A Pedagogy of Gratitude
Giving thanks is not a small thing.
The act of appreciation—when it is an act, and not a routine formality—is personal and elevating. To say “thank you” is a way to say “I value you”. It is to link your values to the deeds and characters of those at the receiving end of your thanks. To appreciate is to love, and what and who we love makes us who we are.
Harvest celebrations, such as America’s Thanksgiving are often linked to appreciation. In the home, it’s a time to appreciate our families, loved ones, and the meals we make and enjoy together. Many schools and classrooms underscore this in more regular ways than annual traditions, having time in the week set aside for thanks and appreciation.
Montessori didn’t say anything about harvest traditions, but she said a lot about giving thanks in the classroom.
Indeed, her view was that a wide capacity for gratitude was one of the most essential social goals of education. As much as she wrote about the child’s freedom and dignity, as much as she lionized the child’s capacity to work and to achieve her own growth, she also valorized the child’s capacity to be grateful—and saw tremendous risk in any education that failed to impart this capacity.
“Beyond everything”, she wrote,
I should work to inspire a faith in the greatness of man, the greatness that has been proved by enormous progress. Make clear to them man's place in the world as the improver of the environment of nature, how he has always struggled on, despite being weighed down by so many moral defects. ... They do aspire for something fine, they have a faith in life; but each year that they live in the world they see these institutions of man to be so full of corruption that they attempt to disregard or destroy them. 
For Montessori, inspired optimism about the future was not optional. Not the belief that everything will turn out okay or that everything is fine—it might not, and it isn’t—but a deep belief that one can meaningfully participate in the human project of making things better. For her this meant first and foremost a capacity to see what has already been done to make things better—concretely, in the details and the people that make up one’s life.
But what she saw in her time, a trend that continues to this day, is rather a growing resignation and cynicism about the world, one that takes root in childhood and persists in adult culture.
There is no love in our hearts for the human beings from whom we have received, and are receiving so much, in bread and clothing, and numerous inventions for our benefit. … Perhaps we teach the child to thank God and pray to Him, but not to thank humanity, God’s prime agent in creation; we give no thought to the men and women who daily give their lives that we may live more richly.
She makes this point, repeatedly, in all her major works—in the opening of The Discovery of the Child, The Absorbent Mind, and her 1946 London Lectures. It’s not always in the terminology of gratitude, exactly, but it is always in the spirit of appreciating all the good around us:
Look around at all we have small, great, or beautiful—whatever it is, it has been created by man. But while asking for more and more of these marvelous inventions, we never think of the man that created them. We do not consider him at all. Although we try to do everything we can to enhance our comfort, we do not consider the greatness of man, and we only consider his defects. 
Underlying Montessori’s view are two points. One is what I said initially, above: that the act of gratitude does something important to one’s character. The second is more controversial: it’s that the world human beings have made is already full of tremendous good.
It doesn’t make sense to insist on a pedagogy of gratitude if one thinks that the world is fundamentally corrupt, or that there is something fundamentally wrong with the human project. Montessori’s view is the opposite: despite what it may sometimes seem, we have gotten so much right, have made so much progress, that the main thing we need to do is simply to draw attention to that fact. It is “useless”, Montessori thought, “to try to achieve unity amongst men [by] inviting them to work for each other, since this has been happening for centuries… World unity is there already, it exists!” The goal should rather be to
bring about a radical change in the way we view human relations, endeavoring to influence men’s consciousness by giving them new ideals, fighting indifference and incomprehension; to awaken in man’s spirit a sense of gratitude towards other men.
She has in mind moral and especially material progress. She, after witnessing the worst horrors of the 20th century, implored us, as human beings and as educators of human potential, to not forget the material wonders of human civilization.
This is easier said than done. It is not easy to look out at the world today, which is full of decline and corruption, and find moral value in material progress. In what way does the existence of (say) smartphones morally count against the injustices of the world? Montessori’s answer is that it does—that it at minimum symbolizes the sort of progress we are capable of, and at maximum instances a kind of cooperation and unity that is exactly what we need.
Beyond a curriculum of appreciation of our history of achievement, what can we do that’s more personal?
It makes sense to ground our ritual of spiritual gratitude in concrete rituals. The most common is a weekly routine of vocalizing gratitude, but harkening back again to the harvest, a meal is an especially good ritual here. A meal is a very material thing, one that involves physical work, cooking and chemistry, supply chains and travel. In our programs, even very young children share in the work of preparing snacks for themselves and for each other. Adolescents often create elaborate, weekly community cooking rituals, and take turns preparing and sharing food with the class.
To take the material and to make it compose something even more elevated, is perhaps the most deeply Montessori thing one could do.
1. Montessori, M. (1949) San Remo Lectures.
2. Montessori, M. (1947) To Educate the Human Potential.
3. Montessori, M. (1946) 1946 London Lectures.
Dr. Matt Bateman
Dr. Matt Bateman earned his Ph.D. in Philosophy in 2012 from the University of Pennsylvania. He taught and continued his research at Franklin and Marshall College in the Department of Psychology, on topics ranging from neuroscience to evolutionary theory to philosophy, before joining the LePort Schools as Director of Curriculum and Pedagogy in 2014.
In 2016, Dr. Matt Bateman became a founding member of Higher Ground Education. He is now Vice President of Pedagogy for Higher Ground and the Executive Director of Montessorium.
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