|Hofstra's Most Distinctive Virtue
Part 1 of 1
Voluntary service to those in need of our personal
help more than our money, help to those who need time and understanding, is at
the core of the philanthropic tradition. Sometimes, new dimensions of service
emerge spontaneously and anonymously in a community, out of the fabric of
institutional life. That is what happened at Hofstra University—and
One of the shortest careers in government service
ended yesterday with the resignation of Dr. Eileen Gardner from the Department
Dr. Gardner joined the
Department a week ago. During that week it became known that she had written a
paper for the Heritage Foundation in 1983 in which she argued that "spending on
education for the handicapped had 'selfishly drained resources from the normal
school population and most probably weakened the quality of teaching.'"
Dr. Gardner defended her
position by explaining that what happens to a person in life, the circumstances
a person is born into, the race, the handicapping conditions, the sex—those
circumstances are there to help the person grow toward spiritual
The setting of these remarks
is Hofstra's 50th anniversary; a panel on "evaluating philanthropy." We are
talking about the relationship of philanthropy to education, but I want to come
back to the case of Dr. Gardner. First, a brief effort at definition:
One working definition of philanthropy reflected in
this panel is the familiar one of philanthropy as rational, large-scale giving
by foundations and individuals to enhance the quality of life in the community,
and the extension of that grantmaking activity to corporations.
My preferred, broader
definition includes giving for charitable
purposes—acts of mercy to relieve suffering, to provide assistance to those
unable to fend for themselves in meeting the ordinary daily challenges of
This broader definition also
includes voluntary service and
voluntary association—philanthropy is
more than almsgiving, more than grantmaking.
The history of the
philanthropic tradition in this broader sense is "the social history of the
• How some individuals have
developed new concepts and ideas for improving the conditions of life for the
society and for other individuals
How groups have organized around compelling ideas to improve the public
How resources have been marshalled to accomplish those ends
That is, (1) the
intellectuals who conceived of the application of the ideas of social science to
the solutions of social problems (2) used the mechanism of the philanthropic
foundation to engage the interest and effort of others to advance their ideas,
(3) supported by the wealth made available to them voluntarily by such people as
John D. Rockefeller.
The story at a more local
and personal level can be seen in one strong thread running through the history
of Hofstra University. As far as I know, it is an unwritten history. I speak of
the history of Hofstra's commitment to disabled students.
When I first came to Hofstra
a dozen years ago, I found an organized, sophisticated, sensitive,
institutionalized commitment to the education of the disabled. I even found a
mimeographed guide, prepared by students, on "Everything You Always Wanted to
Know About the Handicapped but Were Afraid to Ask."
The new residence halls on
the new north campus on Mitchell Field had been designed with a concern for
access by disabled students.
My son remarked that when he
came here as a student four years ago he was uneasy in the presence of the
physically disabled. He was uncertain about how to behave, as we all have been.
In a very short time he became "used to" the presence and activity of disabled
students. Living and working with the physically disabled at Hofstra is a
natural part of life on this campus. It is more a part of the life of Hofstra
than of any other campus where I have studied or worked.
There is more to it than social accommodation. Many
of the disabled students need help from others, sometimes on an extensive and
continuing basis. That help is provided by family members to some extent, but
often by other students—students who themselves have no visible disabilities.
Some of the most extraordinary acts of devotion and understanding that I've ever
seen are routinely evident on this campus.
The students benefit, of
course. A friend of mine who has taught psychiatry at Johns Hopkins for many
years describes this kind of philanthropic activity as "a prescription for
mental health" for those who engage in it.
The charitable and
philanthropic acts that are evident in Hofstra's philanthropic tradition of
concern for the disabled reveal "the social history of the moral imagination" in
very concrete ways. It is a tradition that has a powerful and enduring impact on
many students, whose lives and values are changed by the experience. Yet some
students are not touched by it in the same way. Why?
And few students, I suspect,
learn anything about why this tradition developed as it has on this campus and not on most others;
about the individuals whose moral vision founded the tradition, which became
persuasive and compelling to others; how the resources for these activities were
found; how the activities were organized and institutionalized—made
collectively binding on the allocation of some resources—and which aspects of
concern for the disabled still remain beyond the scope of what is available even
There was a freshman seminar
at Gettysburg College a year or so ago on the theme of "social justice and
individual responsibility." There might be a similar course at Hofstra, or one
on "the social history of the moral imagination" and how it is manifest in small
communities like college campuses.
My purpose is to raise the
question of where the philanthropic tradition belongs in the general education
of undergraduates. My own inclination is to put the burden on the history
department, but recently a political scientist and I talked about the role of
interest groups; "one-way transfers of exchangeables" have become known as grants economics. The social psychology
of the relations of dominance and dependence, as well as the psychology of
helping behavior and the philosophical question of the limits of altruism also
come to mind, along with the legal questions of rights and the allocation of
medical resources. Someone told me that more than half of the student semester
credit hours at Hofstra are in undergraduate courses in business; historians of
corporate philanthropy make it clear that business leaders come in all shapes
and sizes, and that some of them are acutely sensitive to the moral dimension of
economic activity. And, of course, the religious roots of charity are clearly
central to these ideas—they are even determining in the thought of people like
Eileen Gardner. (The shock effect of her remarks should not obscure the point
she seeks to make about how we should understand the human condition.)
Hofstra students are
mainstream Americans. Perhaps in one small but important way their lives have
been deepened and enriched by their experience here—their experience with
disabled students outside the
classroom. Whether their intellectual development inside the classroom has helped then to
grasp the distinctiveness of the philanthropic tradition and make of it a guide
of their subsequent behavior, is no clear to me. And if it is not true of a
place like Hofstra where the practice of philanthropy is everywhere in evidence,
is it likely to be raised in the consciousness of students at "less enlightened"
The anonymous heroes of
Hofstra's most distinctive virtue—its enlightened and sensitive and continuing
commitment to the disabled—should be the source of a larger contribution to the
education of Hofstra students. Those who have made Hofstra a morally better and
finer place have done something extraordinary.
Why it is still thought of as "extraordinary," and
why it should rather become a matter of the ordinary course of life everywhere,
is a topic in the "social history of the moral imagination."
It is something worthy of
attention in the liberal education of all undergraduates.
In celebrating its 50th
anniversary, Hofstra is engaged in an exercise of reflection and
self-assessment. The student who spoke at the opening convocation proudly
referred to Hofstra's accounting program as being rated seventh in the country
by the leading accounting firms. The other evening I attended the induction
ceremony of the history honor society on campus, and I spoke with conviction of
the high intellectual quality of that department. Hofstra has an important and
difficult commitment to selectivity in admissions, and it has always had an
unusual depth of talent in its faculty. It has an excellent library; as a
frequent user of it, I join the applause for the steps already taken toward its
second millionth volume.
Yet if I were to point to the characteristic of
Hofstra that is its proudest achievement, one for which I can claim no personal
credit or notable contribution, it would be this sensitive concern for those
whose response needs only the opportunity that others must provide. On this
single point, Hofstra need defer to no other place. And this single point may be
enough to justify its future as well as its past.