February 11th, 2013

Engaging Students in a Habit of Gratitude


Many labels have been applied to the current generation of college students, many of them disparaging: lazy, distracted, aimless, needy, greedy, and self-absorbed. Some of the emerging adults who populate college classrooms earn these labels with their classroom behaviors and mediocre performance. However, within most men and women who are 18-22 years old, there is a capacity for greater things.

In The Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking: Concepts and Tools, Richard Paul and Linda Elder identify eight intellectual traits as essential to the development of the human mind. These traits are set against their opposites—those traits which impair the mind, eclipsing its potential for growth and discovery: intellectual humility vs. intellectual arrogance, intellectual courage vs. intellectual cowardice, empathy vs. close-mindedness, and so forth. Those first three are matters of both the mind and the heart. All are premised by the assumption that we are not in the world solely for our own benefit.

I teach at a private Christian liberal arts university, so I enjoy a freedom to integrate my faith with my teaching, a freedom that many of my colleagues at secular institutions do not enjoy, no matter what religious faith they may practice. This freedom prompted me to address an attitude that I see as an impediment for anyone who wishes to learn, whether that person is 18 or 80: entitlement. Many of my students, though certainly not all, come into college from a life of relative comfort and prosperity. Very few of them have even witnessed, let alone experienced, the kind of demeaning, debilitating poverty that starves the life and kills the spirit of millions of people around the world.

I have come to believe that prosperity is its own kind of impairment. In an effort to address the sense of entitlement that prosperity and comfort breed, I decided to call my students into a posture of humility. Inspired by Ann Voskamp’s book, 1000 Gifts, I started a list on the first day of the semester and invited all of the students in all of my classes to contribute expressions of gratitude to this list every time we meet. I arrive early enough to open the Word file and project it on the screen in the classroom, and then I start our class sessions with this question, “For what are you grateful today?”

On some days in some of those classes, I was met with silence. These students were not muted by hostility or belligerence; they simply had nothing to say. In other classes, and on other days, I had to cut them off after five minutes of listing their thanks so we could get to the business of the day. My purpose for this habit was to call my students into a posture of humility so that they could be teachable. We cannot learn when we are crippled by arrogance.

The certainty that there is nothing for us to gain from our attention to someone else’s agenda debilitates the educational process. I think of Scott Russell Sanders’ reminder that to educate means “to lead out.” In The Force of Spirit, he identifies ten fundamental powers of story, insisting that “what stories at their best can do is lead our desires in new directions—away from greed, toward generosity, away from suspicion, toward sympathy . . . .” My purpose in putting this list of blessings in front of my students every week and inviting them to name the things for which they are grateful is to lead them away from arrogance and entitlement toward humility and gratitude. Though this posture is consistent with the tenets of my Christian faith, it is also consistent with the tenets of civil discourse and scholarly inquiry. Saying “Thank you” requires a person to acknowledge his or her indebtedness. My students may not be indebted to me, but they certainly are indebted to someone if they are sitting in a college classroom.

As students and teachers, we are part of a community that stretches far behind us and will stretch far beyond us into the future. In this context, indebtedness is a gift, not a burden.

Paul, R. and Elder, L. (2010). The Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking Concepts and Tools. Dillon Beach: Foundation for Critical Thinking Press.

Sanders, S. R. (2000). The Force of Spirit. Boston: Beacon Press.

Voskamp, Ann. (2010). One Thousand Gifts. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Deborah Miller Fox holds an MFA in Writing and teaches creative writing, composition, and literature at Anderson University, a private liberal arts university in central Indiana.