<< The Body Politic

Gratitude and civic education

Monday, December 12th, 2011

In this month’s issue of the Hoover Institution’s Policy Review, Jim Ceaser has penned a thoughtful ode to the virtue of gratitude. It’s a timely article, coming after our national day of Thanksgiving and after we commemorated our World War II veterans in last week’s remembrance of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Characterizing gratitude as “one of the most fundamental and complex of the virtues,” Ceaser emphasizes the connection between gratitude and culture, writing that gratitude for past acts must “come from the determined efforts of every generation. Each must devise means to ensure that memories are preserved and that an understanding of what those in the past gave to posterity remains palpable to those who follow.” Remembrance is necessary for gratitude, and gratitude necessary for civic virtue.

Ceaser points out three ways our polity seeks to foster the memory of acts passed: through speeches, civic education, and monuments. Civic education, in many ways encompassing all three, “should have as one of its principal aims the maintenance of the memory of the nation’s benefactors. For younger students, civic education should seek to create an affective attachment between the citizen and the nation’s past, helping to promote what Lincoln referred to as ‘the political religion of the nation.’ As students move further along, education should include in-depth and critical inquiry into the American experience, on the premise, best stated by the 19th-century historian Richard Hildreth, that what ‘is due to our fathers and ourselves, [and] due to truth and philosophy,’ is to present the past ‘unbedaubed by patriotic rouge.’ This approach works to maintain gratitude, Hildreth believed, because, in the case of American history, ‘the best apology is to tell the story exactly as it was.'”

Gratitude, Ceaser warns, can be at odds with a rights-based understanding of the world: as Roger Scruton writes, “when you receive what is yours by right you don’t feel grateful.” There exists tension, then, between these fundamental, American conceptions of politics, and so there is a large role for civic education to play in moderating the two. As Ceaser concludes:

The disposition for gratitude can never be eliminated. It resides in the human heart. There will always be occasions, whether born of concerns for our own well-being and that of our loved ones, or of the safety of the nation, where the power of a gift breaks through the veneer of a sense of control and security and makes us feel grateful. […] When it comes to public gratitude […], we can be certain that sustaining a living history will always prove to be a difficult challenge. If we are to be true to the spirit of the gifts of those who created this nation, keeping alive its great memories is something we owe not just to ourselves, but to all mankind.