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Awards & Honors: 2008 National Humanities Medalist

John Templeton Foundation

Two decades after its creation, the John Templeton Foundation continues to manifest the character of its founder, Sir John Templeton, who died in July. He began his rise on Wall Street in 1937 and proved himself to be a contrarian thinker. His acumen at picking investments no one else would touch was legendary—so much so that Money magazine once called him the “the greatest global stock picker of the century.”“When I was a youngster, my father’s overriding curiosity was what might be called the science of determining value. He was fascinated and, therefore, pursued with great persistence and ardor what it meant to have a disciplined, consistent approach to analyzing value, particularly on the prospect of promising investments,” says his son John M. Templeton Jr., who has presided over the foundation since he retired from his work as a pediatric surgeon in 1995.

“In time, my father’s passion for value began to broaden to fields like theology and philanthropy,” says Templeton. A devout Presbyterian, the senior Templeton wanted to contribute to progress in spiritual understanding, and he thought the best way to do this was with open-minded research. The foundation’s motto became “How little we know, how eager to learn,” says Templeton.

The foundation is best known for the Templeton Prize, which honors people whose works “affirm life’s spiritual dimensions” with an award of over one million dollars. Past winners include Mother Teresa, physicist Freeman Dyson, and Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor and Polish cosmologist and Catholic priest Michael Heller are the most recent recipients. But the foundation’s main work is the distribution of nearly $70 million in grants annually to people who investigate “big questions” about natural and social sciences, philosophy, freedom and free enterprise, gifted education, or world religions. Its expansive online exchange among some of the world’s best thinkers has covered difficult questions: Does the free market corrode moral character? Does science make belief in God obsolete? Will money solve Africa’s development problems? Does the universe have a purpose?

In particular, the foundation has encouraged civil discourse between the fields of science and religion and has supported work in positive psychology, the brainchild of Martin Seligman. This relatively new field focuses on people’s inner strengths rather than on pathologies, an approach that dovetails with the foundation’s core themes, which include creativity, curiosity, gratitude, purpose, and wisdom.

In considering a proposal, the foundation does its calculus by asking its Theory of Change questions: How will things be different as a result of this grant, and what is the prospect for this proposal to have an enduring impact? The bar is high—only a third of applications make the cut.

Templeton believes grantees have done work of lasting value. James Tooley, president of the Education Fund for Orient Global, addressed one of the foundation’s key interests, whether free enterprise alleviates poverty. He looked at independent for-profit schools that enrolled poor children in India’s slums and throughout Africa and found that children who participated in these schools produced test scores that were 25 to 30 percent higher than students in government schools, says Templeton. He attributes the higher scores to greater accountability of teachers in a for-profit setting. “Even the poorest of the poor know what their children need,” he says. “This taught us that we need to pay much more attention to the natural genius and optimistic attitudes of people who may be very poor, but who have a strong entrepreneurial commitment to succeed.”

In Tooley’s commentary on the question whether money would solve Africa’s development problems, he noted that a common response in dealing with education in poor nations is to “call for billions more in aid for public education.” Instead, he sees investments in “local educational entrepreneurs,” the people who start the private schools, as the way to go.

In 1997, the foundation put out a request for proposals on forgiveness, and expected “a couple of dozen applicants,” says Templeton. There were ten times as many applications as expected, approximately 250. So many were of a high caliber that the foundation raised the level of funding to $4 million and then created a nonprofit corporation called a Campaign for Forgiveness Research to raise money to fund additional work. Everett Worthington, a psychology professor at Virginia Commonwealth University and a leader in the study of forgiveness, particularly in marriage, directed the campaign. “I was privileged to watch talented researchers make different impacts,” says Worthington. “By providing money to fund research in ten different labs, I felt that I was contributing to ten times the amount of research that I alone could have done in my one lab.”

Ultimately, the project produced studies covering forgiveness within marriage, in cases of sexual abuse, and at the national level in South Africa. Since the foundation started this research, “there has been further interest in forgiveness, particularly studying dramatically promising examples in the ongoing national restoration movement in Rwanda, a process which is very much involved with the deep and very difficult challenges of forgiveness,” says Templeton.

Which virtues are up next for the foundation’s consideration? “We are just about to launch a multimillion dollar research project in regard to generosity—its genesis, its various manifestations, and its impact,” says Templeton, the author of Thrift and Generosity: The Joy of Giving.  “One of Sir John’s ongoing interests was how to optimize responsible and effective generosity. He felt that one of the hardest disciplines is to find ways to be generous that result in the elevation, strengthening, and eventual sustainability of those who benefit from generosity.”

By Anna Maria Gillis