Q&A: Linda Nathan

In her new book, When Grit Isn’t Enough: A High School Principal Examines How Poverty and Inequality Thwart the College-for-All Promise, Linda Nathan takes readers into two worlds: The college-going experience for several first-generation college students and students of color, and the K-12 world that aimed to prepare them for college and career. The result is “not an upbeat book in some ways,” says Nathan. 
She is currently executive director of the Center for Artistry and Scholarship and has taught at the Harvard Graduate School of Education for 15 years. She spoke to ASBJ Associate Editor Michelle Healy about “grit” and the rigid “no excuses” pedagogy.

Have we oversold the value of grit?

There’s nothing wrong with grit, or perseverance, resiliency, or determination. What I’m taking on is the “no excuses” pedagogy that tries to create learning through a very rigid, punitive system that I do think is racist, that’s perpetrated against black and brown bodies. This kind of pedagogy, where you’re put in a corner and made to wear a special T-shirt because you walked up the hallway wrong, or didn’t have your shirt tucked in, or whatever, that’s not what public education should be about. We must acknowledge that behavior management is just a small piece of learning. It’s not the deep learning that will change kids’ lives. 

Career and technical education can provide that deep learning?

High school should be a place where you can do an apprenticeship, and not have it just be a series of courses. It should be a place where we give the deepest and broadest experiences to our kids so that they can choose what they want to do after high school, whether its college or career. In addition to having a service year between high school and college, I’d like all eighth-graders to be doing internships.

What surprised you as you researched this book?

I don’t think I was ready for the level of racism that the students experienced on their college campuses, and that’s from the kids of color perspective. And I don’t think I was ready, from the white kids’ perspective, to hear how much race mattered to them as well. It was very hard for them to be in a monolithic, homogenous environment. It was very hard for me to reconcile how much work still needs to happen with higher education, and how, in some ways, higher education has been deaf to the needs of first-generation students and students of color. It was really hard to hear, even from some of my most incredibly talented kids, what a toll it was on them, in terms of race, social class, all the microaggressions. The book, for me, is in many ways an exploration of race and systemic racism.

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