Thomas Jefferson famously said, “I cannot live without books,” reflecting the serious studiousness of our country’s founding figures as they forged our constitutional arrangement. They studied deeply in the classics and read the enlightenment thinkers of the Old World. In shaping their entrepreneurial élan to form a new political order they relied on a broad perspective and careful deliberation, crafting a remarkably robust means of channeling popular representation through a government of laws.
Though it seems to be withstanding the stresses that are being inflicted on it by our current presidency, we should not forget the importance of the deep learning that underwrote the American experiment.
Jefferson’s library became the core of the Library of Congress after the British burned the Capitol. It is now the largest library in the world, located on Capitol Hill so that in today’s complex task of government as Jefferson opined, “there is in fact no subject to which a member of Congress may not have occasion to refer.”
But what wisdom can we rely on to inform the realm of public life that is not encompassed by government? What are the great books that help us gain perspective on the world of nonprofits and philanthropy? There are many important ones, some collected in the Payton Philanthropic Studies Library at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) or published by the Indiana University Press series with other useful compilations at places like the Philanthropy Roundtable. This is a good start, but the importance of voluntary action in human history and the promise of philanthropy for the future demand more serious study, especially if we are to believe the many prognosticators who say we are at the cusp of a new era of philanthropy.
An enthusiasm for studying philanthropy deeply in order to shape it more effectively reflects the ethos of our school. We see its successes in our alumni whose achievements in the world rely on deep learning combined with intense deliberation with faculty and peers.
We are in a way building the library of philanthropy to help philanthropy practitioners the way the Library of Congress holds the vast body of human knowledge in support of our legislators. And like the Library of Congress that seeks also to be useful to the common citizen, so we too aim to be useful to all who engage in philanthropy.
Deeper knowledge is more useful knowledge. That is borne out in many studies about the value of education as measured by the job market. And the job market is one way we build our sense of dignity in the world. But it is often not the most important one.
The white supremacists who marched on Jefferson’s University (the University of Virginia) on August 11 were seeking dignity when they proclaimed their refusal to be replaced by those they disdain. It was an obnoxious quest for dignity as it sought to diminish the dignity of others. It is based on flawed interpretations of the past and a narrative of mutual threat rooted in disgust so odious that we have gotten out of the habit of explaining its particular maladies.
In 1972 the famed political philosopher Isaiah Berlin wrote a brief easy in Foreign Affairs titled the Bent Twig. He wrote that nationalism was born at a time when science and literacy were on the rise so that most thinkers expected it to be a momentary phenomenon.
Nationalism seemed like so much quaint folklore modified for mass consumption. The general belief was that it could not possibly compete with the dynamism of capitalism, or technology and the administrative state as manifested in socialism.
Most of us at the time saw the great world conflict between the rational modern trends of capitalism and socialism. But Berlin reminded us that human dignity and its expression do not stay on a straight line for very long. It is not easily predictable or permanently routine. In particular, injured dignity packs quite a punch in preparing surprises for the unfolding of apparently inevitable progress.
As we see more activism in our voluntary sector overlapping with campus life, we see the importance of constant vigilance and devotion to the pursuit of both knowledge and dignity in our educational institutions. Being knowledgeable is one great advantage for leaders, but understanding how to nurture the dignity of others is not only a worthy end but a pressing, practical leadership challenge.
It is noteworthy that our hate-filled fellow citizens chose to express their injured dignity at a great public university where so many generations have achieved both knowledge and dignity. The university as a place is important not only as a physical destination where we gather to learn and deliberate, but as a place where we face each other to receive recognition and affirmation for our achievements.
We have not included enough of our fellow citizens in these privileged communities and now have work to do to better understand how we can share knowledge and dignity more broadly. Otherwise, those who demand dignity based on ignorance and anger will fight to elevate their status by seeking to denigrate or destroy those they perceive as depriving them of dignity.
An increasingly militant civic space is encroaching on the university’s ability to provide education and dignity for its community. Endangering our repositories of deeper learning and deliberation threatens all our futures. That is why the quest for knowledge and dignity must be a constant challenge that we face head-on.
In our school we see the need to build wisdom for our students as we work with them to engage the rage that has devastated civil society in the past.
As philanthropy evolves to meet the challenges of our society, deeper learning is vital but so is nurturing the dignity of everyone in our world.
Eugene R. Tempel Dean