated itself to collecting the greatest works of the human spirit. Certainly that’s above the pop-history pay grade, but as a pastor and small-time theologian, I’m endlessly amazed by our human capacity for self-deception, and this whole piece of history is fuel for further thought.

Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison

This year I have an ambitious reading goal anchored by a narrower list of fewer than 40 books. That smaller list includes the complete novels of Toni Morrison (at least the ones I’ve not yet read) as well as a couple of her non-fiction collections. I’m currently wondering if this might be her best work, but it’s been years since I’ve read Beloved.

Wearing God: Clothing, Laughter, Fire, and Other Overlooked Ways of Meeting God by Lauren F. Winner

Although it will be difficult for Winner to ever outsell her Girl Meets God, she has become an unbelievably stronger writer since then. In my opinion, Still is the one that has a chance to enter into the classics categoryWearing God, the follow-up to that book, now confounds my expectations that she could never top it. Of course, I’m only thirty pages in. Fans of Madeleine L’Engle’s non-fiction and Barbara Brown Taylor’s more personal work will love this book, in which the title refers to the off-the-beaten-path Biblical images of God that Winner says we need to add to the familiar Shepherd, Father, King, etc. in our heads, hearts, and prayers.


Tuesday Reading Roundup has been a regular feature of this blog and its predecessor for several years. Entries must: 1) Have been read by me in the previous week; 2) Have been particularly interesting, thought- or conversation-provoking, and/or entertaining.

Getting (Pastoring) Things Done, Part III

I don’t know if you read popular productivity authors, but sometimes when I read Michael Hyatt, for instance, I get the impression that he is some sort of god living on an unattainable plain that I will never reach and perhaps should not waste the energy trying to reach. The truth is that Hyatt has great administrative leadership gifts and communication gifts, and he has invested those gifts well and over a long period of time. The truth is that I can write an ideal schedule to help maximize a healthy type of productivity and output, and I also live a normal life, that I wanted to share with you.

Monday, March 7, 2016
Home
5:15am  Wake up to learn I did not turn on my alarm (for 4:45am) last night
5:20-5:35am Walk one mile (instead of the planned two)
5:40am Coffee and finish episode of Love I started on the treadmill
5:55am Bible, Devotional, Pray
6:25am Shower and get ready for work
6:40am Breakfast
6:55am Milo wakes up
7:18am Leave for work

Work
7:26am  Morning Prayer
8:15am Planning Pomodoro (including sermon prep, bulletin, edit and post sermon podcast, update church website, plan a meeting)
8:45am Make coffee and help set up for Moms’ (and one Dad) Group and their kids
9:30-10:45am Receive emergency call to visit a parishioner who is actively dying at local nursing home; go spend time with her, staff, family
11-12:30pm Early lunch with a rep with a quote for a new church sanctuary sound system
1pm Visit parishioner’s father
2:15pm Arrive back at office–Noon Prayer
2:45pm Plan Church Council meeting and make necessary copies
3:45pm Head home
5:40pm Head to meeting
7:15pm Head home for the night

Reflections
My day started with a misstep (no alarm), a strong recovery (not two miles, but still some movement), a stronger slip (finish a TV episode), and a happy fault (still home when Milo awoke). I got to work, though, and I got right into Morning Prayer and then my Planning Pomodoro. Then forty-five minutes later came an emergency call that decimated my day.

It’s worth saying that it didn’t have to be that way. Part of what drove me to drop everything and jump in the car was genuinely that it is my job. Part of it was ego: the desire to put on my pastor cape and rush off to the rescue. And a good chunk was anxiety: not even professionals can really tell you someone is going to die in a half hour (as the person on the phone call insisted to me), but I didn’t want to think about myself as the one whom others thought of as failing to be there in an emergency. [That’s too many thinks.] I did not take five or ten minutes to assess: I went, and I’m glad I went, but it was with anxiety filling my sails.

I drove the 10-15 minutes to the nursing home, knowing that I would need a similar amount of time on the other end of the visit in order to make the lunch meeting. I had three minutes to spare, and then I had five minutes to spare between the lunch meeting and the time at another nursing care facility with another parishioner and his dying father. I drove there, set my phone timer for 4 minutes, and I had some “that crazy guy in the parking lot” silence.

For me, the important thing was to find the places of traction as things were slipping: not enough time for ideal exercise but enough for some exercise; late to work but still practicing Morning Prayer; only a couple minutes between appointments but enough time to be still.

Aside from the hours, it was an exhausting day. I did a CPE residency the year following seminary, but I have still never really learned how to care well for others without picking up too much of their emotions. The church council meeting to replace the sound system was the biggest financial decision the church has made in my time there, and I likened it to Mel afterwards to our conversations last year about buying a new car, but with six extra people at the table. And I got a call on the way home for the night to tell me that the woman I had visited in the morning had died.

That’s not a typical day or an atypical day, just a particular day. Without some pieces of structure that remained, particularly intentional prayer, time in Scripture, time set aside just for planning instead of doing, some good food and even a bit of exercise, I am convinced I would’ve been a lot worse off.