|On the Emergence of Philanthropic Studies (Letter to Ellen)
Part 1 of 1
This essay appears in
its original letter form. It is a brief discussion of the
difficulties of passing on the core ideas and energy of those
who developed philanthropy as an academic field of study.
asked me to reflect on the emergence and development of philanthropy over
the past twenty or thirty years. Thanks
for the question: I’ll sketch some ideas that have recently lain
half-dormant and yet troubling in some ways.
key notion is what I think of as the
social entropy of ideas. Untutored
as I am in physics, I still rashly use my sense of the word entropy to
identify a common social problem: the way new ideas and visions lose their
excitement and energy over time. Let
me use a favorite example:
Bell’s history of the idea of general education tells of a phenomenon
that I not only observed but participated in.
For a few decades there was a general education movement that
changed the face of undergraduate education nationwide. The educated
person should also be able to think effectively about contemporary
civilization. Some highly
respected intellectuals at places like Columbia and Chicago led the way;
the bible of the movement was Harvard’s General Education in a Free
Society, published in 1945. Sections
of the chapter on the theory of general education in that book reveal its
ambitions: Areas of Knowledge, Traits of Mind, and the Good Man [sic]
and the Citizen.
core principle was that education should be comprehensive and balanced:
the educated person should know something about science, something about
literature, something about math, something about history.
Over time those became “distribution requirements,” and a
student’s course load would typically show math, English, history,
physics, and biology, with some other subjects deemed essential, over the
first two years of study, after which the assumption was that the student
would specialize or major in something.
As the requirements became increasingly rigid they also reflected a
change in the culture. Those
who taught general education courses were soon a successor generation to
those who had dreamed up the idea in the first place.
The successor generation had not for the most part engaged directly
in the exhilarating discussions and debates of the first generation.
The focus had shifted from philosophy to practice, from innovation
the 1960s the lack of intellectual engagement in the core ideas made the
philosophy of general education vulnerable to criticism from students,
especially those bright students who resented the one-size-fits-all
was out of favor with the young and they were ripe for protest on the
spectrum of issues that mark the era – civil rights, Vietnam, feminism.
Discussions of the curriculum were political protest meetings.
As a college president in those days I presided over some
unforgettable moments: for example, when the chair of modern languages
appealed to his colleagues not to drop the language requirement because
“We will lose our jobs!”
and when the stereotypical radical student (dressed in the Army fatigues
that were the fashion of the time) made a speech of Ciceronian eloquence
to protest the speech requirement that prevented him from taking a
thought back to The Purposes of Higher Education that Huston Smith
wrote in behalf of a distinguished faculty committee at Washington
University in the 1950s. The
earlier sense of general and liberal education was dead --
a cluster of ideas as unappealing as a bouquet of wilted flowers.
haven’t ever recovered from that collapse, and instead have turned
undergraduate education into vocational training.
The liberal arts are largely service courses for students who want
learn how to do marketing in order to get a job.
The capture of the intellectual life of the campus by marketplace
values is complete. As a
voice for the liberal arts I feel like a quixotic subversive –
subversive because I criticize the dominant culture as shallow and
exploitative, and quixotic because not many people care about it.
The social entropy or
perhaps the half-life of the idea of general education was less than a
me offer a second example: civil rights.
My simplistic summary will at least be briefer.
high points of the civil rights movement would include a number of
memorable moments, from Rosa Parks on the bus to the small group at the
lunch counter, from “the letter from a Birmingham jail” to Federal
troops in Little Rock. For
those of us who lived through it, watched it, and in various less dramatic
and inspiring ways took part in it, the civil rights movement has to be a
period of enormous social energy and excitement.
This was no academic exercise; this affected where academics went
to dinner, which students sat in their classes, what words they would use
in polite conversation. The claims of civil rights activists also affected
the banks and the military and the churches and the veterans social clubs
and residential real estate values.
if you will to the recent attack on affirmative active in higher
education. The contrast in
the spirit of the 1990s and the spirit of the 1960s could not be greater.
The successor generation gradually assumed its place.
In those decades the spirit of the civil rights movement gave way
to the implementation of civil rights legislation and administration.
The spirit of civil rights and the task of making the ideas of
racial equality work on a day-to-day basis seemed no longer connected.
Advocates of civil rights were now ideologues, and ideologues rose
to oppose them. Political
correctness – better described as groupthink – prevailed on both
the process we may have lost the vision of civil rights as we seem to have
lost the vision of general education.
is another important truth of organizational life that I was given in a
talk by the then-CEO of a large corporation who was also chair of a
university board of trustees. He
made a distinction between “growth industries” and “mature
industries are about innovation and new markets; mature industries are
about cutting costs. The two
phases of industrial life call for different people: “leaders” in the
former case, “managers” in the latter.
The first generation of a movement is made up of leaders and the
successor generation of managers. Because we fail to draw the successor
generation into the spirit and discourse of the innovation stage they may
never have a sense of the energy of the core idea.
I think we don’t know how to do that, which is why I am trying to
promote the Successor Generation Project I told you about.
bring these thoughts to my reflection on the emergence of the three sector
idea that became the most important contribution of the Filer Commission.
That was 25 years ago. The
commission’s report made a reasonably large splash in what at the time a
very small pool of people. The
report helped some of us begin to pull unconnected strands together for
the first time: foundations, non-profits, business corporations,
professional societies, volunteers, lobbyists, trade associations, and a
hundred other categories.
there was a vision of what we were about it came first from John D.
Rockefeller II and from John Gardner.
Rockefeller first put his finger on the idea of a third sector
parallel to government and the marketplace, and Gardner gave us
Independent Sector. Gardner
and Brian O’Connell saw a world in which it was possible for many
diverse voices to express themselves in one room, even around one table.
Their case was simple: organized philanthropy in America is vast in
scale and grand in scope.
my words, the subject was both important
and interesting. If the
activity of philanthropy is even approximately as extensive and as vital
as it appeared, then it must be a subject
to be studied and taught. We could no longer teach it “by example,” as
the then-president of Brown University once told me.
The volumes of the Filer Commission’s report indicated a wide
range of intellectual possibilities, but my own efforts to find the place
of philanthropy in higher education turned up no more than scattered
scholars of little influence, no journals, no place in the scholarly
meetings, no place in the curriculum.
The vision some of us tried to articulate was the vision of a field
of study, a field that I named philanthropics
(to no effect at all) to bring out the analogy to politics
trips I took around the country in the late 1970s until the late 1980s
were missionary ventures. I
was exhilarated by the links to philanthropy that I found in almost every
subject I explored, just as my prejudice of its interest and importance
was confirmed every day in every newspaper, magazine, and journal I
scanned in my search. I was
also confirmed by the response I found from sociologists and philosophers
and economists and professors of literature and anthropology and even the
history of science. Those
“conversions,” if you will, countered the suspicious and sometimes
snide insinuations that I was merely a new shill for the university
administration in its endless and insatiable search for money.
the Center on Philanthropy was formed in 1987 there was no subject that
was agreed upon, no faculty that had ever studied the subject as a
subject, no courses or degrees or programs beyond (at Indiana) The Fund
Raising School. In little
more than a decade that has grown into a faculty of 65 representing more
than two dozen schools and departments, a fistful of master’s degrees
and even a couple of doctoral tracks, a growing body of students some of
whom – like those competitively-selected students I teach – that rival
the best students anywhere.
faculty members have re-directed their careers toward the study of some
aspect of philanthropy. The
field has a handful of journals and newspapers and a growing array of web
sites. The membership in the
quasi-academic, quasi-professional organizations has grown rapidly and
added participants from dozens of countries around the world.
Philanthropy is now seen as universal rather than as “unique to
the young people there is still a sense of discovery and frontier and
bright future. They manifest
the personal values and commitments that have characterized public service
and even professionalism at their best.
a year ago I drafted an essay entitled “Declare Victory and Move On.”
am the first generation of those who developed philanthropy as an academic
field of study; the second generation is now taking over.
The growth industry is rapidly becoming a mature industry.
Seed money and venture capital has not yet brought substantial sums
of investment capital; endowments are small and centers rely heavily on
annual fund raising. University
cultures are not welcoming, open, and generous with newcomers: new fields
have to buy their way in. Gradually
and often reluctantly institutional funds become available and with them,
I said when we talked on the phone, my main concern is the survival of
philanthropy as a subject grounded in the liberal arts.
Philanthropy in higher education is largely dominated by training
in nonprofit management, skewed toward the values and approaches of
business and public administration. There
are three very unequal sectors in the society and their counterparts in
the university are similarly unbalanced.
Practice dominates; training dominates; action dominates.
is better defined in two phrases that I have borrowed from an
anthropologist and a philosopher who used them for other purposes, and two
that I claim as my own:
first is that the study of the history of philanthropy across the world
and across the millennia is the
social history of the moral imagination. The second is that the study
of philanthropy draws on thought,
action, and passion. Neither
of those fits easily in a culture dominated by narrow specialization on
the one hand and commercialization of everything on the other.
I argue that teaching philanthropy means “helping students in
their search for meaning, purpose, and hope in their lives,” and
teaching about “the good society and the good life, through the study of
ideas I find most exciting and energizing are philanthropy and liberal or
general education, and the role of philanthropy in the great issues and
movements of the time. I am
in that sense interested more in leadership than in management, more in
philosophy than practice, in Why more than How.
My devotion to the balance called for by general and liberal
education reminds me to respect training as well as education.
Philanthropy is about beneficence
as well as benevolence.
Who else feels that way, thinks that way?
what extent has the social variant of the second law of thermodynamics
done its work on the vision of philanthropy that emerged in the 1970s? Do
I declare victory and move on or merely step aside while a new vision
emerges from the confusion?
share this with my students and some others, and may even put it on my
“web site under construction” in the hope that it might elicit some
Robert L. Payton
Professor Emeritus of Philanthropic Studies