Faculty View | Grateful Learning
by Dr. John C. Wingard, professor of philosophy & dean of humanities
All my life I’ve thought about gratitude from a moral perspective, but not until recent years have I begun to recognize gratitude as an attitude or quality of character whose presence or absence significantly affects our thinking and learning. We know from Scripture (Romans 1:21) that ingratitude is at the root of the fallenness of our thinking and affections. If ingratitude is toxic to our thinking, then surely gratitude is crucial to right thinking and productive inquiry. How so? I want to propose as a partial answer that gratitude involves a significant openness of the mind to truth—an openness that would be missing in the absence of gratitude, with the consequence that certain important truths would be missed. Let’s consider just one significant way in which gratitude involves opening the mind in ways that are epistemically beneficial.
In a word, being grateful makes you more teachable. There are several facets to this. The most obvious is that gratitude necessarily involves humility and (often) an acknowledgement of your own limitations and dependence. Gratitude also involves some level of cognitive engagement or attention. For example, it necessarily involves significant attention to the past and/or present, and engagement with both a gift or benefit and a giver/benefactor. The humble engagement involved in gratitude puts one in a good position to learn and grow. Ingratitude, on the other hand, generally involves either apathy or a sense of entitlement or desert—both of which are all-too-prevalent in our current educational culture—or, sometimes, a kind of disdain for the benefit and/or the benefactor. In any case, what is encouraged is a kind of epistemically detrimental closed-mindedness that’s manifested in intellectual sloth and/or arrogant. Another facet of gratitude’s conduciveness to teachability is related to Aristotle’s significant distinction between different approaches to inquiry—the approaches of wonder and doubt. I would maintain that gratitude, with its presupposed acknowledgement, is compatible with and conducive to wonder in a way that ingratitude is not. Ingratitude is much more at home with doubt or skepticism than with wonder. This is important, it seems to me. The way of doubt—one of the trademark characteristics of modernistic hubris—is, in my judgment, an unfortunate dead end street, for doubt seems inevitably and ultimately to lead to more doubt. An approach of wonder, involving both awe and curiosity, seems both more fitting to our position as created (hence dependent) knowers and more likely to be productive of knowledge and rational beliefs.
I find this convicting and challenging, but also powerfully encouraging for us Christians. Becoming more disposed to thankfulness is part of God’s gracious sanctifying work in us. As it turns out, this is a matter of renewing not only our affections, but also our minds—another blessing for which we can and should be profoundly grateful.