“Studying” philanthropy is a new academic enterprise, and one riven by various interests. Though a growing camp of scholars is following grant money, their studies, even when critical, generally confirm the conventional wisdom of foundation leaders. As a permanent supplicant, the academy approaches organized philanthropy with either a tugged forelock or an upraised list.

Ellen Condliffe Lagemann, a professor of education at Teacher’s College, Columbia, is skeptical yet yielding to the reasons for the politics of philanthropy. Her Politics of Knowledge is a royal history of the Carnegie Corporation, just as the professional heirs to Andrew’s great dream of the “gospel of wealth” would have it. Teresa Odendahl, on the other hand, demands new layers of political control over private philanthropy. Here is the controversial reappearance of the orthodox case against private wealth.

Though Lagemann repeatedly apologizes for writing “elite” history, the Carnegie Corporation has shaped the nation by pioneering efforts to elevate popular culture. One of the oldest foundations in America, and until World War II the largest, its current assets of about $800 million make it the nation’s eleventh largest. Lagemann’s detailed analysis is done with Teutonic care and focuses on Carnegie’s various legacies, from the public libraries and the establishment of adult and art education to public television. Since the l 960’s, the corporation has used “councils” explicitly to try to change public policy. Lagemann concludes that with these Carnegie has been chasing fifteen minutes of fame, trumpeting yesterday’s headline to get on tomorrow’s news, and in so doing “perhaps” limiting its long-term influence. 

Education used to be synonymous with Carnegie, and “Let There Be Light” was graven over the entrance to all Carnegie libraries. But later Carnegie leaders withdrew support from James B. Conant’s vapid campaign for public schools. They chose to follow instead Christopher Jenck’s advice that an “incomes policy” would have to be used to produce social equality. So Carnegie, late in institutional middle age, rediscovered poverty.

Lagemann notes that the report of another council, All Our Children (1977), marked Carnegie’s tum from education to out-and-out politics, a turn that “could be interpreted as being at odds with the corporation’s liberal charter and tradition.” The shift, she argues, “represented movement by the Corporation to a broader conception of liberal reform than it had tended to accept earlier.” Carnegie justified its first grant to the Children’s Defense Fund as advancing “the right of every child to an education.” With millions of dollars more to follow, it is wondrous that the author, or the corporation, remains silent about the principal work of it’s current president, Marian Wright Edelman: her annual appeals for reduced defense spending and expanded political control over the last vestiges of personal life in America. 

Lagemann speculates on what Carnegie might have, but did not, fund. Instead of creating think tanks, what if Jane Addams’s Hull House had been chosen? Instead of siding in legal studies with the Bar Association and its use of case law, what if it had supported legal positivism? Her answer, as you may have anticipated, is that generations of “sexism, racism, class bias, and WASP provincialism” could have been avoided. Carnegie has simply not gone far enough, but what makes Lagemann’s an acceptable version of foundation historiography is her documentation of progressive “growth.” 

Delicate language and abstractions disappear in Odendahl’s book. Instead of rewriting the past, she shows con cern for the future. The map for the next Jacksonian regime (Jesse’s) and the socialization of charity could be this book. For that reason, Odendahl has become the darling ex-philanthropist of the left. She is a scholar who violates the code of foundation study, which forbids both criticism and blunt-especially political-language, and she deserves credit for daring to raise unmentionable topics.

We learn sometimes more and sometimes less about the charitable rich; Odendahl is better on the newer variants of philanthropy. “Rich kids” practice “alternative philanthropy,” an annual $5 million sandbox spoiled, as in the Chinese Cultural Revolution, by “red/expert” lights between donors and recipient?? over control of the money. She describes all women philanthropists as feminists (“only three actually used the word”) determined to transform charity’s “exchange economy”-“Do real men give away someone elses money?”

We learn something of religion’s exclusion from secularized charities. Who today can reply as John D. Rockefeller did that “God gave me the money”? In 140 interviews, only Southern Protestants and Jews ground the genesis of their charitable impulses in religion. (But while remarking upon the absence of Catholic foundations, Odendahl is silent about the Church as a charity.) 

We do not learn that the rich are evil, despite her best efforts to teach that lesson. The moneyed people she interviews are nothing if not modest and self-effacing. She went looking for Trump and found Everyman with a trust. Only by a forced interpretation of these millionaires’ words can Odendahl try to make us believe that the rich frolic while· the masses despair, government shrinks, elites flourish, and what she calls the “community community” remains poor and outside. Still, to her, charity is “false consciousness” beguiling the public into sustaining class bound cultural forms. She reports that among the inheritors of money and influence can be found-self-interest!

The ghost of John D. Rockefeller haunts Odendahl’s book. She has writ ten a gloss on H.D. Lloyd’s Wealth Against Commonwealth: her Charity Begins at Home is feminist deconstruction as muckraking. The public’s rip off by “tax subsidies” are the rebates of today. The private charters she deplores arc secure, except for criminal and other forms of “self-dealing.” And she calls for an end to “dynastic” monies, a view common during the 1930’s but dropped down the memory hole decades ago. 

By having broken company with liberal defenders of foundations, Odendahl exposes an old and deep political fault line between entrenched foundation executives and foundation radicals like herself, who dismiss all private charity-givers as “lackeys” and “functionaries” running an oligarchy. Odendahl prefers the demos of advanced affirmative action at the state’s direction. Private charity is merely capitalism’s fig leaf, unless it is dedicated to welfare spending, and directed by the underclass.

Private foundations do have a history, the first part of which ended in 1969 when Congress emasculated them with tax code restrictions. Before that, and starting in the Progressive era, foundations operating under the mantle of the “knowledgeable” servants of society raised up what we now know as “government.” Nowadays, displaced in many of their functions by the state, and losing sovereignty to public charities, foundations are charity’s House of Lords-the tamed liberal establishment.


[The Politics of Knowledge: The Carnegie Corporation, Philanthropy, and Public Policy, by Ellen Condliffe Lagemann (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press) 347 pp., $35.00]


[Charity Begins at Home: Generosity and Self-Interest Among the Philanthropic Elite, by Teresa Odendhal (New York: Basic Books) 299 pp., $22.95]