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Dædalus Event on Successful Aging of Societies

On April 21, 2015, the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on an Aging Society, chaired by Academy Fellow John Rowe, convened national leaders in gerontology in a discussion of the policy recommendations detailed in the Spring 2015 edition of Dædalus, the academic journal of the American Academy.

Here, in an excerpt from his introductory remarks, Dr. Fanton discusses the enduring interest of the Academy in the vital role that our senior citizens can play in the well-being of society.

It is my great pleasure to welcome you to this special program to celebrate the publication of the Dædalus issue on “Successful Aging of Societies.” This Dædalus issue is the product of the thoughtful work of the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on an Aging Society, which is chaired by Academy Fellow John Rowe.

Jack proposed this network to me when I was president of the MacArthur Foundation, and I immediately agreed to support it. Along with social scientist Robert Kahn, Jack had led an earlier MacArthur Network on Successful Aging that fundamentally changed the way we view the aging process: from a period of inevitable decline to a stage in life in which mental and even physical vitality can be enhanced. Jack and Robert’s path-breaking book, Successful Aging, published in 1998, brought together the remarkable results of that first MacArthur study on aging.

Many of the essays in our newest issue of Dædalus are authored by members of the current MacArthur Network, an interdisciplinary group of scholars working to address the challenges and opportunities facing America as it becomes an aging society. I would like to thank Jack for including the Academy and Dædalus in the Network’s important work.

Now, a little bit about the American Academy. As some of you may know, the Academy was founded in 1780, during the American Revolution, by John Adams, James Bowdoin, John Hancock and other leaders who helped to establish the new nation, its government, and its Constitution. The Academy’s founders believed that a strong republic must be grounded in open discourse, engaged scholarship, and an informed and active citizenry.

Adams was the principal founder of the Academy, as well as its intellectual leader. In his letter accepting the presidency of the Academy in 1797, he described his vision for the institution—a vision of intellectual exchange and collaboration in service of the public good: “The Unanimity with which the members of this Academy . . . are attached to the Union of our American States, their Constitutions of Government, and the Federal Administration, is the happiest omen of the future Peace, Liberty, Safety and Prosperity of our Country.”

Through publications like our newest issue of Dædalus and special programs like today’s meeting, the American Academy remains true to its founders’ ideals. We continue to concern ourselves with the “Peace, Liberty, Safety and Prosperity of our Country,” often by convening leaders from many disciplines and professions to think together about common challenges and opportunities.

I would like to share a few examples from the Academy’s archives about some of the Academy’s early work on life expectancy. At a meeting held on May 28, 1781, a special committee appointed “to arrange the several subjects which . . . should principally engage the attention of the Academy,” recommended that “a fifth class [of Academy members] examine the various diseases of the Country . . . the causes of disorders peculiar to the country, and the longevity of the inhabitants.” The Academy has been interested in life expectancy since its very beginning, recognizing that the wisdom and knowledge of our older citizens are vital to our future.

More recently, an Academy Committee on Annual Conferences reported in 1948 that it had selected the “problem of aging” as its focus for that year. R.G. Hoskins of Harvard Medical School, working with a small subcommittee, decided that the complexity of aging required a series of probing meetings before a large-scale conference could be organized. Hoskins and his committee noted: “The critical nature of the problem of old age in our changing civilization made clear that an intelligent solution would require the expert services of men in a relatively large number of special fields of knowledge, including various branches of biology, medicine, psychiatry, psychology, economics, sociology, and political science.” No doubt Hoskins would take pride in this issue of Dædalus, which fulfills the mission he articulated nearly seventy years ago.

And my final example comes from the Winter 1965 issue of Dædalus on “Science and Culture.” In an essay entitled “The Future as the Basis for Establishing a Shared Culture,” cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead writes:

“The policy in most of today’s world is to educate the next—the new—generation, setting aside the older generation in the mistaken hope that, as older men and women are passed over, their outmoded forms of knowledge will do no harm. . . . Given an opportunity to participate meaningfully in new knowledge, new skills and new styles of life, the elderly can embody the changing world. . . . The more rapid the rate of change and the newer the corpus of knowledge which the world may come to share, the more urgently necessary it is to include the old—to transform our conception of the whole process of aging so their wisdom and experience can be assets in our new relation to the future.”

Thus, the Dædalus issue “Successful Aging of Societies” continues the Academy’s longstanding interest in recognizing the contributions our elderly can make to our collective well-being.

At this point. Dr. Fanton intoduced Julia Stasch, President of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

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