The Forgotten Virtue of Gratitude

gratitude
Our annual tradition here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.   I wrote this Inside Higher Ed piece on gratitude in November 2008–JF

It was a typical 1970s weekday evening. The sky was growing dark and I, an elementary school student, was sitting at the kitchen table of a modest North Jersey cape cod putting the finishing touches on the day’s homework. The back door opened — a telltale sign that my father was home from work. As he did every day, Dad stopped in the laundry room to take off his muddied work boots. As usual, he was tired. He could have been covered with any number of substances, from dirt to paint to dried spackle. His hands were rough and gnarled. I kissed him hello, he went to the bathroom to “wash up,” and my family sat down to eat dinner.

I always knew how hard my father worked each day in his job as a general contractor. When I got older I spent summers working with him. I learned the virtues of this kind of working class life, but I also experienced the drudgery that came with laying concrete footings or loading a dumpster with refuse. I worked enough with my father to know that I did not want to do this for the rest of my life. Though he never told me so, I am sure that Dad probably didn’t want that for me, either.

I eventually became only the second person in my extended family to receive a college degree. I went on to earn a Ph.D. (a “post-hole digger” to my relatives) in history and settled into an academic life. As I enter my post-tenure years, I am grateful for what I learned from my upbringing and for the academic vocation I now pursue. My gratitude inevitably stems from my life story. The lives that my parents and brothers (one is a general contract and the other is a plumber) lead are daily reminders of my roots.

It is not easy being a college professor from a working-class family. Over the years I have had to explain the geographic mobility that comes with an academic life. I have had to invent creative ways to make my research understandable to aunts and uncles. My parents read my scholarly articles, but rarely finish them. My father is amazed that some semesters I go into the office only three days a week. As I write this I am coming off of my first sabbatical from teaching. My family never quite fathomed what I possibly did with so much time off. (My father made sense of it all by offering to help me remodel my home office, for which I am thankful!) “You have the life,” my brother tells me. How can I disagree with him?

Gratitude is a virtue that is hard to find in the modern academy, even at Thanksgiving time. In my field of American history, Thanksgiving provides an opportunity to set the record straight, usually in op-ed pieces, about what really happened in autumn 1621. (I know because I have done it myself!). Granted, as public intellectuals we do have a responsibility to debunk the popular myths that often pass for history, but I wonder why we can’t also use the holiday, as contrived and invented and nostalgic and misunderstood as it is, to stop and be grateful for the academic lives we get to lead.

Thanksgiving is as good a time as any to do this. We get a Thursday off from work to take a few moments to reflect on our lives. And since so many academics despise the shopping orgy known as “Black Friday,” the day following Thanksgiving presents a wonderful opportunity to not only reject consumer self-gratification, but practice a virtue that requires us to forget ourselves.

I am not sure why we are such an unthankful bunch. When we stop and think about it we enjoy a very good life. I can reference the usual perks of the job — summer vacation, the freedom to make one’s own schedule, a relatively small amount of teaching (even those with the dreaded 4-4 load are in the classroom less than the normal high school teacher). Though we complain about students, we often fail to remember that our teaching, when we do it well, makes a contribution to society that usually extends far beyond the dozens of people who have read our recent monograph. And speaking of scholarship, academics get paid to spend a good portion of their time devoted to the world of ideas. No gnarled hands here.

Inside Higher Ed recently reported that seventy-eight percent of all American professors express “overall job satisfaction.” Yet we remain cranky. As Immanuel Kant put it, “ingratitude is the essence of vileness.” I cannot tell you how many times I have wandered into a colleague’s office to whine about all the work my college expects of me.

Most college and university professors live in a constant state of discontentment, looking for the fast track to a better job and making excuses as to why they have not landed one yet. Academia can be a cutthroat and shallow place to spend one’s life. We are too often judged by what is written on our conference name badges. We say things about people behind their backs that we would never say to their faces. We become masters of self-promotion. To exhibit gratefulness in this kind of a world is countercultural.

The practice of gratitude may not change our professional guilds, but it will certainly relieve us of our narcissism long enough to realize that all of us are dependent people. Our scholarship rests upon the work of those scholars that we hope to expand upon or dismantle. Our careers are made by the generosity of article and book referees, grant reviewers, search committees, and tenure committees. We can all name teachers and mentors who took the time to encourage us, offer advice, and write us letters. Gratitude may even do wonders for our mental health. Studies have shown that grateful people are usually less stressed, anxious, and depressed.

This Thanksgiving take some time to express gratitude. In a recent study the Harvard University sociologist Neil Gross concluded that more college and university professors believe in God than most academics ever realized. If this is true, then for some of us gratitude might come in the form of a prayer. For others it may be a handwritten note of appreciation to a senior scholar whom we normally contact only when we need a letter of recommendation. Or, as the semester closes, it might be a kind word to a student whose academic performance and earnest pursuit of the subject at hand has enriched our classroom or our intellectual life. Or perhaps a word of thanks to the secretary or assistant who makes our academic life a whole lot easier.

As the German theologian and Christian martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer explained, “gratitude changes the pangs of memory into a tranquil joy.”

What is Loyalty?

I have always been interested in the virtue of loyalty.  I sometimes tend to be loyal to a fault.  My loyalty to sports teams, the places and institutions where I have been formed, and my family, to name a few, runs deep.  I was thus interested to learn about Eric Felton’s book Loyalty: The Vexing VirtueJeffrey Galbraith of Wheaton College reviews it in the March issue of Books and Culture.  Here is a taste:

Felten thinks loyalty gets a bad reputation, while conceding that sometimes this reputation is deserved. The objects of loyalty are the likely culprits: to what or to whom should an individual be loyal? God, country, spouse, employer, organic produce—our attachments are multiple. Because they conflict, we must deliberate which should take precedence and on what grounds. Despite these difficulties, Felten remains a cheerleader for loyalty. There may not be “one easy formula” for determining the point at which loyalty to a friend should outweigh loyalty to family or society, but the reader should not lose heart, as “there’s been no shortage of strategies proposed to limit the number of soul-battering loyalties let loose in the bumper-car pavilion at one time.” Just don’t go down the path of novelist Graham Greene, who famously “renounced loyalty altogether.”
Loyalty‘s primary method is the application of canonical examples to contemporary mores and recent events. Felten raises issues primarily to leave them unresolved, creating more of a commonplace book than a compelling argument. The number and combination of examples are the book’s strongest attribute. Obama becomes a Prince Hal figure, for instance, with Jeremiah Wright the Falstaff whom he must betray to assume the mantle of power. In particular, I enjoyed the mash-up of Great Books and celebrity gossip in the chapter on marriage, “For Better or Worse.” There Felten cites verses from Edmund Spenser and William Blake in a discussion of John Edwards’ betrayal of his long-suffering wife.
Strange, intriguing juxtapositions lurk around every corner. We hear about Agamemnon’s tragic decision to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia, as an example of when political loyalties take precedence over the bonds of kinship. A few pages later, Felten explores a counterexample in the form of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather. Felten recalls Agamemnon in order to declaim against Kantian ethics; the next moment, he’s using Don Corleone’s allegiance to family as an illustration of Burkean conservatism.

A Proposal: American History for a Civil Society

I was recently browsing the web and came across the Agora Institute for Civic Virtue & the Common Good.  From what I can tell, it seems to be a well-funded center devoted to the promotion of a “good society,” a “good economy,” and a “good life.”

Frankly, I am quite impressed with their mission.  I am interested in many of the questions the leaders of the Agora Institute are asking.  At this point, they seem to have a somewhat conservative bent (at least in terms of the speakers they have invited), but I know that Eastern University is a rather diverse place and questions of civic virtue and the pursuit of the common good are issues that transcend partisanship and left-right ideology.

As I looked at the Agora Institute website, I thought about a vision that I have had for some time about a center or institute devoted to the study of American history and its implications for the common good and civil society.  It is time to share this vision with my readers.

I am in the process of completing a book that, in part, explores the kind of civic virtues that the study of history can promote in American society.  (And any society, for that matter).  Anyone who has followed this blog or reads my Patheos column (especially here and here and here and here) is familiar with my ideas on this front.  My thirteen-year career as a history professor, and some of my own reading and study at the intersection of theology, history, and civil society, has led me to the conclusion that the study of the past, and the process of historical thinking, has the potential to produce citizens who not only understand how to think about the way the past informs the present, but also see the past as an encounter with a “foreign country” that can result in the cultivation of certain social virtues such as humility, reconciliation, intellectual and cultural hospitality, empathy, and solidarity.

What might such a center or institute look like?  First, it would be ideal if it could be connected to an institution of higher learning, but it does not have to be.  Second, it would offer programs on historical thinking and historical content to a wide swath of the public.  American history teachers would benefit from seminars in content, but also in historical thinking and pedagogy.  High school students would benefit from summer institutes or “history camps.”  Churches would benefit from workshops in church history and American religious history.  College students could benefit from intensive summer programs in historical thinking and its connection to civil society.  The general public could benefit from intellectually rigorous tours of historical sites.

Of course such a center would have a social media presence, a public lecture series, and perhaps even a radio program and podcast.

I know this is a big vision, but we history professors can dream, can’t we?

What do you think?

And if there is anyone out there who has a few million dollars to invest in such a project I would love to hear from you!!

Mark Mitchell: American Exceptionalism or a Modest Republic?

Over at The Front Porch Republic, Mark Mitchell has a nice reflection on American exceptionalism–its history and the kinds of hubris that it bring to all those who embrace it.  He prefers a more humble, more modest, and more gracious republic.  Here is a taste:

…American Exceptionalism does not lend itself either to humility or gratitude. If, rather than an exceptional nation, America is a nation greatly and mysteriously blessed by God—and this despite her many imperfections, which for the Christian is a necessary admission—then Americans should be moved to a profound sense of gratitude. There is a world of difference between the person who with a brash swagger asserts that America is the greatest nation on earth and the patriot who lovingly cares for his particular place while uttering a prayer of thanksgiving for the manifold blessings he and his children enjoy. One fails to admit responsibility or to tread lightly and therefore invariably behaves poorly while remaining blind to the fact. The other recognizes that gratitude is inseparable from responsibility, for a gift rightly received must be tended with intelligence and care.

Perhaps it’s time to seek out (or carve out) another strand in our American tradition, a strand that acknowledges the many good things we have inherited and soberly embrace the responsibility to steward these things well. A more modest republic would, in light of our history, be an exceptional accomplishment.

David Brooks on Courage, Deference, and Thankfulness

Do you want to live a life of service to others in the developing world (or anywhere for that matter)?  David Brooks writes that to be successful in such a mission one needs to cultivate the virtues of courage, deference, and thankfulness.  Here is a taste:

Many Americans go to the developing world to serve others. A smaller percentage actually end up being useful. Those that do have often climbed a moral ladder. They start out with certain virtues but then develop more tenacious ones.

The first virtue they possess is courage, the willingness to go off to a strange place. For example, Blair Miller was a student at the University of Virginia who decided she wanted to teach abroad. She Googled “teach abroad” and found a woman who had been teaching English in a remote town in South Korea and was looking for a replacement.

Miller soon found herself on a plane and eventually at a small airport in southern South Korea. There was no one there to greet her. Eventually, the airport closed and no one came to pick her up. A monk was the only other person around and eventually he, too, left and Miller was alone.

Finally, a van with two men rolled in and scooped her up. After a few months of struggle, she had a fantastic year at a Korean fishing village, the only Westerner for miles and miles. Now she travels around Kenya, Pakistan and India for the Acumen Fund, a sort of venture capital fund that invests in socially productive enterprises, like affordable housing and ambulance services.

Three Cheers for Catholic University

John Garvey, the president of Catholic University in Washington D.C., recently announced in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, that Catholic will be phasing out co-ed dorms next year. Here is a blurb from the Inside Higher Ed report on Catholic’s decision:

When it comes to gender and residence life, the hot topic in recent years has been gender-neutral housing, in which students share not only buildings or floors, but also sleeping quarters and bathrooms. But the president of the Catholic University of America went in the opposite direction when he announced Monday in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that next year, the institution will begin phasing out its coeducational dormitories.

In making his case, President John Garvey notes the university’s moral obligations and, to a lengthier extent, also cites research showing that students who live in single-sex housing arrangements are less likely to engage in risky behavior like binge drinking and casual sex. He also writes that these behaviors have negative impacts on mental health and academic performance. The transition will only affect incoming classes, so current Catholic students won’t have to move into single-sex housing.

Quoting Aristotle, Garvey says that virtue “makes us aim at the right mark, and practical wisdom makes us take the right means.”

“If he is right, then colleges and universities should concern themselves with virtue as well as intellect,” Garvey said. Hence, he reasons, single-sex housing.

Even though officials from the Association of College and University Housing Officers-International could not recall another institution that has returned from coed housing to single-sex dorms, and 90 percent of colleges have coed dorms, they said it makes sense that a Roman Catholic University would revert to single-sex housing because such decisions typically reflect an institution’s philosophy. “Introducing a coed facility was pretty darn dramatic for that particular campus,” said Jill Eckardt, director of housing at Florida Atlantic University and president of ACUHO-I. “When you think about the Roman Catholic church, you know, they’re not for premarital sex and hooking up. That’s not part of their doctrine. Not everybody who goes to Catholic is Catholic, but that is part of their mission and vision.”

In an interview Tuesday, Garvey said the real reason for the change was moral, not statistical; the research was simply another reason to do it. The announcement also wound up being the culmination of a year of meetings, events and performances exploring intellect, virtue and Catholic identity. “This conversation about life in residence halls and about drinking and sex and so on was all part of that,” he said. “In my thinking about it, it’s got a lot more to do with my wife’s and my being the parents of five children whom we’ve sent to college … and seeing the kind of life” that students lead.

I am glad to see that Catholic University has chosen to strengthen its religious identity by going in this direction.  The Inside Higher Ed article makes it sound as if Catholic’s decision is strange and unusual.  Perhaps it is unusual to move from co-ed dorms back to same-sex dorms, but many Catholic colleges and universities (as well as many non-Catholic church-related colleges and universities), including the University of Notre Dame, have resisted the move to co-ed dorms.

But not everyone is so thrilled about Catholic’s decision.

Today’s Inside Higher Ed reports that a law professor at George Washington University is going to sue Catholic University for violating the District of Columbia’s Human Rights Act which prohibits discrimination in “employment, housing and commercial space, and public accommodations on the basis of sex and other factors like race, religion and marital status.”  Here is a taste of the IHE report:

Banzhaf likens Catholic’s move to a “separate but equal” scenario. “Suppose a university decided that there would be less racial tension if all the blacks were in a black dorm, all the whites were in a white dorm,” Banzhaf said. “Each one is, quote, getting their own dormitory, and maybe some of them would be happier that way. But surely no one would suggest that it’s lawful.” The statute does not require that a certain population be disadvantaged for an action to be illegal; the simple act of segregating the genders is enough, Banzhaf said.

What do you think?

Jim Cullen on Loyalty

Loyalty is a subject, or perhaps a virtue, that interests me.  I recently gave a talk to a group of Christian academics on the subject of institutional loyalty.  In that lecture I tried to offer an alternative vision of the academic vocation that might take loyalty to a college or university more seriously.  (In case anyone is interested, this talk will be published in a forthcoming issue of The Cresset under the title “Does the Way of Improvement Leads Home?: Rooted Cosmopolitanism and the Church-Related College.”).

I was thus excited to learn about Eric Felton’s new book, Loyalty: The Vexing Virtue (Simon & Schuster, 2011).  I was also excited to see that Jim Cullen decided to review the book at his excellent blog, American History Now.  Here is a taste of Cullen’s review:

Strictly speaking, loyalty has no ideological valence. But in early 21st century public discourse, it skews Right more than Left. One of the more reliable stratagems by which the Left has tried to dislodge the dominant libertarianism of contemporary politics is the embrace of “social justice,” a term whose egalitarian overtones resist the individualist accents of a Reaganesque vernacular. But social justice has little room for loyalty. Its great strength is its rejection of privilege; its great weakness is its perceived bloodlessness.  Felten notes that cosmopolitan liberals all too often dismiss patriotism as a pernicious zero-sum ideology, while glibly maintaining that a critical stance toward one’s country represents a higher form of loyalty. In many cases, that’s surely true. Such people would surely cringe at Theodore Roosevelt’s characteristically bombastic 1918 pronouncement that “The man who loves other countries as much as his own stands on a level with the man who loves other women as much as he loves his wife.” But it may be no accident that marriage and patriotism have declined in tandem with a broader anti-institutional tendency in U.S. society in recent decades. And maybe that’s been a good thing, at least in some respects. But people lacking strong loyalties of their own will always be vulnerable to the terrible loyalties of others.

Coming in June: Thrift and Thriving in America

Next month Oxford University Press will be publishing Thrift and Thriving in America: Capitalism and Moral order from the Puritans to the Present.  It is edited by Joshua Yates and James Davison Hunter, the directors of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture.  The editors have gathered an impressive lineup of authors. I am looking forward to working my through this volume.

Here is the table of contents:

Chapter 1
“Introduction: The Question of Thrift,”
James Davison Hunter and Joshua J. Yates

Part I: The Emergence of Thrift in Early America, 1630-1880
 
Chapter 2
“The Controversial Virtue of Thrift in the Early American Republic”
Daniel Walker Howe

Chapter 3
“The Prehistory of American Thrift”
Deirdre McCloskey

Chapter 4
“Saving Grace and Moral Striving: Thrift in Puritan Theology” James Calvin Davis and Charles Mathewes

Chapter 5
“Thrift and Prosperity”
Stephen Innes

Chapter 6
“Moderation in the First Era of Popular Consumption”
Joyce Appleby

Chapter 7
“Spreading the Gospel of Self-Denial: Thrift and Association in Antebellum America”
Kathleen D. McCarthy

Chapter 8
“African Americans, Slavery, and Thrift from the Revolution to the Civil War”
Patrick Rael

Part II: The Modernization of Thrift: Years of Transition and Transformation, 1880-1950

Chapter 9
“The Modernization of Thrift”
T. J. Jackson Lears

Chapter 10
“Thrift and Moral Formation”
James Davison Hunter

Chapter 11
“The Virtue of Consumption: Challenging Thrift in an Age of Transition”
Lawrence B. Glickman

Chapter 12
“Thrift and Advertising”
Jennifer Scanlon

Chapter 13
“Hard Payments: Consumer Credit and Thrift”
Lendol Calder

Chapter 14
“Mass Philanthropy as Public Thrift for an Age of Consumption”
Olivier Zunz

Chapter 15
Immigrants and Thrift
David M. Reimers

Chapter 16
“Saving for Democracy: Thrift, Sacrifice, and the World War II Bond Campaigns”
Kiku Adatto

Part III: Thriving After Thrift? Prosperity & Crisis since 1950

Chapter 17
“Why Do Americans Save So Little and Does It Matter?” Robert H. Frank

Chapter 18
“The Rise and Fall of ‘Collective Thrift’: Social Insurance, Economic Planning, and the Decline of Modern American Liberalism”
Steven Fraser

Chapter 19
“Middle-Class Respectability in 21st Century America: Work and Lifestyle in the Professional-Managerial Stratum”
Steven Brint and Kristopher Proctor

Chapter 20
“Thrift in the Other America”
Wilson Brissett

Chapter 21
“Thrift and Waste in American History: An Ecological View” J. R. McNeill and George Vrtis

Chapter 22
“Disputing Abundance: The Antiglobalization Protest Movement and Our Changing Natural Imaginary”
Joshua J. Yates

Chapter 23
“Conclusion: Thrift & Thriving: Toward a Moral Framework for Economic Life”
Joshua J. Yates and James Davison Hunter