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MIT Online Learning Summit

On April 8, 2015, Jonathan Fanton welcomed participants in the MIT Online Learning Summit to the House of the Academy. In his remarks, Dr. Fanton introduces the mission of the Academy and discusses the work of the Academy on the issues of access to education and cultivating an “informed citizenry,” concerns that date back to the Academy’s founding.

Good afternoon. I am Jonathan Fanton, President of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and it is my pleasure to welcome you to the House of the Academy. I would like to thank Martin Schmidt, MIT Provost; Alan Garber, Harvard Provost; Peter Bol, Vice Provost for Advances in Learning at Harvard; Eric Grimson, Chancellor for Academic Advancement at MIT; and the entire Harvard-MIT Program Committee for organizing this important summit, and for bringing such a distinguished group here for a day of discussion.

During a 2010 symposium on “Technology and the Public Good” here at the Academy, which took place during our annual Induction Weekend, Paul Sagan, Executive Vice Chairman of Akamai, reminded us that “the digital age is creating an information and communication renaissance, but it is not serving all people and communities in an equal way.” Many of your conversations this morning have begun to address the problem of access in important ways, and the American Academy would like to help continue these conversations. I hope that we can find ways to work together in future.

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 key figure in the creation of this institution. On August 4, 1776, he wrote to his wife Abigail from the Continental Congress in Philadelphia:

If ever I get through this scene of politics and war, I will spend the remainder of my days in endeavoring to instruct my countrymen in the art of making the most of their abilities and virtues, an art, which they have hitherto, too much neglected. A philosophical society shall be established at Boston, if I have wit and address enough to accomplish it, sometime or other.

It took Adams only four years to achieve this goal: the creation of an institution that draws its members from “every field and profession” who volunteer their time and expertise and collaborate with other members to explore new ideas, provide sound advice to decision makers, and—in the words of our charter—“cultivate every art and science which may tend to advance the interest, honor, dignity, and happiness of a free, independent, and virtuous people.”

The American Academy has always counted among its members the most distinguished leaders of academia, business, and public affairs—as a tour of our atrium and through our remarkable collection of acceptance letters will demonstrate. I encourage you to browse the collection when you have a free moment today.

This building is the American Academy’s first permanent home, designed by Kallmann McKinnell & Wood Architects to be what they called “a house of the mind.” We have been here in Norton’s Woods since 1980, but our members come from nearly every state and thirty-six countries around the world. We bring them together through our publications, our public programming—like an event we hosted last week at Emory University on “Teaching and the Digital Humanities”—and our projects, which reflect the interests of our members and address challenges that can be understood and met through the application of sound research and good judgment.

Given the topic of today’s conversations, I thought I would mention one of our emerging studies—a new commission on postsecondary education. Supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Academy’s commission will examine the current state of postsecondary education and imagine what the nation’s education needs will be in twenty to thirty years. It will offer recommendations for addressing the rising costs of college and suggest ways of financing postsecondary education that will promote and protect wide and equitable access.

In creating this commission, the Academy acknowledges that postsecondary education continues to be one of the most important avenues of opportunity in American society today, and that there are more options for how and when Americans receive their postsecondary education than ever before. New populations, for whom the traditional four-year degree was once an impossibility, can now pursue undergraduate education in two-year, four-year, for-profit, and online institutions, according to schedules that fit their own lives. The development of digital resources will be a central topic to future conversations, particularly as it relates to questions of access and affordability. We hope to engage as many experts as possible in the work of the commission as it proceeds over the next two years—including many of the people in this room. I am certain that your work will inform our own, and I hope that you will consider the American Academy a partner in your efforts to enhance education by adapting new technologies to the needs of all students.

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