Winter 2013 Bulletin

2012 Induction Ceremony Class Speakers

Steven H. Strogatz, Margaret J. McFall-Ngai, Maureen E. Mahoney, David William Blight, and Penny S. Pritzker

On October 6, 2012, the American Academy inducted its 232nd class of Fellows and Foreign Honorary Members at a ceremony held in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The ceremony featured historical readings by Daniel Day-Lewis (actor), new member Bonnie Berger (MIT), and Tom Leighton (MIT and Akamai Technologies). It also included presentations by five new members: Steven H. Strogatz (Cornell University), Margaret J. McFall-Ngai (University of Wisconsin-Madison), Maureen E. Mahoney (Latham & Watkins), David Blight (Yale University), and Penny Pritzker (PSP Capital Partners and Pritzker Realty Group); their remarks appear below. The ceremony concluded with a memorable performance by Thomas Hampson (baritone).



Steven H. Strogatz


Steven H. Strogatz is the Jacob Gould Schurman Professor of Applied Mathematics at Cornell University. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy in 2012.

A Mathematical Love Story

When you think about mathematicians, physicists, chemists, astronomers, engineers, and computer scientists, what one adjective comes to mind?1How about romantic? Not the word you were thinking of? Come on, we’re a very romantic bunch! And I want to tell you a love story from my own life to show you something of what I mean. I have a feeling that it will connect to the experience of many of you here today.

As a kid, I always loved math, but my family couldn’t really understand that. “You like math and science, you should be a doctor,” they would say. “You could do anything with medicine, and some parts of it are even mathematical, like radiology.” (“And you have such nice hands,” my mother would add.) Despite all kinds of compelling arguments, none of them really convinced me until I got in a car one day with my big brother Ian, the lawyer. It was my sophomore year of college, and we were driving home for Thanksgiving.

“What are you thinking of doing?” he asked. “It’s getting to be time for you to have a clear idea of your future. How about being a doctor?”

“Well, I really like math.”

“Now hold on a second, why don’t you take all the pre-med courses next year, when you’re a junior. It would be much easier to take biology and chemistry now rather than later, and it doesn’t commit you to being a doctor. Besides, you might actually like the science.”

I thought this was a good argument, and so in my junior year, I took freshman chemistry, freshman biology, and organic chemistry (which supposedly depended on freshman chemistry as a prerequisite) in addition to all the math courses I had to take as a math major. Those three science courses put me in the lab three days a week – something I was not good at. My organic chemistry teaching assistant hated me; I was always the last one to leave, and the TA didn’t hide her frustration: “What’s wrong with you? This is just like cooking.” But I had never cooked.

Needless to say, I found my junior year to be difficult. When I got home for spring vacation, my mother took one look at me and said, “There’s something wrong with you. Your face doesn’t look right.”

“What do you mean?”

“Your face looks wrong,” she continued. “You look unhappy. What’s the matter?”

“I don’t know. I don’t think my face looks that bad.”

“You seem like you’re very unhappy.”

“Well, I’m working very hard,” I said, “and I have all these labs.”

“I don’t think that’s it. What about next year when you’re a senior, what courses are you going to take?”

I explained to her that because I switched to pre-med very late, I had to take vertebrate physiology, I had to catch up on biochemistry, I had a senior thesis to prepare, and I had to fit in the English courses that pre-med students are supposed to take.

“It looks like it’s going to be a very busy year,” I said. “And what really makes me sad, now that you mention it, is that I’ll never be able to take quantum mechanics with my schedule being so full.” My mother, who had not gone to college, asked, “What’s quantum mechanics?”

“Quantum mechanics! I’ve been reading about this since I was little – Niels Bohr, Heisenberg, Schrödinger, Einstein! I now know enough math that I could actually understand what they did and wouldn’t have to rely on verbal analogies or metaphors. But I’m never going to be able to learn those things because I’ll be in medical school cutting cadavers.”

We sat quietly for a bit until she turned and caught the look in my eyes. “What if you could say right now, ‘God damn it, I love math and physics! I’m not going to be a doctor, I’m going to be the best math professor I can be.’” And just like that, I burst out crying thinking about this freedom that she gave me. It was as if a tremendous weight had been lifted. It was a moment of truth, and I never looked back. I’m very thankful that I had such a good mother, and that I was able to find my passion by denying it for a while.

So that’s my love story – a story about my love of math and my mother’s love for me. Now, thirty-three years later, here I am and here you are. I have a feeling that most, if not all, of you love your fields as much as I love mine. And on this wonderful occasion, I want to say thank you to all the parents, families, and friends who have let us do what we love.

I also want to thank the citizens of the United States for your trust in us. By supporting agencies like the National Science Foundation through your taxes, you give us the most precious gift we could ask for, which is the same gift my mother gave me: the chance to do what we love and to follow our hearts – and imaginations – wherever they may lead. We will do our best to pay you back by contributing in our own small ways to the welfare of this country and the world.


1 Some of the content of these remarks first appeared in Steven Strogatz, The Calculus of Friendship: What a Teacher and a Student Learned about Life while Corresponding about Math (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2009).

© 2013 by Steven H. Strogatz

Margaret J. McFall-Ngai

Margaret J. McFall-Ngai is Professor of Medical Microbiology and Immunology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She was elected a Fellow of the American Academy in 2012.

A Revolution in Biology: The Microbial World Front and Center

Until relatively recently, most biologists considered microbes to be of two sorts: pathogens, compromising the health of animals and plants, or environmental organisms that break down materials in soil, seawater, and other habitats. In addition, the number of microbial species was thought to be comparatively small – fewer even than the number of species of snakes, for example. Because of these assumptions, microbes were generally not considered central to basic biology, and most biologists did not factor them into their thinking about their particular research focus.

In the 1980s, molecular biologists developed the capability to use gene sequences to study the diversity and structure of the biological world. As the story unfolded with the accumulation of large data sets of DNA sequences, biologists were in for a huge surprise. Beginning in the early 1990s, they started to realize that their notions of the form and function of the biosphere were flawed. At that time, most biologists divided life into five kingdoms: animals, fungi, plants, protists (single-celled nucleate organisms), and monerans (smaller single-celled organisms without nuclei, such as bacteria). The molecular data, however, were calling this conceptual framework into question, and as the twentieth century came to a close, a new organization of the biosphere was recognized. The data were demonstrating beyond a shadow of a doubt that the vast majority of Earth’s biological diversity exists within the microbial world. Currently, the tree of life is divided into three main branches, or domains: the Bacteria, the Archaea, and the Eukarya, all of which are principally microbial; the animals, plants, and fungi are very closely related and occur as a cluster of small twigs on a single branch of the Eukarya.

Another key revelation came in the late 1990s. The biomedical community had begun to apply these DNA sequencing methods to identify the human microbiota: that is, the microbes that normally associate with our bodies. Biologists knew that we have microbes with us, but they did not have a way to study what they are or what they are doing until these sequencing approaches provided a new path to that knowledge. This endeavor, coming soon after the first human genome was sequenced, led in recent years to one of the National Institutes of Health’s major road map initiatives, the Human Microbiome Project. The discoveries in this arena were striking and transformative. Not only did scientists find a vast diversity of microbes in association with the human body, the data obtained in these studies showed that the consortia of microbes live in site-specific, stable communities. For example, the bacterial communities that reside on the palm of the hand, the wrist, and the axle of the arm are different from one another, and each maintains essentially the same composition day after day, month after month.

In the last decade, biomedical research has also determined that the microbes that evolved with us, and live in and on our bodies, dramatically influence our metabolic profiles; that is, the molecules shed by these microbes are present in surprisingly high concentrations in body fluids, such as blood. What is remarkable about these findings is the recognition that each and every cell of the human body that is serviced by the circulatory system – in other words, the vast majority of the body – is, and throughout human evolution has been, influenced by the activities of our normal microbial partners.

The evidence of microbes’ profound influence on our overall health is accumulating at a fierce pace. Strong data now demonstrate that maintaining our microbiota in balance is critical for everything from brain development and behavior, such as our sleep cycles, to maintenance of healthy weight and immune function. Taken together, the hundreds of studies done in the last ten years show that our health depends on the maintenance of dynamic yet stable partnerships with thousands of microbial species that live with us from shortly after birth until death. We also now know that pathogens are often members of the normal microbiota that “go to the dark side” when the body’s homeostasis is out of balance. In other cases, these pathogens are closely related to members of the normal microbiota but are impostors, fooling the host into thinking that they are friend rather than foe.

In view of this daunting complexity, biologists are developing ways to approach the basic questions of how we establish partnerships with microbes, how we maintain them in balance, and how these healthy alliances respond to infection by microbial pathogens. As biologists often do, they look for simple experimental systems that serve as models for understanding more complex systems. For example, research with fruit flies has provided tremendous insight into the basic principles of animal development. Studies of the molecular and cellular language between animal and microbial cells are highly amenable to such approaches because not only are they ancient, they are also highly conserved.

I’ve been privileged in my career to be involved with the development of such a model system for the study of animal-microbe interactions. The association that I study involves a marine animal that has the advantage of naturally associating with only one microbial species. The binary nature of the association provides simplicity and high resolution to our studies. Recently, we have found that the same molecules that these bacterial symbionts use to trigger normal tissue development in their host also trigger development in distantly related animals like humans. These results underscore the conservation of mechanisms underlying symbiotic partnerships across the animal kingdom.

Perhaps more remarkable, some pathogens have evolved to subvert this host-symbiont conversation by inappropriately presenting these same molecules to tissues they seek to invade; they appear to be normal symbionts but instead trigger events that promote tissue invasion. In fact many, if not most, microbial pathogens may similarly behave like impostors, using the same molecular language as the host’s beneficial bacterial partners. However, the outcome is different because the language is used in a different way, much as how a friendly interchange and an argument may use the same words, but differently or with a different intensity.

The results of these studies designed to understand human-microbial partnerships promise to transform approaches to all aspects of biomedicine; however, the finding that the responses are evolutionarily conserved is important in the larger arena. As with humans, it is likely that all animals and plants rely for their health on coevolved partnerships of varying intimacy with members of the microbial world.

I have focused here principally on symbioses, but we are becoming aware that the critical roles of microbes are much more extensive. If we fail to incorporate a new understanding of the centrality of microbes, we do so at our own peril. The U.S. National Research Council recently published A New Biology for the 21st Century, which identifies four critical societal challenges: (i) promoting a sustainable environment; (ii) meeting growing energy needs; (iii) feeding an expanding population; and (iv) maintaining that population’s health. At the foundation of each challenge is the microbial world, a fact that compels us to integrate microbiology more fully with other fields of biology, removing the intellectual silos that are reflected in the narrow focus of university departments, professional societies, and funding agencies. Consider this one concrete example: while introductory biology textbooks have extensive coverage of microbes as tools that have revealed the basic principles of molecular biology, the typical 1,000+-page introductory biology text has only a couple of dozen pages devoted to microbes as organisms. A good start to refocusing the field of biology would be to structure an undergraduate biology curriculum with the microbial world as the starting point for each and every topic. In short, no scholar should leave college with an undergraduate degree in biology without a firm understanding of microbiology.

This kind of revolution will not come easily. It calls for unprecedented levels of collaboration and openness among biologists, and people are resistant to change. However, because the idea of the centrality of microbes is a more accurate vision of the biological world than what we have had until now, I believe biology will undergo this dramatic revolution in the coming years. One of my most cherished mentors has a philosophy about controversial discoveries; he feels that their acceptance has three phases: 1) it’s not true; 2) it’s true, but it’s not important; 3) it’s important and I knew it all the time. Depending on the current position of a particular biologist within the field, an individual will find herself or himself somewhere along this spectrum. But I predict that as compelling data continue to accumulate, these revolutionary ideas will take their rightful place within the discipline of biology.

© 2013 by Margaret J. McFall-Ngai

Maureen E. Mahoney

Maureen E. Mahoney is founder and member of the Supreme Court and Appellate Practice Group in the Washington, D.C., office of Latham & Watkins, LLP. She was elected a Fellow of the American Academy in 2012.

When Compromise is More Pernicious than Polarization: The Special Role of the Supreme Court

The founders of this Academy understood that a democracy cannot thrive without leaders practiced in the unifying art of compromise. John Adams warned that “the greatest political evil under our Constitution” would be the “division of the republic” into two political factions. In his farewell address, George Washington similarly instructed that it is the “duty of a wise people” to bridge our differences because polarization leads to the “ruin of public liberty.”

Two centuries later, political leaders with the wisdom and courage to compromise are seldom seen. This probably explains why some commentators have been quick to herald a Fellow of this Academy, Chief Justice John Roberts, for joining with the Democratic appointees on the Supreme Court to uphold the constitutionality of core provisions of the Affordable Care Act. It has been said that the Chief Justice was “inspired by a simple noble leadership impulse at a critical juncture in our history” to resolve the case through a bipartisan compromise. He supposedly sacrificed his own view of the law in order to protect the Court from public criticism and charges of partisanship. But I do not share the view that Chief Justice Roberts voted to uphold a statute that he believed to be unconstitutional, and I would ask others to pause and reflect before they join this chorus. As a nation, we must take care to look for compromise in the right places.

Let me first explain why compromise on the issue of a statute’s validity would undermine our constitutional structure. Supreme Court justices are not politicians. They are not supposed to resolve cases through horsetrading behind the Court’s velvet curtain. As the Federalist Papers explain, federal jurists are given life tenure to insulate them from public criticism so that they will have the “fortitude” to decide cases based on their best reading of the law. It is important for all of us to remember that the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down segregation laws in Brown v. Board of Education was met with public outrage, massive defiance, and violence. One hundred congressmen signed a proclamation denouncing the decision as a “clear abuse of judicial power.” What if the justices had permitted their very real fear of public disrespect for the Court to dissuade them from striking down segregation laws? Just as in Brown, if a majority of the Court believed that the Affordable Care Act was unconstitutional, it was their duty to invalidate it. From the standpoint of a justice’s obligations, there is no difference between an unconstitutional law that segregates schools and an unconstitutional law that requires Americans to purchase products they do not want. Both must be struck down.

This conception of the Court’s constitutional duties does not leave it powerless to combat the perception of partisan decision-making. This is an important concern for the Court in every era. But there is no need to sabotage the Constitution to address that problem. The appearance of partisan alignment could be erased through the revival of a historic practice: justices in the minority could hold their tongues when unity is important for the country. Chief Justice Marshall, another Fellow of this Academy, explained that it was his custom to acquiesce silently in the Court’s opinions when he failed to persuade four other members of the Court to adopt his view. Other justices often followed suit to promote respect for the Court’s opinions. This practice also explains how the Court secured the final vote needed for unanimity in Brown. Silent acquiescence is a legitimate form of compromise because justices have no constitutional duty to dissent. But they do have a duty not to cast the deciding vote to uphold a law that they believe is unconstitutional.

Against this backdrop, we should be reticent to embrace the view that Chief Justice Roberts bargained to uphold the health care act in order to protect the Court from public criticism. And the available facts suggest that he did no such thing. We can first look to his own explanation of the proper role of a jurist. As he testified during his Senate confirmation proceedings, “about the worst thing you can say about a judge” is that he did not “apply the law to [determine] what the result should be.” He pointed to the decision in Dred Scott as a historical example of the disastrous consequences that can ensue when the Supreme Court is not constrained by legal principles and instead attempts to resolve a public controversy in the “way that it [thinks is] best for the nation.”

Nor is there sufficient cause to doubt the Chief’s adherence to his beliefs in the health care case. Careful review of his opinion reveals that his disagreement with the dissenters was quite narrow. It centered on competing interpretations of Supreme Court precedents relating to the weight that should be given to the labels Congress attaches to taxes and penalties. Whether his legal analysis was right or wrong, it was sufficiently well reasoned to support the conclusion that he genuinely disagreed with the dissenters on a close legal question. That conclusion is not undermined by the fact – reported in the press – that he may have initially voted to invalidate the statute. The Chief Justice’s opinion relies on several precedents that were not cited in the government’s briefs on the taxing power, which suggests that he changed his view as he became more immersed in the law. Some choose to ignore this straightforward explanation because Roberts has expressed an intention to emulate the leadership style of Chief Justice Marshall. But if Chief Justice Roberts was emulating Marshall, he would not have bargained to uphold a statute that he believed to be unconstitutional. Roberts has told us that, in his view, Chief Justice Marshall was “not a deal maker, not a broker” – just an extraordinary leader who could forge consensus through persuasion.

It is imperative for our nation to end the polarizing partisanship that threatens our future, and we are right to demand and reward leaders with the courage to compromise. But the resolution of judicial proceedings through deals forged by politicians in black robes would lead – in the words of our first president – to the ruin of public liberty. Let us be content with the blessings of Supreme Court justices who decide cases based on their study of the law whether we like the outcome or not. And when the Court issues divided opinions in cases where unity was paramount, let us ask why the dissenters did not put down their pens.

© 2013 by Maureen E. Mahoney

David W. Blight

David W. Blight is the Class of ’54 Professor of American History at Yale University. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy in 2012.

The Pleasure and Pain of History

The opening sentence of the oldest book of history in Western civilization has always inspired me. I read it aloud at the beginning of every class I teach, whether the undergraduate lecture course or the graduate research seminar. In Herodotus’s The History, he declares: “I, Herodotus of Halicarnassus, am here setting forth my history, that time may not draw the color from what man has brought into being, nor those great and wonderful deeds, manifested by both Greeks and Barbarians, fail of their report, and, together with all this, the reason why they fought one another.” Many have tried endlessly to improve on this, but here, Herodotus captures the dual nature and purpose of learning, knowing, and writing history: on the one hand, the color, the deeds, the narrative, the drama of the story; and on the other, the reasons why people did what they did, thought what they thought, created what they created, destroyed what they destroyed – in other words, the explanation or interpretation. However my students react to my eccentric reading of this quote, it always moves me to feel just how old, how valued, how indispensable and alive my craft really is not only to the humanities, but to our entire world of knowledge.

We can garner enormous pleasure and joy from doing history; but in learning it, if we really face it, we also can encounter enormous pain, even terror from history. As in personal memory, so also in the collective memory that historians assemble, resist, narrate, and interpret, the past is that thing we cannot live without, but also sometimes the thing we cannot live with. “History,” Robert Penn Warren once warned in a single line of poetry, “is the thing you cannot resign from.” Like Warren, one of my other favorite writers, James Baldwin, never stopped probing the nature of the past, the irresistible if at times debilitating hold that history and memory can have on any thoughtful person’s consciousness. “History,” said Baldwin in a 1965 essay,


is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do. It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations.


For Baldwin, the nonfiction voice – the Jeremiah – of the civil rights movement, if Americans ever really began to learn and face their past with slavery and racism, they would be entering into “a dialogue with that terrifying deity . . . called history.” Most Americans do not wish to see their history as a terrifying deity, a source of painful, unfinished lessons and challenges; collectively, we prefer a progressive, triumphal history, the grand narrative of a problem-solving people, a nation, as someone once put it, born perfect, and which then launched its career of improvement.

In this country we will likely forever struggle as on this teeter-totter between such opposite views of history – the one bracing, restorative, redemptive, inspiring, and the other authentically tragic, chastening, and yet also potentially redemptive and inspiring. One view demands bright horizons from the vantage of a World War II victory parade, John Trumbull’s painting The Declaration of Independence, Emanuel Leutze’s mural Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way, or Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. The other view suggests we look from the vantage of perhaps the hold of a slave ship, the Union and Confederate dead heaped in piles at Antietam or Gettysburg, the eyes in the photo of a child worker in an American factory, or a woman who cannot feed the children gripping her apron in the depths of the Great Depression. Tragedy and triumph, pain and pleasure – we have infinite supplies of both views in our history if we look for them.

If we seek the unpleasant, or even the horrible or embarrassing in the past, it does not necessarily deprive us of history’s pleasures of discovery, of illumination, of simply practicing the craft. After the historian Nathan Huggins (one of my mentors) died in 1989, I wrote a retrospective essay on the whole of his life’s writings, which were largely in the field of African American history. Just for curiosity, I looked at his entry in Who’s Who, where I found this wonderful statement about why he was a historian. “I find in the study of history,” wrote Huggins, “the special discipline which forces me to consider peoples and ages, not my own. . . . It is the most humane of disciplines, and in ways the most humbling. For one cannot ignore those historians of the future who will look back on us in the same way.” Humane and humbled: I have always believed both are good and proper elements of a true scholar’s temperament.

One of the best, and certainly most heroic, books ever written on the historian’s craft (by that very title, The Historian’s Craft) was that of Marc Bloch. The great French historian of feudalism and other broad subjects, Bloch, a veteran of World War I, fled from his professorship at the Sorbonne into hiding in Strasbourg after the fall of France to the Nazis in 1940. He began writing his masterful meditation on the historian’s art in 1941 as he also joined the French resistance. Chased further into hiding, he finished perhaps only about two-thirds of the book he had planned, until the Nazis captured, imprisoned and tortured him, and finally shot him in an open field with twenty-six other French patriots in June 1944. But in that text he left, Bloch could write under these circumstances with such a sense of humor. “A good cataclysm,” he said, “suits our business.” Moreover, he wrote so movingly about the “pleasure” of what all of us do. “To anyone who is not a blockhead,” he declared, “all the sciences are interesting; yet each scholar finds but one that absorbs him. Finding it, in order further to devote himself to it, he terms it his ‘vocation,’ his ‘calling.’”

To Bloch, history “has its peculiar aesthetic pleasures. The spectacle of human activity which forms its particular object is, more than any other, designed to seduce the imagination – above all when, thanks to its remoteness in time or space, it is adorned with the subtle enchantment of the unfamiliar.” Ah, Bloch seemed to be saying, the wonderful pastness of the past, as it also becomes available and familiar to our imagination. Then, beautifully, while writing under what seem unbearable pressures, he urged historians never to forget that they are writers. “Let us guard against stripping our science of its share of poetry,” he warned. “Let us also beware of the inclination, which I have detected in some, to be ashamed of this poetic quality. It would be sheer folly to suppose that history, because it appeals strongly to the emotions, is less capable of satisfying the intellect.” Bloch deeply understood the pain and pleasure of knowing and doing history, as well as the marvelous joy of transforming research into writing.

Let me end by using another of my heroes to make this point. Walt Whitman wrote a short poem entitled “To a Historian.” I read it as Whitman’s challenge but also invitation to historians to dare to join him in his enterprise.

You who celebrate bygones,
Who have explored the outward, the surfaces of the races, the
life that has exhibited itself,
Who have treated of man as the creature of politics, aggregates,
rulers and priests,
I, habitan of the Alleghanies, treating of him as he is in himself
in his own rights,
Pressing the pulse of the life that has seldom exhibited itself,
(the great pride of man in himself,)
Chanter of Personality, outlining what is yet to be,
I project the history of the future.


Historians should answer Whitman and say, really? You think as poet you are the only one who can get to where you get in the human predicament? Just watch us try, Walt!

Neither poets nor historians can ever stand alone in exploring, using, and explaining the past. Since all memory, however painful or pleasurable, is in some way prelude, we have to chant together.

© 2013 by David W. Blight

Penny Pritzker

Penny Pritzker is Founder, Chairman, and Chief Executive Officer of PSPCapital Partners and its affiliate, Pritzker Realty Group. She was elected a Fellow of the American Academy in 2012.

Critical Investments for America’s Future: Education and Skills

To me, our responsibility as Americans is summed up in a story – a story that is uniquely American, but by no means unique.

Like most families, mine came here from somewhere else. When my 10-year-old great-grandfather arrived in Chicago from czarist Russia in 1881, this Academy was already 101 years old. True to its founding mission, the Academy had presided over a century of great American scholarship and advancement. The progress of knowledge in the United States was well under way.

But my great-grandfather was an immigrant. He spoke no English and had no money. He taught himself English by reading the newspaper and studying dictionaries. To make ends meet, he sold newspapers, worked as a tailor’s assistant, and even became a licensed pharmacist. He attended law school at night, received his J.D. at age thirty, and opened a law practice. That practice grew into a family firm that eventually diversified into corporate and real estate investing, the business in which I have been actively involved for the past two decades.

This process goes by many names: social mobility, economic opportunity, and, most frequently, the American dream. We must now recognize – and remedy – the fact that the American dream may not hold the same promise for young Americans today.

Our educational system is failing the very kids who need it most. I have spent the last decade immersed in education issues: looking for ways to improve student performance, creating new training programs for principals to run our most challenging schools, and promoting skills training after high school. In May of last year, Mayor Emanuel appointed me to Chicago’s Board of Education. Between my work on the school board and my many years in business, I have seen the education crisis now from several angles.

Even in this tough economy, with so many people looking for work, three million jobs stand open because employers cannot find workers with the skills they need to do the job. The demands of a global economy require that our schools do better, and that we, as leaders, insist on equal access to a quality education for all of America’s children.

In Chicago, the nation’s third largest public school system, four out of every ten students fail to graduate from high school. Those young people have a difficult road ahead. Nationally, the unemployment rate for those without a high school diploma is 12 percent, versus 8.8 percent for those who have one. For college graduates, the unemployment rate is about 4 percent.

We have to do more than keep our kids in school – though that is necessary. We must also ensure that our schools are teaching the skills necessary to succeed in the twenty- first-century economy: English and reading as well as science, math, engineering, and technology.

I’ll share with you, by way of example, some of the progress we have made in Chicago. We have agreed with our teachers to extend the school day so that elementary school children have an hour and fifteen minutes more of learning each day. And we have lengthened the school year by ten days. We have linked teacher evaluation in part to student achievement. We are giving parents more and better schools to choose from by adding five science, technology, engineering, and math high schools, and increasing the number of International Baccalaureate schools. These are first steps toward improving the quality of educational opportunity that we offer our young people in Chicago.

Beyond high school – and beyond Chicago – we need to recognize a changing reality: nearly half of America’s undergraduates, thirteen million students, attend community colleges. Skills for America’s Future, an organization whose advisory board I chair, brings together community colleges with businesses, local governments, and other training organizations to provide unemployed workers and students with the skills that today’s businesses need. This effort to bridge the skills gap is helping individuals make the most of themselves – and strengthening our economy in the process.

There are as many different paths to the American dream as there are people in this room. But one thing every journey has in common is educational opportunity. My grandfather, my father, and especially my mother used to tell me over and over again: “There are two things no one can take away from you: your education and your reputation.”

They may not have known it, but they were echoing one of the Academy’s earliest members, Benjamin Franklin. He said, “If a man empties his purse into his own head, no man can take it away from him.” Education is the great portable wealth that this Academy has nourished since 1780.

As I said at the beginning, my family’s story is not unique. I refuse to accept a future in which stories like ours are a thing of the past.

Thank you for the opportunity, and the honor, of joining this august academy. I leave you with the hope that twenty, fifty, or a hundred years from now, we will say that our efforts gave the children of this century the opportunity to do the same.

© 2013 by Penny Pritzker

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