Among the report’s recommendations about how to change social norms is the expansion of several programs in primary and secondary schools that offer “giving education.” The report singles out Giving Nation, Go-Givers, and the Youth and Philanthropy Initiative as programs that effectively teach philanthropy.
But can philanthropy be taught in schools?
Our son’s elementary school had a penny drive this spring to aid Japanese earthquake victims. Our son enthusiastically rounded up pennies from every nook in the house and proudly bore them off to school—but I’m sure that his enthusiasm was more motivated by the delight of adding to a big jar of pennies in his classroom than by genuine compassion for a remote people whose needs are beyond his ken.
The Youth and Philanthropy Initiative singled out in the Philanthropy Review report is a program, inaugurated in Canada, in which secondary school children research local organizations and recommend a charity to receive a grant. In Canada the charities recommended by the students receive five-thousand dollar grants from the Toskan Casale Foundation; in the United Kingdom three-thousand pound grants are funded by Credit Suisse and the Wood Family Trust. Students do not give their own money or hold a fund-raiser for their chosen charity.
The eighteenth century philosopher Rousseau, whose treatise Emile is one of the greatest meditations on the education of children, rightly criticized such approaches to teaching charity. Rousseau wrote:
Alms giving is an action for a man who knows the value of what he gives and the need that his fellow man has of it. In the child, who knows nothing about that, giving cannot be a merit. He gives without charity, without beneficence…Note that the child is always made to give only things of whose value he is ignorant—some pieces of metal which he has in his pocket and which he uses only for giving. A child would rather give a hundred louis than a cake. But commit the prodigal distributor to give things which are dear to him—toys, candies, his snack—and we shall soon know if you have made him truly liberal.
Elementary school children and even many secondary children cannot truly understand the needs of others whose circumstances may be remote from theirs; they do not exercise a truly charitable disposition when they pledge the money of another charitable organization. The approach to teaching charity in schools recommended in the Philanthropy Review report fail both of Rousseau’s criteria—they encourage “giving” by those who do not feel the value of what they give and by those whose experience is still too narrow to feel the need their fellow men have of charity.
Perhaps such school programs as recommended in the Philanthropy Review’s report plant a seed of thought about others’ needs and the role charitable organizations can play in the community. At best such thoughts are preliminary to becoming a philanthropic person; philanthropy is a disposition that we can only achieve with maturity—and is more inspired by the examples of philanthropic individuals rather than by lessons from a school lesson plan.