From the President

Since the outbreak of the pandemic last spring, we at the Teagle Foundation have tried to listen to the teachers and academic leaders with whom we work so that we can better support their efforts on behalf of students at this dark time. 

The severity of disruption caused by Covid-19 ranges from serious to devastating. These gradations correspond roughly to the resources available to institutions and families as they cope with health and financial crises, psychological stress, and an onslaught of basic practical problems including how to secure adequate medicine and food. With these exigencies in mind, the Teagle Foundation has made emergency grants totaling more than half a million dollars to the City University of New York, Rutgers University (Newark and Camden campuses), and several community-based organizations in New York City.

These and many other institutions among Teagle’s grantees serve large numbers of students from marginalized communities. Many such students work in retail businesses or restaurants while attending college and therefore find themselves suddenly without income, or with parents or partners in dire straits, or with limited access to digital technology by which to continue their education remotely—or, in too many cases, with all of the above. Our hearts go out to them, and to everyone struggling to stay on the path toward educational attainment under these unprecedented circumstances.

It is important to recognize that the pandemic, while it is having a serious impact on all academic institutions, is likely to enlarge the gap between those with significant resources and those reliant on budgets that were already inadequate before the current crisis. While the Teagle Foundation does not maintain a “no fly” list, and we sometimes make grants to well-resourced institutions—  especially when they show commitment to reaching out to disadvantaged communities—our approach to grantmaking is sensitive to need as well as to merit.

In all our grantmaking, we have tried to stay true to two basic principles:

  1. to do what we can through higher education to ensure that the American promise of equal opportunity is real rather than rhetorical.
  2. to ensure that students who do reach college have the chance to engage with significant historical, philosophical, and ethical ideas with the help of challenging texts and devoted teachers—and to do so in an atmosphere of free inquiry that encourages the testing of presuppositions rather than the easy pleasure of reaffirming them.

I am very pleased to report that we have formalized two significant partnerships to advance these aims:

  1. We have entered into a collaborative agreement with the National Endowment for the Humanities over the next 5 years to support a joint initiative, “Cornerstone: Learning for Living,” with the goal of reviving the role of the humanities in General Education.  Our aim is to enlarge the opportunity for students of all backgrounds and aspirations to be challenged by texts that have transformed the world and retain the power to transform individual lives. 
  2. We have begun a partnership with the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations for a joint effort to enlarge opportunities for community college students to achieve the dream of earning a four-year liberal-arts bachelor’s degree. We aim to do this by improving transfer pathways to the liberal arts between two-year public institutions and four-year private institutions so that students will face fewer obstacles in making the transition from one to the other.

In addition to these initiatives, we are beginning to see the emergence of a network of institutions committed to our Knowledge for Freedom (KFF) programs. These programs, now up and running or in the planning stage at 22 colleges and universities nationwide, bring low-income high school students onto campus for intensive humanities seminars under the direction of college faculty. Participating faculty take these students seriously as young people with important questions on their minds and the capacity to engage with challenging readings—all toward the end of helping them make the transition to college and inciting them to value humanistic learning once they get there.

On the premise that all humanistic questions are complex and impervious to simple answers, the programs we support are devoted to rational and respectful discussion of difficult issues in an atmosphere in which all are free to question, to assess evidence, and to change their minds. 

All our programs rest on the premise that liberal education matters more than ever for the future of our democracy. We seek to defend principles that need all the defense they can get. Among them are the following:

There is a difference between abuse and disagreement.

There is a difference between skepticism and ignorance.

There is a difference between freedom and selfishness.

There is a difference between credulity and faith.

There is a difference between patriotism and xenophobia.

Regardless of party or political preference, most of us can agree that we live at a time when these distinctions are fading at an alarming pace. We are witnessing reckless contempt for the truth in many quarters of American society, including government, political organizations, and media. We are witnessing outright demagoguery of a sort that has always existed in American society but has never come so close to infiltrating and poisoning our essential institutions. 

The work that Teagle does cannot mitigate these problems in the short run.  But on the analogy of the vaccines that will eventually defeat the Covid-19 virus, we believe that liberal education is the only long-term intervention with lasting protective effect against these pathologies.  For that reason, we will redouble our efforts in the months and years to come.

Andrew Delbanco, President