Educational Philanthropy: An Instrument of Qualified Change

By Simpson, Douglas J.; Hull, William J. | The Journal of Negro Education, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview
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Educational Philanthropy: An Instrument of Qualified Change

Simpson, Douglas J., Hull, William J., The Journal of Negro Education

This study critically examines the influence of philanthropic foundations on the educational development of African Americans, especially from 1932 to 2007. Attention is given to the positive and negative motives of philanthropists as well as to the ways African Americans utilized funds and leveraged the provided opportunities. In addition, the study explores the evolutionary nature of past, present, and projected philanthropic interests, needs, and emphases. The authors conclude that the support of foundations for the education of African Americans has been an invaluable but qualified instrument of change and that continued enlightened support is needed for the foreseeable future.

Anyone who is familiar with African Americans' history understands the importance of educational philanthropy to them. Not only has educational opportunity been expanded by philanthropy, but its byproducts include positive changes in nearly all areas of life. This instrument of change, however, has had diverse backgrounds, missions, and motivations. At its best, it has prepared innumerable African Americans to help transform their worlds. Another snapshot, however, is that philanthropic activity has suffered from cultural situated-ness which has resulted in objectionable aims, programs, and outcomes (Anderson, 1988; Wooster, 2006).

In view of this history, the term qualified appears in the title. The word suggests that philanthropy is a means of facilitating certain kinds of change. Not every kind of change has been welcomed. This interest in certain kinds of change and programs is, when ethical, legitimate. But the interests of donors in the past and present have not and need not be the same as those of many African Americans. Neither have donors' interests been, nor are they today, always desirable. Concurrent with positive opportunities, there have been negative philosophies and practices, including subtle attempts to use African American strengths for economic and political gain. Since philanthropic activities have been and are often mixed, rarely singular, and seldom as enlightened as presumed, it seems appropriate to examine both historical and contemporary philanthropic endeavors with a critical eye. Our purpose is to examine a narrow portion of the history and future of educational philanthropy as it relates to African Americans. Our analysis highlights philosophic thoughts that were and are designed to advance-yet sometimes impede-the education of African Americans. Philanthropy and education have been significant means of helping to move African Americans toward lives that are better characterized by freedom, justice, reflection, and happiness. But philanthropies are not value neutral. They esteem certain studies over others. Our analysis of these successes and issues examines early, recent, and contemporary philanthropic landscapes without making these timeframes totally discrete.


Early Landscapes

Education has been debated for centuries. Plato, for example, believed that the aristocracy should be the only group provided with a formal academic education. Initially, in the American colonies formal education was only for those wealthy enough to educate their own children. Horace Mann, the American education reformer and abolitionist, on the contrary, insisted that everyone should be educated. But even when the question of who should be educated was settled, other questions such as how should people be educated, what should they learn? (Pulliam, 1987).

Let us pause for other questions. What educational purposes does a foundation support? Is the purpose social reproduction or personal liberation? Is the intent the socialization of young citizens into a particular social stratum or a democratic society?

Does the philanthropy focus on providing opportunities to the underserved, the gifted, me working class, the middle class, the poor, the wealthy, or all of the above?

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