If you are not familiar with it, The Philanthropy Roundtable is a non-profit organization based in Washington, D. C. which provides a setting for networking and discussion among a significant number of the country’s major grant-making foundations. It also sponsors for its members enlightening conferences and site visits involving a wide range of projects being funded by these institutions. I have been an individual member for many years.
Another service of value to its members is the publication of a series of givers’ guides, usually a checklist of key considerations for certain areas of philanthropy, but also including editorial commentary on current issues in the world of philanthropy. The current edition was of particular interest to me. It is entitled “The Fabric of Character: A Wise Giver’s Guide to Supporting Social and Moral Renewal” and was authored by Anne Snyder, who directs The Philanthropy Roundtable’s Character Initiative. I was particularly drawn to it because I can’t think of an area of philanthropy that is in more deserving need of foundation support in America at this time than character development. It covers case studies of various character development programs around the country as well as 16 Questions: An Organizational Guide for Great Character Formation, which simply put means a set of dispositions to be and do good.
I was especially interested in the case study named Educating the Whole Person at Wake Forest University, which as the name suggests, is directed toward the cultivation of the whole student in an attempt to address some of the pressing problems on campuses that regularly occupy the evening news. To no surprise, Wake’s President Nathan Hatch notes that “Character is the most pressing issue of our day, and one that institutions of higher education struggle to address. We can far more easily study and talk about virtue and the good life than actually nurture character in the lives of students”. He admits that character education inevitably makes faculty nervous. He gets questions like “who is going to define that?” and resistance to notions of moral hierarchies and preferred behavior. One can only imagine how touchy this stuff might be in today’s college environment. And Hatch also admits that the program remains an aspirational mission and the most difficult question is how to do substantive character formation in a pluralistic context.
One of my favorite books on higher education is Education’s End: Why Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life, by Anthony Kronman. In it, he notes that he has “watched the question of life’s meaning lose its status as a subject of organized academic instruction and seen it pushed to the margins of professional respectability in the humanities, where it once occupied a central and honored place”. It is very encouraging to know that Wake Forest is working hard on restoring that question to the core of higher education and that The Philanthropy Roundtable and its members are at the forefront of making it happen. Let’s hope it succeeds and spreads.