The Big Read: Give me, or else

09 October 2014 - 14:12 By Jonathan Jansen
SHOW APPRECIATION: 'Nandi, you might be struggling in mathematics but you are clearly simply exceptional in drama' - a scene from the musical 'Sarafina'
SHOW APPRECIATION: 'Nandi, you might be struggling in mathematics but you are clearly simply exceptional in drama' - a scene from the musical 'Sarafina'

If you haven't yet heard the name Kerry Howells, expect to do so soon. With her brilliant book, Gratitude in Education, this Tasmanian scholar puts her finger on one of the most troubling aspects of education in South Africa - the lack of gratitude.

Think of events that have become familiar to the average citizen. Cars and buses burnt at places of learning. The trashing of principals' offices and burning of libraries. Marauding schoolchildren moving en masse through the cities, looting shops and ripping off poor street traders. Parents extracting their children from places of learning because of a lack of roads.

Underlying these all too common events is a growing culture among youth of demands; an expectation that society exists solely to feed their desires and meet their needs.

It is an arrogant set of attitudes absorbed early from widespread adult cultures of relentless demands on everyone from your local employer to the government and your university leaders. The more authorities give in to these never-ending demands, the more they feed this culture of "give me or else" since an important learning has taken place - threaten, demand, insult and demean, and eventually you get what you want.

Gratitude, says Howells, is a radical view because it is rare. It is the opposite of the cultures of complaints that pervade modern schools and societies everywhere.

In South Africa, such debilitating cultures of ingratitude and resentment are collapsing institutions and ensuring a new abnormal in citizen behaviour for decades to come.

I am astounded, daily, by how students receive free food by walking up to a table, grabbing the food, and walking off without a word of thanks.

Volunteers often stare in disbelief as bursaries are collected or free textbooks distributed without a hint of appreciation.

When children do not learn the practice of gratitude early on, they grow to become part of a nation of spoilt brats bearing a permanent scowl on our collective faces for there is always something we do not yet have.

Howells raises some of the most powerful stories of teachers who change the entire cultures of schools by expressing words of gratitude towards students, especially difficult ones, by appreciating in public their strengths.

"Joe, you are demanding but your constant questions keep me on my toes." Or "Nandi, you might be struggling in mathematics but you are clearly simply exceptional in the drama class."

The students reciprocate and tell the teacher, without prompting, how they appreciate his or her caring and compassionate attitude towards them, despite being a hard taskmaster in the subject.

Gratitude practices are, however, beginning to gain ground.

On my Facebook pages I now see regular postings in which followers encourage each other to list three things, every day, for which they are grateful. At first it is difficult. Then the new habit starts to kick in, and the world looks very, very different. Some students are using gratitude journals.

In our cynical culture, gratitude-thinking is bound to be lashed. I can hear the critics. It sounds too religious. It glosses over the material conditions of oppression and exploitation of the poor. It is just positive psychology. As I said, that is too cynical.

Yes, there are real problems that require activism for change, especially in education, and the sheer scale of public corruption diverts resources from the poor. Agreed, but gratitude is not the opposite of activism. We can and should, for example, express gratitude to those whose activism catalyses change in calcified bureaucracies.

The problem rather is the absence of gratitude practice in daily life, such as in the acknowledgement of individual or social achievements, except by self-serving politicians.

I used to start my management meetings by asking senior colleagues to "name one thing that is going well at the university and of which you are proud".

It always surprises me how, after a predictably slow start, the conversations take off and you have to try hard to return people to the problems that need resolution. But the culture begins to shift and, as Howells demonstrates, the research available shows clear effects on individual learning and organisations when cultures of gratitude start to take hold.

We have lost a sense of balance where constructive criticism and expressive gratitude coexist in healthy relationship. Our media headlines thrive on sensation, suspicion and speculation. Our school reports are accounts of doom and gloom. What if we started our assessments of self and country with stories of gratitude?

Here's my challenge to the nation's teachers. When you go to school tomorrow, express in front of the entire class gratitude and appreciation for a different student every day until you've covered the whole class. Let me know the results.