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Last weekend was homecoming on the Michigan State University campus, and I found myself reflecting on the meaning and significance of gratitude. So many alumni returned to campus to give thanks for all the ways MSU set them on a meaningful path.

In the College of Arts & Letters, we celebrated the generous gifts we received from Tom Yunck, the son of a long-time English Professor, who has contributed more than $12M to the University, including over $6M to the College of Arts & Letters.

The founder and CEO of GeoOptics, Inc., Dr. Yunck helped establish CICERO: Community Initiative for Continuous Earth Remote Observation — a network of micro-satellites designed to facilitate climate research and space weather monitoring. Impressed by how these efforts give us a wider and deeper view of the earth on which we dwell, I was looking forward to learning more about CICERO, when when I first met Tom in Pasadena, California last fall. However, having heard about my background in Ancient Philosophy, Tom wanted to talk about a different Cicero: Marcus Tullius Cicero, the Roman politician and orator.

So in considering how best to thank Dr. Yunck for his contributions to the College and University, this passage from Cicero’s For Plancius, 33.80 presented itself:

In truth, O judges, while I wish to be adorned with every virtue, yet there is nothing which I can esteem more highly than the being and appearing grateful. For this one virtue is not only the greatest, but is also the parent of all the other virtues.

What is most striking to me about this passage is the way Cicero equates appearing grateful with being grateful. Being grateful alone is insufficient — showing gratitude is the true generative act. Gratitude becomes the parent of all the other virtues in showing itself forth.

Showing gratitude, however, must go beyond saying “thank you.” To be generative of all the other virtues, gratitude must be an embodied action. Gratitude must show itself everyday in the ways we interact with one another and put our core values into practice.

Being grateful is one thing, living out your gratitude is quite another.

Dr. Yunck’s gifts to the College of Arts & Letters support graduate education in English through the John and Ruth Yunck Scholarship, faculty research in comparative literature through the John and Ruth Yunck Family Endowed Professorship in Comparative Literature, and interdisciplinary scholarship through the Yunck Family Endowed Chair in Interdisciplinary Studies. These gifts reflect Dr. Yunck’s love for his family and his deep commitment to bringing disparate disciplinary perspectives together to create new knowledge and to deepen our understanding of the world.

Laura McGrath, Ph.D. candidate in Literature and Digital Humanities and recipient of the Yunck scholarship, lives out our gratitude by taking an innovative computational approaches to modern American fiction. Using techniques like distant reading, she and her colleagues are uncovering moments of novelty and innovation in 20th century American literature.

We are living out our gratitude for Tom’s gifts through the Center for Interdisciplinarity (C4I) which was established to address our most intractable questions collaboratively across the boundaries of traditional academic disciplines. While many universities emphasize the importance of interdisciplinary work, the College of Arts & Letters will lead initiatives at Michigan State University through the C4I that will study the ways disciplines interact so that we can better train scholars to pursue interdisciplinary approaches to the most challenging problems of our time.

If, as Cicero reminds us, showing gratitude is the true parent of all other virtues, then perhaps the intentional ways we are living out our gratitude to Dr. Yunck and his family will have a transformative positive impact on the world his work helps us understand more deeply.


  • Sandra A Logan says:

    I love this invocation of (the ancient) Cicero, and the idea of showing gratitude. It resonates with an idea of community that comes from Roberto Esposito, who says that ‘munus’ (gift), the root of community, is a reminder that we are community because of what we have received, and because of our recognition that we give without expecting reciprocation, but also, that we live in an obligation to always give in response to what we have received. In that giving without expectation, and in that recognition of obligation, community shows itself. I hope, as Citizen Scholars grows and develops, that our students come to embrace that idea of acknowledging the gift and the obligation, as well as the need to give without expecting reciprocation. That is the knowledge that can change the world.

  • Thank you, Sandra, for this eloquent addition to these reflections on gratitude. Your suggestion, through Esposito, that ‘munus’ is at the root of all community, resonates with the lines from Peter Raible I cited when I began my tenure as Dean of the College of Arts & Letters:

    We build on foundations we did not lay. We warm ourselves at fires we did not light. We sit in the shade of trees we did not plant. We drink from wells we did not dig. We profit from persons we did not know.

    The Citizen Scholars Program is designed to cultivate practices of gratitude by empowering students to enrich the community we have inherited by giving their energy, talent, and creativity, without expectation of return, but because it makes the world more just and beautiful.

    Thank you for your leadership of this important program.

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