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Vartan Gregorian on Andrew Carnegie's Legacy

April 05, 2010

Carnegie I've interviewed Vartan Gregorian a couple of times over the years. And on both occasions, the Carnegie Corporation president made clear his admiration for American philanthropy and the enormous role Andrew Carnegie, an immigrant like Gregorian himself, played in shaping its ambitions and norms. As he tells Susan King in the first installment of a five-part interview just posted to the foundation's Web site, the Scottish-born industrialist "was a short man with big vision...a vision [he] accompanied with action. He did not speculate; he researched and acted upon his convictions and his vision of America as a vibrant democracy that needed education to become stronger."

Later in the interview, in response to a question about the impulse behind Carnegie's philanthropy, Gregorian says:

He knew about poverty, he knew about hard work. He knew the concept...of citizenship, and he saw inequality and unequal access to learning. He could not buy books because his family was poor, he could not borrow books because there were no organized libraries, and so he became aware of the denial of learning as a way of oppression....That's one of the things that differentiates him, that when he became rich, he made books available to all the others who were denied learning in similar situations. Another thing that affected him was seeing how hard his father worked and how little he accomplished, he attributed that to lack of educational opportunity. So learning and educational opportunity became two fundamental ideas for him. He came to the U.S. with practically nothing. And suddenly, age 30, he was one of the richest, if not the richest, man in the world. He was not dazzled by this; he was empowered by it. And he decided he was going to act on his wealth, the responsibility thrust upon him by a capitalist society in which he had earned [his] money, not inherited it....And that's what he did. He did not inherit anything except his name and his thirst for learning. He acted on his convictions -- and that's one of the great things that happens when individuals have the means to act on their convictions; they can have real impact....

To read the Q&A, click here. Subsequent installments will be posted over the next year as part of the lead up to the centennial celebration of the foundation's establishment.

-- Mitch Nauffts

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