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Lowell House Visit to the House of the Academy

On April 18, 2016, Jonathan Fanton greeted students affiliated with Harvard University’s Lowell House at a reception at the House of the Academy.

Good afternoon. I am Jonathan Fanton, President of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a proud member of the Lowell House Senior Common Room. I love my association with Lowell House. I have been warmly welcomed to the community by Diana Eck and Dorothy Austin, who are among the best faculty deans I know anywhere. I enjoy our Wednesday Senior Common Room lunches, Thursday teas, High Tables, and especially meeting the talented students and tutors from whom I have learned a lot. Lowell House has truly become like a second home for me, and for that reason it is a special honor to welcome the Lowell House community to “our house,” the House of the American Academy.

This building is the American Academy’s first permanent home, designed by Kallmann, McKinnell & Wood Architects to be what was envisioned as “a house of the mind.” We have been here in Norton’s Woods since 1981, but the story of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences goes back centuries.

The Academy was founded in 1780 by John Adams, James Bowdoin, John Hancock, and other leaders who helped to establish the United States. In the midst of the American 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.”

From its start, the Academy enjoyed a close and special relationship with Harvard. In fact, the first home of the American Academy was the Philosophy Chamber of Harvard College. It was there, in 1779, that John Adams proposed his idea for the formation of an Academy to the Reverend Samuel Cooper, pastor of the Brattle Street Church and a leading member of Boston’s revolutionary generation. One year later, the Massachusetts legislature enacted the Charter of the Academy. For the next sixty years the new Academy used the Philosophy Chamber as its meeting place.

The Academy also has a long relationship with the Lowell House community. The Lowell family has featured prominently in the Academy’s membership throughout the years:

  • John Amory Lowell, a fellow of Harvard College and a prominent businessperson, was elected to the Academy in 1841
  • His grandson, Harvard President Abbott Lawrence Lowell, instituted the house system at the college; he was elected to the Academy in 1897
  • Poet James Russell Lowell was elected as a member of the Academy in 1855; and
  • President Lowell’s brother, Percival, was elected as a member in 1892 in recognition of his achievements in astronomy.

The legacy of leadership that the Lowell family left at the Academy has been continued by many alumni of the house that bears their name. Notable members of the Lowell House community who went on to become members of the Academy include composer Christian Wolff, Supreme Court Justice David Souter, author John Updike, and, of course, Lowell House Faculty Dean Diana Eck.

In fact, 19 current members of the Lowell House Senior Common Room are also members of the American Academy, and several of them join us today: Tom Bisson, Carol Nadelson, Michael Putnam, Dean Whitla, and Hugh Woodin.

As you may have gathered, one of the key functions of the Academy is to elect members on an annual basis who will contribute to the Academy’s mission of promoting “useful knowledge.” And, today, we are announcing the election of our 236th class of members. But from the very beginning, the Academy’s purpose has not been to simply honor excellence in a broad range of disciplines and professions. Its members also conduct studies of critical policy issues and debate the most pressing issues of the day. Our ability to draw on experts from around the world and from every discipline and profession is the Academy’s biggest asset in providing thoughtful, independent and trusted advice to the nation and beyond. Allow me to share some recent examples.

In 2013, the Academy’s Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences released its Heart of the Matter report. This report acknowledged the ways in which these fields enable us to participate in a global economy that requires understanding of diverse cultures and sensitivity to different perspectives. At the same time, the humanities and social sciences make it possible for people around the world to work together to address issues from environmental sustainability to global health challenges.

Among its many recommendations, The Heart of the Matter urged greater emphasis on the learning of multiple languages. Now, we are following up on this recommendation. Requested by members of Congress in both parties, we launched a new Commission to look at language learning. It is examining the current state of language education and how it influences economic growth, cultural diplomacy, and the productivity and personal fulfillment of future generations.

Another recent Academy report on science and engineering research, entitled Restoring the Foundation, encourages a greater emphasis on long-range planning in the area of science and engineering. It urges funders and policy-makers to provide more support for basic research that may not yield immediate results, but that may ultimately prove transformative.

The Academy has a deep interest in higher education. Two weeks ago, we released the report of our Lincoln Project that has been looking at the challenges faced by public research universities as states sharply reduce their funding. Another Commission is underway to look at how Americans receive their post-secondary education—looking at the whole range of options, from Harvard to public universities and community colleges to for-profit schools and online providers. Rising costs, how students finance their education, challenges of fair access to students of diverse backgrounds, and the match between the curriculum and what the world will look like in 20 years are all topics of interest.

In addition to large commissions, the Academy has several projects underway at any given time that reflect the interests of its members.

We have just launched a new initiative entitled The Public Face of Science which will address various aspects of the complex and evolving relationship between scientists and the public. This multi-year project will examine how public trust—or mistrust—in science is shaped by individual experiences, beliefs, and exposure to media reports on scientific discoveries, including digital media outlets. Activities will include roundtable discussions with Academy members and practicing journalists, as well as a series of shorter studies on how scientists are consulted during specific public policy decisions, such as court cases and natural disasters.

Our Global Nuclear Future Initiative is studying how to expand the use of nuclear power safely. Another project is exploring how technology—think drones—may pose new dilemmas in the ethical use of force. Another study is looking at the threat to global stability posed by weak and failing states. And yet another is asking whether the world is entering a new nuclear age in which the framework that has provided stability for the past decades is eroding and needs to be rethought.

The final category of Academy work is what we call exploratory meetings. Members propose topics they want to discuss with other members and experts. For example, John Levi, chair of the Legal Services Corporation, and Harvard Law Dean Martha Minow are concerned about how poorly our justice system works for low-income Americans. 80% of those who ask for legal assistance are turned down. This past November, we convened a meeting in Washington, D.C. of 50 leading jurists and legal aid advocates including several federal appeals court judges and district judges from Texas, Oregon, Ohio, Hawaii, New Jersey, and New York. A working group has been formed to develop a plan to address the problem.

Other exploratory meetings are looking at the growing disconnect between global and area studies, the need for a new international norm of the responsibility to protect cultural heritage—think Palmyra—and, perhaps, one on the future of public media.

The Academy is also active in the arts. In May, we will be convening a special meeting to discuss the future of jazz. We are also conducting consultations around the country regarding the potential formation of an Academy commission on the role of the Arts. And, here, at the House of the Academy we regularly host concerts and performances, some recent examples of which include a Winter Concert with members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, a Musical Performance of the Poetry of Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg, and an ongoing Chamber Series with the Cantata Singers.

I am delighted that this musical tradition at the Academy will continue today with a performance by Lowell House’s own Stella Chen, accompanied by pianist Jayoung Kim. Following the performance, our Archivist Michele Lavoie and Assistant Archivist Maggie McClelland will be on hand to answer questions and to provide tours for those interested.

At this point, Dr. Fanton invited guests to enjoy the musical performance and the reception that followed.

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