On “Resilience” and The Other Not So Useful Fictions of Educational Psychology

By lending the rhetorical prestige of science to what may be questionable practices of an educational bureaucracy and a stratified economic system [i.e., by “disguising the politics of testing in terms that are merely scientific and technical”] there is no opportunity for rigorous attempts at examining institutional culpability…. Attention is primarily paid to [scientifically measuring] students’ specific educational “problems,” and thus, there is a strong inclination to divert attention both from the inadequacies of the educational institution itself and what bureaucratic, cultural, and economic conditions caused the necessity of applying these [measures] originally. (Apple, 2004, p. 127-128)

I was asked by another colleague today if I knew of any good measures of resilience. This idea of resilience has taken on some cachet in graduate schools of education. So now public and private K-12 schools are starting to want to measure it. Always well intentioned, the educators interested in resilience are seeing something very important. They are focusing on some of humanity’s most important interior qualities, such as determination, positivity, and values. Who could argue against the idea that schools should foster resilience in students?  There is an emerging mental health crisis among the youth, and it would seem one of the issues is a lack of resilience.

This is all wonderful. But we need to be careful when we set out to measure and study something like resilience. Because of the state of psychometrics, it is fairly easy to claim to measure just abot anything you want. Almost every new construct comes with a new measure (see; EQ; SQ: Myers-Brigs, and so on).  And some folks claim to be measuring this new construct of “resilience.” They build a few questioners and Likert-type items, perhaps even do some interviews or classroom observations with coding schemes. This allows us to then rank students in terms of their resilience and study the impacts of educational programs on students who appear to lack resilience  The measure would also allow us to identify optimally resilient students and study how they got to be that way. We could also use it to make claims about a school or educational program that promotes resilience. It is easy to see why it might be a useful thing to measure resilience.

But thinking and acting as if you are measuring something doesn’t mean you are actually measuring that thing. Consider constructs like scholastic aptitude or GDP, which sure seem important, but are clelary just oversimplifications. They serve more or less as useful fictions we’ve agreed to tell ourseves about complex realities. These are measurement induced demi-realities, to draw on a term from Bhaskar. “Demi” means to make smaller, to half, or diminish. Demi-realities are not wrong or mere illusion, but they are truncated, smaller, partial experiences of reality, often the result of ideological distortion due to oppressive social systems.

Commodity fetishism is the classic example of a demi-reality. When you buy something off the shelf in a store thousands of miles away from where it is built or grown, you come to have a very narrow and partial veiw of what it is you are actually buying. Interestingly enough, in a store you mostly just see the price, which is taken as a simple unidimensional measure of the value of the commodity. Everything that went on thousands of miles away, all the people and sweat and everything, is reduced down into a simple number. This is one of the lessons of Bhaskar’s Neo-Marxist views, that money creates demi-realities and distorts our sense of what is real and of what is actually valuable.

In any case, psychology as a science is particularly prone to measurement induced demi-realities. This has been especially true when psychology has served those moneyed powers interested in the reform of schools. The IQ-testing movement during the ealry decads of the last century is a perfect case in point. A very simplistic form of thinking abot the genetic heritability of IQ created a school system largely built around this fiction. Even though there was no such thing as IQ as they defined it and claimed to meaure it, IQ existed nonetheless. And your IQ was certainly very real when it kept you from entering the country at Ellis Island, or lead to your sertalization in the Jim Crow South.

The point here is not that resilience is as foolish or damaging a concept as IQ. Quite the contrary. I think that resilience is probably too complex and important to measure. It is borderline sacred. And so I wonder more about why everyone seems to want to rush to measure it, objectify it, teach for it, analyze students in terms of it. I conclude it’s probbaly becasue of some broader cultrual trends, which have reformers systematically drawing their attention away from social structures and toward the life and mind of the child. It is here that my concerns about measuring and researching resilience begin to arise.

The negative impacts of social structures are being misunderstood to be the result of an individual’s failing or inability, e.g., “lack of resilience.”  The question of why students should need to be resilient to succeed is not asked.  The answer is that often students need to be resilient because they face coercive and competitive structures within the school and difficulties at home in the context of a broader dysfunctional consumer culture. The question is not asked because it is assumed these are a given. This idea has been discussed with reference to the sociologist C. Wright Mills (1956), who argued that institutional structures like tests become “naturalized,” which allows social injustices (having to do with the institutions that govern social life) to be understood instead as personal failings (having to do with an individual’s inability to succeed).

To my mind, this whole discourse about resilience is mis-locating  the issue within the student. Why should any child need to muster resilience just to get through school? The emerging crisis of mental health among the youth is more about institutional and family cultures being ravaged and colonized by a hyper-capitalist system. The traits and brains of the kids are not the cause, although they are the easest and most obvious things to focus on. This is why everyone keeps focusing on how the kids need to change or deal—always more measuring, labeling, and remediation of the kids. This is not bad or wrong, although it can be. The problem is, it is missing some of the point.

What if instead we set out to measure and remediate the schools and parents, not to mention the broader culture? We could look for signs of sociopathy, which are signs of an inability to take the perspectives of those who are most vulnerable. The inhabitants of demi-realities lose of a sense of what is real and what is most valuable.  Schools should be shelters and collaborative social laboratories, with vast resources, where even the most vulnerable and disadvantaged can find amelioration. They need not be the competitive hot-boxes they are today, where we now apparently need to teach students how to bounce back and stay positive just to survive. Schools should be our most well funded institutions,  decentralized and democratic, run by citizen-teacher-scientists who are empowered enough to empower even the least resilient student.  But that is another story….