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Meeting with Foreign Honorary Members in Russia

On September 24, 2015, Jonathan Fanton gathered in Moscow with Foreign Honorary Members of the Academy. What follows are excerpts from Dr. Fanton’s remarks to the gathering.

It is my pleasure to welcome you to this meeting of the American Academy’s Foreign Honorary Members from Russia. The Academy has around 600 Foreign Honorary Members from 38 countries around the world. As the Academy’s new president, I want to connect to you and build bridges of understanding and cooperation. This is the first of several meetings the Academy will host with its Foreign Honorary Members, with events in London, Paris, and Berlin to follow later this year.

I chose to visit Russia first because of a concern that our two countries are drifting apart and I feel a responsibility to strengthen personal and intellectual ties. I have many friends in Russia from my ten years as President of the MacArthur Foundation, which supported numerous Russian universities, independent policy research centers, and journals over the years. I will be interested to learn about the state of universities and research in Russia and the issues and challenges you see ahead.

First, let me give you a little background on the Academy. The American Academy was founded in 1780 by John Adams, James Bowdoin, John Hancock, and other leaders who helped to establish the new nation. In the midst of the Revolution, they believed that the key to America’s long-term strength and survival was, in the words of our charter, “to cultivate every art and science which may tend to advance the interest, honor, dignity, and happiness of a free, independent, and virtuous people.” Since our founding, groups of members have come together, through the Academy, to examine some of the most pressing challenges of their times.

From the very beginning, the Academy was more than an honorary society. Members feel a responsibility to give advice on how to strengthen education and research but also on other issues like world peace and security.

We often appoint commissions of members from many disciplines to study important questions. Recently, a Commission on the Humanities assessed the state of humanistic and social scientific scholarship and education. It released its influential report, The Heart of the Matter, in 2013. Among its many recommendations, The Heart of the Matter suggested several ways to broaden public and scholarly access to digital resources, including revised fair-use and copyright regulations, and it encouraged new partnerships to ensure that all students have access to quality online teaching materials, especially those in economically disadvantaged K-12 schools.

Another commission just finished a report on the need for governments to invest in basic research in science and technology. We are following up with a new project examining the state of public trust in science and scientists. Another new commission will examine how Americans are receiving their postsecondary education and how to expand access at a price people can afford. And yet another commission just launched will look at the teaching of foreign languages.

Not all of our projects deal with scholarship and higher education. Our Global Nuclear Future Initiative is studying how to expand the use of nuclear power safely. Another project is exploring how technology—think drones—pose new dilemmas in the ethical use of force. The Academy is also studying the threat to stability posed by weak and failing states. Another group is asking whether the world is entering a new nuclear age where the framework that has provided stability for the past decades is eroding.

The Academy does not want to look at those important questions through an American-centric lens. We want to engage our Foreign Honorary Members in all the work we do, whether on the importance of the humanities, the safe pursuit of nuclear power, or how best to address the dangers of weak states.

The Academy’s ties to Russia go almost back to our founding. Mathematician Leonhard Euler, the first Foreign Honorary Member from Russia, was elected as part of the second class of members in 1782, five years before the Academy elected Thomas Jefferson. Euler was born in Switzerland and lived in Berlin during his middle years, but he was elected as a member of the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences, where he spent the majority of his life. Euler’s letter accepting membership, written in Latin, is hanging on the wall outside of the Academy’s main auditorium. Euler was certainly the most productive mathematician of his age. His collected works fill over 80 volumes—much of it written after he lost his vision in 1766, when he was already 59 years old.

In addition to electing Russian scholars—82 Foreign Honorary Members—the American Academy has also paid special attention to Russian subjects and themes in its public and scholarly programming.

In the 1850s, the Academy was engaged in a publication exchange with learned societies in Russia, including the Imperial Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg, the Administration of Mines in Russia, and the Imperial Mineralogical Society.

And throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Academy examined topics in international relations, economics, arms control and even literary studies—all with a special emphasis on Russia and Russian culture.

Some examples:

  • In 1945, astronomer Harlow Shapley gave a “Report on Soviet Science” to the Academy membership.
  • In 1968, Andre Sakharov’s “Thoughts on Progress, Peaceful Coexistence and Intellectual Freedom” was the subject of a panel discussion at the Academy.
  • Also in 1968, the Academy held a joint meeting with the Institute of the History of Science of Technology of the Soviet Academy of Sciences.
  • In 1986, the Academy supported an International Youth survey of the perspectives of young people in the U.S. and Russia on major foreign policy and domestic issues.
  • In 1994, Jeffrey Sachs gave a talk on “Russia’s Economic Prospects” at the Academy.
  • In 1996 our journal Dædalus published an article on “Profiles of Russian Libraries in an Age of Social Change,” which followed a 1992 project through which the Academy donated 3000 pounds of astronomy and physics journals to universities and research institutes in Russia.
  • In the mid-2000s, an Academy project looked at “International Security in the Post-Soviet Space.”
  • In 2004, Loren Graham and Jean Michael Kantor presented “Russian Religious Mystics and French Rationalists: Mathematics 1900-30” at the Academy.
  • From 2008 to 2010, Robert Legvold led a project on U.S. policy toward Russia called “Rethinking U.S. Policy toward Russia.”
  • And in spring 2017, our journal Dædalus will dedicate a whole issue to Prospects for Transformative Change in Russia.

I could give more examples, but you get the point. The American Academy cares about Russia. Let me conclude with a quote from James Billington, the Librarian of the United States Congress, who delivered an address at the Academy on modern Russian identity in 1991. He described U.S.-Russia relations as part of a “broader global drama of a high moral order.” Billington said:

Act V—the classical last act—lies ahead in the new millennium. Only Act V will tell us whether humanity will be able finally to live at peace in a culturally divided, ecologically overtaxed planet, or whether we will simply use new weapons and empowerment to renew old patterns of tribal and national conflict. Only then will we know if the ending will be happy or sad, peaceful pluralism or renewed warfare that could lead to total destruction.

Billington was talking about our millennium, of course, and wondering how we would respond when we confronted obstacles to peace. I see tonight’s meeting as the extension of a long tradition of Academy interest in Russian life and cultural, and also as the beginning of something new for the Academy.

The principal concern of the American Academy is the advancement of intellectual exchange and good scholarship. And good scholarship has no borders. In fact, in times of political tension, it is incumbent upon scholars around the world to find ways to collaborate, for the sake of new knowledge but also as the basis for new and warmer relations in the future. I believe that the American Academy has the ability, and perhaps the responsibility, to foster scholarly exchange even when there are impediments to cooperation. This meeting is a first, important step toward that ideal of engagement.

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