Press Release

American Academy of Arts and Sciences Launches New Commission to Focus on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship


CAMBRIDGE, MA | November 7, 2017 — When the American Academy of Arts and Sciences was founded in 1780 – by John Adams, James Bowdoin, John Hancock, and others – it was rooted in a commitment to serving the new republic by creating knowledge that would be of use to a “free, independent, and virtuous people.” More than 230 years later, the importance of an educated and engaged citizenry remains vitally important while the way citizenship is expressed has changed and continues to do so at a rapid pace.

Today the Academy announced a new project to understand citizenship in 21st century America and identify ways to foster the skills and values that will make it stronger. The Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship will work across disciplines to develop an understanding of how native born and newly arrived Americans engage with the institutions of their democracy, and how they exercise their rights and responsibilities as citizens. The focus of the initiative is not on a legal definition of citizenship, nor on a limited assessment of voting.

“Our Commission will identify the qualities that characterize a responsible and engaged citizen in the 21st century and determine where those qualities come from and how they can be strengthened,” said Academy President Jonathan Fanton, a historian who has written about civil society. “Alexis de Tocqueville declared that ‘The health of a democratic society may be measured by the quality of functions performed by private citizens.’ His call for active and quality ‘functions performed by private citizens’ is relevant for the times in which we live.”

The American Academy of Arts and Sciences brings a rigorous, independent, nonpartisan, and multidisciplinary approach to its programs and projects. The cochairs of the new commission are Danielle Allen, Stephen Heintz, and Eric Liu:

  • Danielle Allen is the James Bryant Conant University Professor and Director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University. She is also the principal investigator for the Democratic Knowledge Project at Harvard.
  • Stephen Heintz has served as President of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund since 2001. Among his many past leadership roles is founding president of Demos, a public policy organization working to enhance the vitality of American democracy.
  • Eric Liu is the Founder and CEO of Citizen University and Director of the Aspen Institute Citizenship and American Identity Program.

The Commission presents an opportunity to deepen the dialogue around democracy, citizenship, and community, by emphasizing new forms of civic engagement and democratic practice—many of which have been made possible through new technologies. Beyond civics education, Americans engage in activities such as the Boy/Girl Scouts, community groups and voluntary associations, and religious and charitable organizations. In the 21st century, new approaches to civic engagement include following elected officials on social media, sharing political views online, joining virtual campaigns, signing digital petitions, and more.

The Commission’s multi-year undertaking is supported by a $1.5 million grant from the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation. "We are focused on complex issues and certainly the evolving nature of citizenship, especially at the crossroads of public opinion and technology, is an area of great complexity,” said Lauren B. Dachs, the vice chair of the Board of Directors and president of the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation. “This American Academy endeavor will help us prepare the next generation to lead with good character and commitment to community and society.”

The members of the Commission will be announced in the weeks ahead. As with the co-chairs themselves, the members of the commission will represent diverse backgrounds, disciplines, and perspectives. Together they will study citizenship in the context of the twenty-first century and develop evidence-based recommendations to encourage greater levels of civic engagement across the country.




Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship

Danielle Allen, Stephen B. Heintz, and Eric P. Liu