Philanthropists would do best not to aspire to the grandeur of abstractions. Instead of pouring their energies into utopian pursuits, they should focus on what is practicable and realistic.
Like many colleges, the one where I teach has created an impossible situation for itself by asseverating that we will be creating “global leaders.” The word “global” has achieved remarkable purchase in our argot. Hope College has all kinds of “global learning” requirements for its students, on which it is determined to double-down, even if I have yet to have one person explain to me how the word “global” can modify the word “learning.” The word “learning” typically needs an object. Learning politics, or learning psychology, or learning how to read, or learning mathematics—those are phrases that make sense. It is a transitive verb that adds to the object while it alters the subject.
The phrase “global learning,” in contrast, confounds subject and object. Any adjective we attach to “learning” typically refers to either method or intensity; only non-sensically could it identify the object. Politics is the thing you learn something about; it is not the mode of learning. I know what it means to learn about politics, or about psychology. I have no idea what it means to learn about “globe.”
But if turning a noun into an adjective isn’t bad enough, we have now turned the adjective into a verb and then back into a noun, as evidenced by our “internationalization” of the curriculum—a term that could have only been coined by a bureaucrat or a committee.
Voltaire once wagged that those who can make people believe absurdities can commit atrocities. In this instance, the atrocity is that “internationalization” is not simply an addendum to an otherwise healthy curriculum, but it is an insertion into the curriculum, the purpose of which is to alter it fundamentally.
Abstract terms often cover up otherwise indefensible actions or absurd claims that don’t hold up upon further scrutiny. If that’s not a maxim it ought to be. Our internationalization of our curriculum is predicated on the belief that (as stated in an official document) “since we can’t bring every Hope student to the globe, we must bring the globe to every Hope student.” The writers here seem so caught up in their fervor that they have ceased paying attention to meaning.
Aspirations for grandeur negate actions that can actually matter. As Robert Musil put it in his The Man Without Qualities, people become more enamored of possible realities than real possibilities. Instead of focusing on what is practicable, realistic, or helpful, we pour our energies into utopian worlds.
Words matter, and they circumscribe and direct the possibilities of action. So I propose another maxim: the more abstract the word, the less justifiable the action.
“Philanthropy” is an abstract word. Dostoevsky sharply but generously identified the ways in which sentimental humanitarianism distracted persons from concrete responsibilities (“I love mankind; it’s individual human beings I can’t stand”).
Anyone engaged in “philanthropy” must thus be ever-vigilant against the temptations of pride, arrogance, and power implicit in all such abstractions. The tendency to think you know better what is good for someone than they do for themselves, to believe that you have a firm grasp of the big picture with all its possible outcomes, the sense that if people would follow your lead the whole world would be better off, are all temptations generated by asymmetries of power and wealth that constantly leave others in subordinate positions. “Doing good” is a hit-and-run strategy that is far different than “being good,” which requires humility, deference, and the dignity-maintaining power of reciprocity.
People employ abstract language in the service of chimeras: they expand meaning as they expand the field of human endeavor. The airier the word, the thinner the social realm; the thinner the social realm, the more fragile our sense of self and our possibilities for action.
Being a global citizen is easy because it demands nothing more of you than the right attitude, whereas being a friend or a good neighbor is difficult and demands constant cultivation and attention to the practicable, realistic, or helpful actions of the everyday.
Philanthropists would do best not to aspire to the alluring grandeur of abstractions. They should be attentive to the ways human beings actually live and their actual needs, with an eye to incremental solutions that don’t “solve problems” but do improve lives and communities. They should recognize that “doing good” involves long-term and often difficult commitments and frustrations. Finally, they should let the reality dictate their thinking rather than their thinking the reality, attentive to its concrete nature in the persons and communities in front of them.