Swans Commentary » swans.com July 12, 2010  



Foundations and Cultural Imperialism
An Interview with Edward Berman


by Michael Barker





(Swans - July 12, 2010)   Edward Berman is professor emeritus of education at the University of Louisville, and is the author of two books, African Reactions to Missionary Education (Teachers College Press, 1975), and The Influence of the Carnegie, Ford, and Rockefeller Foundations on American Foreign Policy: The Ideology of Philanthropy (State University of New York Press, 1983). In addition, Berman contributed two chapters to Robert Arnove's edited book Philanthropy and Cultural Imperialism: The Foundations at Home and Abroad (Boston: G.K. Hall, 1980): these were titled "Educational Colonialism in Africa: The Role of American Foundations at Home and Abroad, 1910-1945" and "The Foundations Role in American Foreign Policy: The Case of Africa, post 1945." The following interview was undertaken by e-mail in June 2010.

Michael Barker: Why did you choose to undertake your doctoral studies, and how did you become interested in studying philanthropy?

Edward Berman: I was working in a low-level administrative position at Columbia University in the mid-1960s -- having just returned to the U.S. after a two-year teaching stint in Nigeria -- and realized that I could take classes there tuition-free. Columbia, together with a number of other US research institutions, was just receiving significant federal government and foundation funding for a range of area-studies programs (African, Latin American, etc.). I enrolled for a few classes, realized that I knew more than I thought, and decided to get serious about the matter. At dissertation time I was thrashing around for a topic; someone mentioned that work needed to be done on the Phelps-Stokes Fund, about which I knew. I was in New York, as was the Phelps-Stokes Fund's offices, so it made sense. Kenneth King (Pan-Africanism and Education) and I were probably the first two people to have a serious look through the Fund's archives.

MB: Could you please tell me a little about any people and/or groups who helped you propagate the ideas presented in your work?

EB: There were of course a few professional colleagues around the country/world who thought I (and the few others on the topic) were on the right track, but none of them were running in front with banners proclaiming "everyone should read this stuff." Interestingly, the most supportive group (if one can call should the small numbers such) were nationals from developing countries, who would appear occasionally at conferences or send along supportive notes. Put another way: there wasn't an awful lot of evident enthusiasm, but there sure was considerable criticism.

MB: As a result of publishing your work did you come across any opposition from the academic and/or philanthropic community? Could you please explain how you dealt with such resistance?

EB: My conclusions raised a few eyebrows, especially among Phelps-Stokes Fund supporters and others in its orbit, but there wasn't much concern, at least not expressed, about my conclusions. But, then, this work wasn't nearly as sophisticated as King's, which identified a larger cast of characters than did mine. The facts were pretty clear, to wit: after WWI and in the 1920s the Colonial Office was searching for a coherent education policy for its African colonies. The thinking in the Colonial Office and around several missionary headquarters (epitomized by the International Missionary Council) was that American policymakers in the US south had come up with a viable education policy for the majority of southern Blacks, conveniently labeled the Hampton-Tuskegee philosophy. That this was a limited education leading to restricted outcomes was beside the point. More relevant was the fact that the African colonial subjects were in subordinate positions, just as were southern blacks. So why not give the former the same educational fare as foisted on their black brethren in the U.S.? And so it was done. The facts were documentable, but the disagreements focused on motivations of the dominant players -- policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic, Phelps-Stokes Fund personnel, missionaries, etc.

I left that topic for other things until the later 1970s. Bob Arnove, whom I already knew, rang one day and asked what I knew of the African activities of the Ford Foundation after 1945. Nothing, I responded, why? He was looking at the Ford Foundation's role in the expansion of higher education in Latin America during the period. Aha. One conversation led to another, and to New York City to look in the archives of the Ford, Rockefeller, and Carnegie foundations. Suffice it to say that access to some of these was not always easy.

The main vocalized opposition to the foundation work came at professional meetings. I was regularly confronted by foundation personnel, their minions, and, rather consistently, from academics who had studied at the University of Chicago. It was almost as if I could look over the audience at these gatherings and guess who was going to object to my comments. And generally I was correct. It got rather testy at times; they'd raise their voices, I'd raise mine a little louder! Not pleasant, to be sure, but I didn't expect rose petals to come my way.

MB: How do you now feel about your earlier work on foundations? Do you have any regrets, and if so what do you think you might have changed if you were given the chance?

EB: Lawrence Cremin -- Pulitzer Prize and Bancroft Prize winner, former president of Teachers College at Columbia, and quintessential member of the Establishment -- once asked me why I "did it." By which he meant the foundation work. Didn't you know that this was dangerous territory for you, that it was going to have an impact on your career, etc., he asked, implying that a number of job ops had been forfeited as a result. There were several reasons to pursue the topic, I rejoined: one, my career wasn't going anywhere anyhow and the topic was of interest, and two, I was offended by the arrogance of those around the foundations and in their orbit. And would I do it again? I think it an important area of inquiry, obviously, and after all this time feel that I was about 75% correct in my assessments.

Regarding the 75% on the right side: more time and energy on my part would, I suspect, have led to further supportive links between this or that foundation satellite group, but I ran out of both. This is an area in which Joan Roelofs's or Don Fisher's efforts are valuable; they did manage to link together a bunch of seemingly disparate groups supported overtly -- or otherwise -- by foundation largesse. And on a tangential note: I went after the "Big Three" because of their links to US foreign policy during the period under investigation; to include others would have necessitated a different focus.

MB: Why do you think that written criticisms of liberal foundations are so few and far between?

EB: Why so few critiques of liberal foundations? The old cliché is probably the best answer: don't bite the hand that you hope will feed you. The whole concept of self-censorship runs deep in the academic world; topics not selected for investigation are frequently as important as those much studied. Which of course is more of a commentary on potential investigators than the material itself.

MB: Following on from the last question, I was wondering what you thought about Professor Joan Roelofs's criticisms of liberal philanthropy?

EB: Joan Roelofs managed to pull together a large amount of really good material, which deserves a wide reading. But I suspect, alas, that the readership has been limited to the few members of the choir. So it's good that you're trying to increase the size of the choir so that her important concepts are better known.


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Michael Barker is an independent researcher who currently resides in the UK. In addition to his work for Swans, which can be found in the 2008, 2009, and 2010 archives, his other articles can be accessed at michaeljamesbarker.wordpress.com. Please help fund his work.   (back)


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published July 12, 2010