From barn raising to Wikipedia, from humble gestures of giving in our closest circles to the masses of volunteers who follow inspirational leaders like Gandhi to transform the notion of human dignity for all of us, “voluntary action for the public good” shapes who we are and the world around us. It is a power we are beginning to understand better and to use more deliberately.
But, you may say, economists, historians, psychologists, and even business professors already research and teach about philanthropy. And these standard disciplines are better established—we expect to see them on résumés.
Why does philanthropy need its own field? First, because it opens a new way of achieving a meaningful and relevant liberal education. Second, because it prepares public-minded professionals to master the knowledge needed to guide individuals, communities and organizations in harnessing the power of giving. Third, because it nurtures the interdisciplinary curiosity needed to add to the body of knowledge about the role of philanthropy in our world.
Educators and CEOs laud the benefits of a liberal education at the same time that job anxiety and hype about the perils of student loans lead students and families to underinvest in a liberal education that will prepare them to become nimble learners and curators of their own careers. And many of our traditional liberal arts disciplines that remain the core of the university feel themselves under siege.
A philanthropic lens allows students to rediscover the wealth of disciplinary perspectives and craft a sense of self and the world that will serve them well throughout their lives. As the job market shows, there is strong demand for talent that can engage the voluntary energy that powers communities to improve how we live.
As we seek to master a craft that defines our profession, there is one essential ingredient that is impossible to automate and mass produce—community. From correspondence courses delivered by pony express to radio and television’s promise to quickly educate the masses, we are now exploring the potential for personalized machine learning to interactively deliver content into our brains.
It is inspiring to imagine future children becoming multilingual by playing video games, but we will continue to need a community to cultivate our scholars and to enable our students to engage each other around a table, even if it is a virtual one. As long as we seek to instill mastery in the full range of perspectives one needs to serve as a faithful guide for the conduct of philanthropy, the role of the student will need to be as immersive as that of an apprentice.
Progressing from mastery to discovery we enter the challenging domain of interdisciplinary research where our future knowledge lies. Unfortunately the disciplinary vessels we keep reproducing may not be well suited to getting us there. Philanthropy has jumped ship and decided that a variety of methods need to be applied to generate new knowledge. This requires our pioneers to both master the way several disciplines work and to find coherent ways of integrating them.
The three reasons for philanthropy as a field of study naturally reflect the process of education at the bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral levels. To have a viable field of study it is important to have progress on all three levels and that they usefully inform each other as they move forward.
New knowledge produced by Ph.D.’s will help bachelor’s and master’s students enhance their appreciation of the philanthropic spirit and improve the work that they do in advancing it. By studying the work of the bachelor’s and master’s alumni, doctoral students can seek to improve understandings of the practice in the field. Bachelor’s and master’s students can learn from each other to establish the inter-generational transfer of knowledge and responsibility that drives progress.
Beyond the intellectual integrity of each level of education in philanthropy, there is a great advantage in having them side-by-side in one school so the full cycle of discovery, mastery and preparation can enjoy the creative advantages of sharing a community. The Lilly Family School of Philanthropy aspires to be the intellectual home for that community, and for all who are serious about philanthropy. I hope you will join us.
Eugene R. Tempel Dean