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.

  • Gerry

    I think this deliberate attention to an "attitude of gratitude" can be nothing but good for all of us! Thanks for a great idea that I am going to try in my own classes.

  • Steve Wilson

    Gratitude is one of six practices that prevent hardening of the attitudes http://www.worldlaughtertour.com/pdfs/GHL-WLT.pdf

  • MAK

    I think faith has nothing to do with being grateful. An 'attitude of gratitude' comes from the humanity of a person rather than his/her religious beliefs.

    • Sarto

      "Humanity," as in "it's in our nature" to recognize that gratitude is a virtue? But why should we be virtuous? Just wondering how you're going to defend this without theism.

  • billw

    Thanks for the thought.
    I think all of us should model for our students a moral compass for our lives. it should be all around us during the whole school day.

  • Karl Salscheider

    MAK: If you are saying that a person can be grateful without religious beliefs, I certainly agree. On the other hand, if someone has accepted the gift of eternal life (whether someone else believes him/her or not), then that person can and would be very grateful.

  • Mohammed Advany

    One of the requirements of being Muslim is being humble. No religion has monopoly on humbleness.

    • Sarto

      She didn't say it did.

  • Sarto

    This is the single smartest little article I've seen yet on this site. I've seen so much stupid stuff I've also quit the list several times. I am glad I didn't.

  • Janet Willis

    I found this article to be one of those "ah ha" moments, followed by "why didn't I think of this?" Interestingly enough, my students are "high potential, high need (financially)" and yet entitlement is still a challenge within this group. A mere "thank you" is a rare occasion. I am going to take these thoughts and implement in my own college classroom. Thank you for sharing.

  • Martha

    Students are not the only ones who need to practice an attitude of gratitude. Many of us employed in academia take for granted the flexibility and many other benefits that such jobs provide. I walked in to work today with a real "attitude" (not gratitude) and I am glad that I took the time to read this article and try to get my focus back on giving instead of resenting.

  • Heidi

    I have kept a similar practice at the start of my classes, asking for prayer requests and then for praises for the simple & mundane blessings, as well as for the quasi-miraculous. That sense of gratitude for blessings does indeed benefit all of us and our learning–and it deepens our sense of community. Thank you, Deborah Fox!

  • Marleen

    Excellent thoughts for the day! Thank you!

  • I teach at a very similar kind of institution and, to continue the article's theme, I am very grateful for the kind flexibility it offers my teaching. Perceived pressures from "The Profession" can be debilitating for me sometimes. But this article reminds me that that shouldn't necessarily be the case.

    I'm sometimes surprised at how much the traditional Liberal Arts have in common with faith (of any stripe). To name just one commonality, both are invested in educating the whole person, not simple providing Job Skills. This professor's emphasis on a certain ethical approach to life does, I think, work toward the goals of a Liberal Arts education, whether religious or not. This task asks students to step away from themselves, if only momentarily, and think with some depth about the outside world. What could be more educational than that?

    Thanks Professor Fox.

  • guest

    I find the idea to be correct that we cannot be teachable without gratitude and humilty, but I am disturbed that I must teach this to a group of adults before I can get to the lessons at hand. I barely have enough time as it is to cover the material. I feel the impoverishment of our society at the well of our wealth.

    • Tom Carlson

      I don't disagree, and I really know that feeling, but just MAYBE we could actually cover more – or rather, get more across – if we first pay attention to engendering the right attitude of the students. It will take another 5 minutes out of class, but if they are 20% more engaged, which should result in more understanding and assimilation of content, we come out ahead.

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  • ozzie gontang

    An African proverb used by Simon Sinek says it well: To go fast, go alone. To go far, go together. As herd/pack animals, although we have chosen to say: Social animals, it is about the survival of all of us. When practicing gratitude or loving-kindness, it is contagious. If you want to see what we are up against watch Adam Curtis' 4 part BBC documentary: The Century of the Self. It can be downloaded for free at: http://archive.org/details/AdamCurtis-TheCenturyO… Edward Bernays, nephew of Sigmund Freud, and father of Public Relations (decided he couldn't use the work Propaganda after WWI). He helped American Tobacco Company, a client, get women to smoke. The cigarette became "The Torch of Freedom." Also Dan Ariely's Chapter on Social Norm and Market Norm in Predictabily Irrational talks about what happens when trust and relationship of the social norm are replaced by the market norm – financial transaction.

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  • Tom Carlson

    Great idea. I am definitely going to start using this in a few of my classes that need a bit more emotional "opening up" and engagement.
    Juast a thought about semantics – I'm sure an expert or two out there will read this: the article and discussion conflate gratitude with humility; what exactly is their relationship to each other? Causative? subordinate? is gratitude an ingredient of humility, or the other way around?
    What do you all think?