Gratitude in Education: 
A Radical View
From the introduction

by Kerry Howells

If we were to meet gratitude face to face she would say ‘take action that serves others’, ‘give back’, ‘give up’, ‘say sorry’, ‘let go’, ‘clear the air’, and ‘connect’.

cover of the book Why gratitude?

We live in a time when we are constantly exposed to the suffering of those less fortunate than ourselves, or those who have had the world at their feet snapped away by a wave, a bomb, a fire, or a rampant storm. As they plummet into chaos or flee for refuge, we are summoned to answer just how to respond to the millions reaching out for our regard. If we have our own fortunes intact (for the moment) just one glimpse of others’ suffering, can, if we allow it, generate a deep moral questioning of how we should respond. A common refrain is that we should be grateful for what we have. But for gratitude to be an effective and moral response, we would need to embrace it as more than something that makes us feel good or reminds us of how good we have it. For if we were to meet gratitude face to face she would say ‘take action that serves others’, ‘give back’, ‘give up’, ‘say sorry’, ‘let go’, ‘clear the air’, and ‘connect’. We are in danger of staying with an impoverished sense of gratitude if we only entertain it at the level of our intellect, or indeed if we consider it in isolation from its meaning in our interactions with others. To reach into the true nature of gratitude, we need to engage with it through action, and discover an embodied understanding through our lived experience, our connectedness to the other.

There is much in today’s world that can numb our gratitude. Our excuses lead us to indifference when wholly reasonable indebtedness to each other and the environment knocks at our door. We have found numerous places to hide from gratitude. Some hide behind their disgust at simplistic Victorian notions of gratitude where we were required, ordered in fact, to put ourselves in the shoes of others and never complain about our own pain. Some believe gratitude should remain in its cathedrals and religious inscriptions, neither to come out into contemporary discourse nor guide our secular life. Others are encased by a resentment that they have made their mission in life to protect. They take umbrage at any whiff of the word ‘gratitude’ as they think it suggests we ignore their pain.

In many circles, the greatest hiding place is in watered down versions of the word gratitude itself, so its role is as something that can make us feel good. It seems that the more we reach into the power of gratitude to answer some of our current psychological and social ills, the more the word is used to serve the very self-interests it wishes to destroy.

sleeping polar bearTo hear the power of gratitude we need to listen with our heart. If we listen to one beat of nature, we would hear her crying out for us to give back for what we have received. Governments around the world are hearing that cry, but most do not hear it in their hearts. To take the kind of brave and urgent action our earth and humanity require, we need to be deeply moved by a force that connects us with each other, our environment, and perhaps to something greater than ourselves. If we allow gratitude to come out of hiding, and live in our hearts in an authentic and contemporary way, it can offer that bridge to community connection and action.

Many great thinkers of the past including Seneca, Aquinas, Hobbes, Einstein, Chesterton, Shakespeare and Kant have spoken about the place of gratitude in enriching our lives. For hundreds of years, gratitude has been discussed in many diverse fields. When we read or hear the word ‘gratitude’ it can often be enough to remind us of a missing piece, an incomplete part played in our giving back, a strength we gained from expressing gratitude in times past. For some it can be a source of pain. The word gratitude reminds them of how deep is the wound when they give and give to others and nothing is returned, or where all they seem to receive is ingratitude.

In the past decade we have witnessed an exponential growth in explorations of gratitude in both academic journals and general texts. Perhaps this signals a rising interest in sources from where we can enhance our wellbeing or reach a higher consciousness? Yet if our discourse wholeheartedly embraces gratitude without an awareness and respect for those who do not warm to its powers or value its intent, we can alienate them unintentionally.

We do not need another book that simply adores and adorns gratitude. Nor do we need one that prescribes how to be or how to feel good, or which assumes a neutral starting point that discounts the culturally rich and deep understanding of gratitude that many readers already bring to the text. We need a book that can explore the dilemmas raised when we place this giant of a term amidst a complex, pluralistic, secular context, so that we can better understand its contemporary meaning and potential. We do not need a book that patronises or offers a panacea for all of the world’s problems, but we do need one that mirrors the kind of dialogue we need if we are to bring gratitude to the table as we consider it as a meaningful way to respond and to be.


Next in the series: 
Part 3: Why Gratitude in Education Now?
Part 4: A Way Forward
See Also:
Part 1:  Why Gratitude in Education?


Dr. Kerry Howells is a teacher educator and currently teaches in the areas of educational philosophy, ethics and teacher professionalism in the Masters of Teaching program at the University of Tasmania, Australia. Over the past two decades she has shown that when students take greater responsibility for the state of being they bring to their learning, and what they can give back out of gratitude, they are able to become more engaged in their learning process. She has demonstrated that students’ gratitude is influenced by the gratitude expressed and modeled by their teachers and school leaders. She has won nine university teaching awards at both the institutional and national levels.

Gratitude in Education: A Radical View. by Kerry Howells (Sense Publishers, Rotterdam, the Netherlands, ©2012) is the first comprehensive text that is solely dedicated to the specific relevance of gratitude to the teaching and learning process.

'Gratitude in education' at Mind & Its Potential 2012 -
A talk by Dr. Howells about the relevance of gratitude for teachers and students.

How Thanking Awakens Our Thinking - Kerry Howells at TEDx Launceston suggests that the key to creating fully engaged learners is to create an attitude of gratitude.

The above excerpt is posted with the author's kind permission.


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