Educational Leader

In 1946, Gardner joined Carnegie Corporation, becoming in 1955 both president of the corporation and head of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. While leading Carnegie, building a reputation as a highly innovative thinker in education, Gardner understood the vital need for leadership development. This led to a draft proposal for a national service program that would provide advanced experiential training for young people interested in American government. In 1964, it became the White House Fellows program. The program recently celebrated its 55th anniversary and boasts a long list of distinguished alumni.

Gardner published Excellence in 1961, capturing the attention of President John F. Kennedy, who appointed him to the Presidential Task Force on Education, and to the Commission on International Education and Cultural Affairs. Gardner then led President Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1964 task force on federal aid to primary and secondary schools. Hugely influential in its findings, the “Gardner Task Force on Education” directly informed the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).

President Kennedy planned to present Gardner with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in recognition of his many contributions to American education, but died in office before he was able to do so. President Johnson awarded the medal, the nation's highest civilian honor, to John Gardner in 1964 for his service to the Kennedy White House and for his leadership of the landmark Gardner Task Force on Education.

Telegram Correspondence between John F. Kennedy and John W. Gardner : June 1963
Sketch of John W. Gardner at Carnegie Corporation
John W. Gardner : Carnegie Corporation

From left to right:

Telegram from John F. Kennedy in 1963 inviting Gardner to join a meeting of education leaders to address "the nation's civil rights problem."

Portrait 1955, when Gardner became president of Carnegie

In the Carnegie office, 1961

The ultimate goal of the educational system is to shift to the individual the burden of pursuing his own education. This will not be a widely shared pursuit until we get over our odd conviction that education is what goes on in school buildings and nowhere else. The world is an incomparable classroom, and life is a memorable teacher for those who aren’t afraid of her.

John Gardner in "Self Renewal"

Oral History with Mike Kirst

Mike Kirst, a professor at Stanford's Graduate School of Education, describes the lasting impact of John Gardner's work in education.

Listen from 6:15 to 12:03

To learn more about Gardner's time at the Carnegie Foundation, listen to this 1998 oral history interview in which he reflects broadly on his life and career.