Centre class learns another bottom line - kindness

February 09, 2004|HERB BROCK

A few days ago, Centre College students awoke to the effects of an ice storm. For most of them, that meant scraping off their own frosted windshields.

But for those students parked in the lot behind fraternity row, the only wiping that had to be done was to their eyes. They couldn't believe what they saw - or, in this case, didn't see. All of their windshields had been scraped off for them.

As it turns out, the mystery scrapers were a couple of members of a winter term class for freshmen called Economics in an Ethical World, taught by Dr. David A. Anderson, Paul G. Blazer associate professor and chairman of the Department of Economics.

As a special assignment Jan. 26 from Anderson, all 15 students in the class performed a random act of kindness on campus or somewhere else in Danville, and the windshield scraping was the act performed by two members of the class.


Following all the acts of kindness performed by his students, Anderson had each of them write a paper describing their act, saying how it made them feel performing it and relating what reaction, if any, they received from the beneficiary of the act, whether it was delight, surprise or skepticism.

Anderson also asked class members to tell him in their papers some other ways they could "encourage a more giving, helpful society" and to say if they generally feel better about giving gifts or receiving them.

The assignment was the final project of the recently-ended class and accompanied the students' final exam. According to the professor, all 15 class members aced their final project and did well in the class overall.

Instilling the ethic of giving

It might seem that a more appropriate special project for some potential MBAs would be to work as a clerk in a store, a teller in a bank or a courier in a corporate office. Anderson, however, said he was trying to instill another ethic in addition to the work ethic - the ethic of giving.

He believes the bottom line in business can come in the shape of a heart as well as a dollar sign. In fact, he said, the more valuable bottom line in terms of a person's happiness and the happiness of their neighbor is spreading kindness, not making a killing.

"This special project was inspired by 'Play It Forward,' a book in which the author suggests people enter into the opposite of a pyramid scheme," he said. "In constructing this pyramid, one person does something nice for three other people, and each of those people does something nice for three other people.

"In this final project I had them do, I asked them to use their own creativity in coming up with random acts of kindness they could do for fellow students or for people in the community. And when they came up with their ideas and were planning on how to perform their acts on Jan. 26, I asked them to evaluate how they did in the context of doing something good without expectations of getting something back."

The ideas and the evaluations were all "wonderful," said Anderson.

One student bought coffee and flowers for a greeter at the Wal-Mart SuperCenter. Another student bought flowers and a Cracker Barrel gift certificate for the cleaning woman in her dormitory. Another student, after paying for his own meal, bought the meal for the occupant of the car behind him in the drive-through lane at a local fast-food restaurant.

"The person working the drive-through window took some convincing," Anderson said with a grin. "He had a hard time at first believing what our student was saying he wanted to do, but the person at the window eventually took the money from our student to pay for the meal of the person in the next car."

With few exceptions, the students in Anderson's class found their acts of kindness to be "rewarding and inspiring," and he, in turn, got something out of the exercise as well.

"I really was moved by (the students') creativity and enthusiasm," he said.

Now Anderson hopes the one-day exercise can be a small step in the development of a lifetime of kindness, both in his students' professional as well as personal lives.

"The saying that it is better to give than to receive is a cliche, but the foundation of all cliches is truth and the truth in this case is that giving truly makes people happier than taking," the professor said.

"In the marketing frenzy of the 20th and now 21st century, we as a society seem to be getting swept further away from things that make us really happy, and giving generally makes us a lot happier than acquiring," he said.

"Despite the temptations and pressures and training we all receive in a world where money and things are supposed to be our goals in life, giving, especially through performing simple gestures of kindness rather than lavishing money or gifts on other people, still can be very rewarding. We need to re-learn and re-experience that ethic."

A "marketing frenzied" society

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