[Op-Ed] Do Americans still have grit?


Kaitlyn Luu

The American pioneers of the 19th century journeyed west in covered wagons or on foot in a display of what some people today regard as the greatest demonstration of American grit. The route was extremely dangerous and many people died before ever reaching their destination.

Kaitlyn Luu

My eighth grade U.S. history teacher was a shameless patriot who did an awful job at concealing her right-wing political opinions, so when we began learning about westward expansion, I was already accustomed to the way she would glorify the colonists and early settlers of this country’s founding. 

I listened to and bore through her lecture about the unbridled grit of the pioneers and all the sacrifices they made to pursue the prophesized Manifest Destiny. It was all the same nationalist rhetoric that she brought up again and again to instill some sort of pride or allegiance in a bunch of eighth graders. She concluded her spiel by commenting on a supposed deficit of that so-called American grit in today’s society. 

According to my teacher, the pioneer spirit forged by those hopeful migrants who ventured west in search of opportunities that were not afforded to them elsewhere was lacking in Americans of younger generations. In a class discussion, she asked students to come up with reasons for this phenomenon, to which various answers were availed. 

One such explanation was that Americans had become indolent due to technological advancements that enabled laziness and degeneration. Another student suggested that people who went into the military were a minor exception to this seeming aversion to American principles of gumption and tenacity.

If I’m being honest, these propositions took me by surprise because of the blatant absence of self-awareness and unacknowledged privilege that riddled their reasoning. I very rarely spoke up or voiced my opinion in that class for fear of being shot down, but I disagreed with the sentiment that Americans today have less grit and stride than the pioneers of the 19th century. 

It took me a while to form a coherent thought as I mulled over my teacher’s prompt, but I think the two cents I can give hold enough merit for me to say my piece. For some context, my parents are from Vietnam and I am the first generation in my family to be born in the United States. My mother was a refugee who came here when she was very young and lived in Chicago for the better part of her upbringing. Growing up, her family was not well off by any means, so she had to work hard in order to get out of that situation. She was an excellent student who was valedictorian of her class and got a full-ride scholarship to attend the University of Illinois-Chicago where she earned a Doctor of Pharmacy degree. Once my mother got a job with a stable income, she paid off the mortgage on her parents’ home so they could retire. 

My father immigrated to the United States at 20 years old without knowing any English, clutching onto the promise of social mobility and economic opportunity that lured people in dire circumstances to this land. The language barrier was a big obstacle that he had to overcome, but he managed to do so and eventually graduated from Cal Poly Pomona and went on to become a mechanical engineer. It is because of the dedication and resilience of my parents that my siblings and I live comfortable lives and are alleviated from the burden of having to make a better life for ourselves. 

The pioneers who followed treacherous paths and traveled to unknown places that had never been breached by the colonies were the first to go after what we now refer to as the American Dream. We learn about their stories in our history textbooks because America would not be the country it is today if not for their contributions. The transcontinental railroad that revolutionized transportation as well as the Erie Canal which facilitated the stream of immigrants that filled in western territories were integral to the development of this nation. Without the innovative minds steering the helm of the Industrial Revolution, the average lifespan of an American citizen would probably remain at around 40, and we might not have the technology to withstand epidemics and the spread of infectious diseases. This is to say that in a similar way, people who have managed to achieve success in spite of an unfavorable predicament paved the way for future generations to lead more prosperous lives. In my case, my parents were the ones who did that for me.

Most of the students in that classroom had never experienced what it’s like to be depended upon by your provider to get an education and a higher paying job to support your family. It isn’t hard to understand why they may feel that people are just handed things to them on a silver platter these days, because that’s what they know and observe from the environment they’re brought up in.

However, this is not at all a universal experience. So many people in this country deal with the same financial and social struggles my parents did, and I consider them to possess more grit than I could imagine ever wielding. Taking into consideration the dynamic of privilege when it comes to these types of conversations is necessary if we are to truly understand the very real challenges that people who are much less fortunate endure on a daily basis.