Just asking what you read sounds as archaic as all the paper that carries the dramatic flow in the movie The Post. Whether it’s done on a broadsheet or a smartphone, reading is how we do our daily work and how we understand what’s happening.
What we read is a telling reflection of what we think we are doing when we say we are engaging in philanthropy. I know that too much of what I read is ephemeral and contingent on fleeting networks. Taking more care in choosing what I read and sharing it with others will improve what I know and what I do, which is why I’m asking the question.
It is a rare foundation president who will ask you what books you are reading. Indeed, an illuminating study commissioned by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation finds that private U.S. foundations gather the knowledge they use in their work primarily through peer interactions that are “informal and ad hoc.”
Private foundation personnel were asked where they got the knowledge they used in their work. Though they were only asked about one academic institution as an information source, less than half of the respondents were aware of its “knowledge content.”
A very different approach to academe was in evidence when we recently hosted Larry Kramer, the president of the foundation, whose talk on the polarization in our civic life reflected a career of engaging with serious legal, historical and social scientific texts.
The reading he has done with his team resulted in the strategy of the Madison Initiative, a thoughtfully designed, long-term effort to repair our civic institutions. To top it all off, the most common question Larry asked our students and faculty was what books they were reading.
Larry Kramer is not the only prominent philanthropist who is serious about books. Bill Gates shares notes on his voracious reading through his well-known blog. And you will also find a bevy of reports online claiming that prominent wealthy people read more, and more seriously, than those with less material wealth. So if you want to get ahead, read more and read seriously. You get to decide what getting ahead means for you.
Reading does take commitment. As video takes up more of our bandwidth, both online and between our ears, there is no substitute for careful, considered reading to gain new or deeper understanding.
Serious research and scholarship are still primarily conveyed through the written word. The kinds of peer validation that the Hewlett report describes is different from the peer review that is at the foundation of the research enterprise that builds knowledge over time, moving civilization forward. The former is about reactions in the moment to the issues we face; the latter relies on a more careful written formulation of a claim that is then read at a distance by others who have good knowledge of the issues and the methods proposed to address them.
This careful reading asks about close and distant precedents, how did we get here, who else knows about this issue, and how confident we are about our understanding, all before we propose ways of moving forward. This also benefits future actors as the findings are published and findable and part of an ongoing conversation.
Of course, not all issues lend themselves to the kind of deliberative approach that involves careful reading, but it should also not be the case that foundation personnel remain unaware of the research that defines their industry and of the writing that has been considering the impact of generosity throughout history.
Generosity is a fundamental part of the human condition, which is why our school was grounded in the liberal arts. We read about voluntary action for the public good and inquire about it from the full range of perspectives on human and social relations. The promise of a liberal arts approach is precisely to free ourselves from the tyranny of the immediate and to read the context of our lives for ourselves and to craft our own way forward.
Though we value individual liberty as a condition and a destination of this kind of education, we do not achieve it in isolation. We share what we read and do so gladly, be it in the classroom or a book club.
But I as an academic should not be defending the liberal arts that I espouse, as Hunter Rawlings elegantly declares. Instead, it is those outside the university whose lives have been changed by engaging in a liberal arts education who should speak to what it enables.
Rawlings mentions liberation, irreverence, pleasure, provocation, and courage as key benefits of a liberal arts education. Reading is one of the main activities in a liberal arts education. So if your job or your life could use more of any of Rawlings’s elements, perhaps you should pick up a new book.
Two books we read in the basic general education course on philanthropy on our campus, Giving and Volunteering in America, are a compilation of historical readings and an inspiring story of redemptive transformation through generosity.
On my night stand is Putting Wealth to Work as we will be hosting Joel Fleishman, professor of law and public policy sciences at Duke University School of Law, as our fourth 30th Anniversary Speaker on March 22.
Finally, reading for philanthropy does not mean only reading texts that explicitly mention philanthropy. The creative spirit that examines the world or imagines it anew through fiction is a reflection of the generosity of so many men and women who have given of themselves and their mind’s work. Any reading that gives us a better perspective on the world and the people in it is a gift that we should share.
So read generously with a commitment to fully appreciate the author’s perspective as it was intended to be understood, but also be generous in sharing what you have gained through your reading. Indeed, this is the way we read when we read happily and with good results. In reading we need some time to ourselves, but not only.
The liberty to read and share what we have read is deeply enshrined in our civic culture. The generosity that we engage in when sharing what we read is just as deeply important. We just haven’t read about it as much.
So with my prized liberty, allow me to call on your generosity and ask, what do you read for philanthropy? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Eugene R. Tempel Dean