On October 7, 2017, the American Academy inducted its 237th class of Members at a ceremony held in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The ceremony featured historical readings by Kathryn Fuller (Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History) and John Lithgow (Actor and Author) as well as a performance by the Boston Children’s Chorus. The ceremony also included presentations by five new Members: Ursula Burns (Xerox Corporation), James P. Allison (University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center), Heather K. Gerken (Yale Law School), Jane Mayer (The New Yorker), and Gerald Chan (Morningside).
Ursula Burns served as Chairman of the Board of Xerox Corporation from 2010 to 2017 and as Chief Executive Officer from 2009 to 2016. She was elected a Fellow of the American Academy in 2017.
Growing up in public housing on New York’s Lower East Side, I did not envision that one day I would be standing before a group of 228 such distinguished leaders. Come on – John Legend, Lynn Nottage, Carol Burnett. This is not exactly the group I expected to find myself among when I was a little girl in the Baruch Houses. I am honored and humbled that this year’s inductees, the Academy’s 237th class of Members, selected me to deliver this short address. In fact, that is exactly what I would like to speak to you about today – expectations.
I am different from most of my classmates. I am an engineer, but not a true scientist. I am not an artist. I cannot sing or dance, and I cannot even carry a tune. I suppose that is part of what interested the Academy in me – that I am different.
We are moving to a place in society, in the United States and globally, where more space is being made for people who are different. As we do so, I would like to lay bare some of the challenges that we face and consider those challenges in a positive light: a light of possibilities versus criticism or exclusion.
The “normal” – meaning the status quo of the world from the point of view of governance, money, power, beauty, grace, etc. – is comprised of a shrinking set of individuals. Many of these individuals have been good and strong stewards of the world. They created much of the value that we see around us, but the future cannot depend on them. There are not enough of them, and the number of people who are not like them is growing. In order to get this new class of leaders prepared, we have to do something differently. We cannot just sit around and hope. We cannot limit access to what it is going to take to develop and participate fully in the magnificent opportunities that exist in society.
Our efforts must be focused on preparing future generations for the responsibilities that they have going forward. One of the most important areas that they must focus on is STEM: science, technology, engineering, and math. We still need – actually, we require – artists, artisans, creative people, and soft scientists. We need all these types of people. But I think we particularly need people who can take all of those assets and transform them into usable short- and intermediate-term resources for societies. We are doing a very poor job of developing these people and a particularly poor job among women and underrepresented minorities. I am not referring only to, say, black and brown women and men in America. Underrepresented minorities can refer to an Algerian in France or a woman in Saudi Arabia. There are so many human assets that we are not using well, and it is hurting the world, and specifically our country.
The numbers are not pretty. On the most recent PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) test, American fifteen-year-olds ranked thirty-eighth out of seventy-one developed and developing countries in math and twenty-fourth in science. Of the thirty-five members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States ranked thirtieth in math and nineteenth in science.1
We must do a better job of exploiting our most valuable natural resource – the curious young minds who are churning through our school systems. Exploiting that resource will mean imagining our youth differently. I am a good example of how that imagination might pay off – for all of us.
Conventional wisdom might have made it easy for my teachers and other adults in my life to discard any potential they might have seen in me. I came from a place that had not produced many scientists or CEOs. My mother struggled just to keep us together and fed in an environment that was unsafe and desperately poor. I benefited from the belief in me by people who saw something different, who saw some value. Adults who said, “Yeah, just because she lives there is not going to define who she is. The fact that her mother is a single mother who doesn’t have any skills to participate at a high level does not mean that her family has no drive, discipline, and intellect – all the things that make you both a good human being and a success.”
Those people who took a chance on me are just like the people in this room. And so I challenge each of you to do the same. Expose yourselves to people who might be overlooked. Avail yourselves of their talents. Open yourselves to envisioning them in a future different from the one that seems preordained by their economic and family circumstances. Build the kinds of institutions that benefited people like me – like the Henry Street Settlement – and support these organizations. Not just because it is kind. Not just because it is the right thing to do. But because we will all benefit from the creativity and productivity unleashed when all Americans are called upon to contribute.
© 2018 by Ursula Burns
1. Drew DeSilver, “U.S. Students’ Academic Achievement Still Lags that of Their Peers in Many Other Countries,” Pew Research Center, February 15, 2017, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/02/15/u-s-students-internationally-math-science/.
James P. Allison
James P. Allison is Chair of the Department of Immunology, the Vivian L. Smith Distinguished Chair in Immunology, Director of the Parker Institute for Cancer Research, and the Executive Director of the Immunotherapy Platform at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy in 2017.
I am so glad to be here and very honored to be selected for membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. I am also honored to represent Class II: the Biological Sciences.
In 2006, I had the opportunity to meet a patient by the name of Sharon. She was twenty-four-years old and had recently graduated from college and gotten married. More than a year before I met her, she was told by her doctors that she had only a few months to live. Sharon had stage 4 metastatic melanoma, with tumors in her brain, lungs, and liver. With such a diagnosis, her projected survival was less than a year. She had received multiple prior therapies but her cancer continued to grow and weaken her body.
As a last ditch effort, she participated in a clinical trial of a new drug called anti-CTLA-4 therapy. Within three months of starting treatment, her tumors shrank in size and then disappeared. When I met her she hugged me and cried. She was alive and her doctors had just told her that they did not see any evidence of recurrent cancer on her CAT scans. I was so moved, I cried with her.
Sharon and I have become good friends. When her first child was born a few years later, she sent me pictures. Then pictures of her second child. She is now eleven years out from her battle with cancer and enjoying life with a vibrant family. I cannot help but cry whenever I tell this story. My meeting with Sharon was my first experience of how years of research as a basic scientist could have an impact on patients.
When I was a child, I was fascinated by science and biology and spent a lot of time collecting bugs, lizards, and snakes and playing with my Gilbert chemistry set in the garage. My father was a local family doctor and he had high hopes that I would go to medical school. But as I thought about it after entering college as a pre-med major, I realized that doctors had to have a lot of facts in their heads and respond to a patient’s presentation with a rational treatment algorithm. They had to be right all the time in order to help and not hurt the patient. I was pretty sure that I was not disciplined enough to do this. I preferred the idea of being a scientist. Scientists are supposed to come up with novel ideas and test them, and go through the process of realizing that they are going to be wrong most of the time. If you are not wrong a lot as a scientist, then you are probably not working on important questions.
In the beginning of my career in the late 1970s, the field of cellular immunology was still in its infancy. There was the concept of T cells, which were cells that circulated throughout your body looking to remove foreign antigens related to bacteria and viruses and potential cancer cells. I was intrigued. It was a mystery as to how T cells worked. In the early 1980s, my lab identified and worked out the structure of the receptor that T cells used to identify foreign antigens. But it was not that simple. A T cell receptor may be compared to the ignition switch of a car. It is needed to turn the car on and start the process of T cell activation but it is not enough to get it going. It seemed that another signal was needed. We showed that another molecule, CD28, was the accelerator that enabled T cells to take off and proliferate to generate an army of cells that can then do their jobs and attack the invaders that are in your body.
But that is not the end of the story. There had to be a mechanism to stop the rapid proliferation of T cells. Many people thought that T cells just died, but in 1994 we identified another signal, called CTLA-4, and showed that it acted as a brake to stop T cell responses before they could cause any damage. I had one of those aha moments. Numerous attempts had been made to mobilize T cells to treat cancer, but with disappointing results. It occurred to me that if we could block the brakes, we could allow T cells to keep going for sufficient periods of time and destroy large tumors.
We tested this idea in mice with an antibody we made to CTLA-4, and it worked beautifully to destroy tumors in mice. We could not believe the results! Many tumors just melted away, and the mice were permanently immune to rechallenge.
We eventually teamed up with a small biotech company to move CTLA-4 blockade therapy into clinical trials. And, as they say, the rest is history! We now know that the therapy is effective against many types of cancer, and some patients are alive a decade or more after treatment.
I have had the privilege of meeting many patients who have benefited from anti-CTLA-4 therapy. It is always overwhelming, and my emotions often get the best of me as they tell me their stories.
Additional CTLA-4-like brakes have been identified and antibodies to these are showing remarkable benefits in patients. These drugs, now known as checkpoint blockade therapy, treat the immune system not the cancer, and as a result they can be effective against many kinds of cancer. Checkpoint blockade agents are now approved for many different cancers, including melanoma, kidney cancer, bladder cancer, Hodgkin’s lymphoma, lung cancer, and others.
Of course, we still have a lot of work to do. We have not been able to treat successfully cancers such as pancreatic cancers and glioblastoma. We are continuing our efforts and hope to make progress in the near future.
But I would like to point out that all of this comes from basic science. It is therefore necessary for us to continue to support basic science, since it is clear that it can have a major impact on society. We also need to remember that science is based on the notion that there is such a thing as objective reality. Science is based on facts. The current anti-
fact movement is very troubling, and we must resist. We owe it to the next generation of scientists and to our own future.
I am truly honored to have been selected as a member of this august body of individuals committed to making a better society. Thank you for this wonderful honor. I owe this success to a large number of students and fellows who worked in my lab, as well as to several colleagues. And I owe special thanks to my wonderful partner in science, and love, my wife Pam Sharma.
© 2018 by James P. Allison
Heather K. Gerken
Heather K. Gerken is Dean and Sol & Lillian Goldman Professor of Law at Yale Law School. She was elected a Fellow of the American Academy in 2017.
It is an honor to be here and to speak on behalf of this class of Members. I know you all feel as I do at this moment. This is a storied institution, and we all were worried about living up to this honor even before we walked in here. Now we are following a pathbreaker and a man who cured cancer. When you add in David Souter, John Lithgow, and bagpipes, it gets intimidating.
I also would like to thank Justice Souter. It must now be clear why every one of his clerks would throw themselves in front of a bus for him, whom we have always affectionately called “Boss.” He is a man who did not take a break from his duties for his OWN induction into the American Academy, but he came here for me. In all my years, Boss, I never imagined a situation in which you would be introducing me.
I approach this moment with some trepidation since I am a law professor speaking on behalf of a gathering of some of the best social scientists in the world. Law professors are the black sheep of the academic tribe. We are often cloistered in our own (more expensive) buildings. We publish in our own (student-edited) journals. We even speak in our own academic language. We work in the dreaded “professional” schools, not graduate schools.
You might even think that a legal academic is a contradiction in terms. Don’t legal academics teach the profession damned as “hired guns”? Aren’t we the ones who teach our students to advocate for everything while believing nothing? How does one reconcile a lawyer’s professional training with the academic’s highest call – the quest for truth?
I recognize that a call for truth, and not merely a quest for it, will strike some of you as unduly earnest. It strikes me as unduly earnest, or at least dreadfully retro. Perhaps it is even outside the bounds of what a scholar should normally say. Academics are – and should be – cautious about labeling anything as truth. Our job is to be skeptical, to resist labels, to avoid putting ideas and arguments outside the bounds of inquiry. Labeling something as “truth” risks shutting down the argument that might reveal it as otherwise.
But we are at a strange moment in our political history when facts, evidence, and expertise are all under attack. The slide from “truthiness” to Fake News has been lightning quick. We live in a time when expertise is not just challenged; it has become grounds for doubt. Meanwhile other parts of the political spectrum watch us allowing arguments over core values to occur and doubt we have any values in the first place. We are being whipsawed by these two extremes. That is why it is a time for universities to speak to the values that undergird their mission, to talk about the balance between argument and truth, to explain why we both have values and yet question them.
Needless to say, speaking out is not what universities are used to doing. Taking a position is uncomfortable for institutions that typically adopt a studied neutrality toward the world. That challenge reproduces at an institutional level what we all experience as individuals and scholars. At this moment in time, we are all thrust into an uncomfortable and yet critical position of protecting the right to argue while insisting on the existence of truth.
When I think about the challenges of being an academic at this moment – how hard it is to find the balance between argument and truth, between holding values and questioning them – I find deep continuities between the work of a lawyer and the work of an academic. Because even though lawyers are taught to question everything, they also believe in something. And they stand up for their commitments. Just look at what is happening worldwide. When countries start to slide into authoritarianism, you will often see lawyers – the people taught to argue for any side – standing up on behalf of rule of law values. How is it that members of a profession taught to doubt are the ones who put their bodies on the line for what they believe?
It has to do with our training. The training of a lawyer is much like the training of an academic. From the first moment our students walk into a classroom, lawyers are trained not just to understand the weaknesses in their own arguments, but to imaginatively and sympathetically reconstruct the best argument on the other side. From the first day in class, students must defend an argument they do not believe, or pretend to be a judge whose values they dislike. We try to develop enough distance from our own commitments to recognize what is honorable in the commitments of our opponents. We check ourselves habitually, almost reflexively.
But lawyers are committed to rule-of-law values no matter what our party or our preferences. How is it that faithless lawyers have faith in something? It is simple. Our profession has argued about values for generations. After centuries of laying waste to every argument, we see that some are left standing. They are the claims for which a profession trained to identify every counterargument cannot find a counter. They are what remains when there is no argument on the other side.
I won’t belabor the comparison, but it must be obvious to you by now that what makes for a great lawyer also makes for a great academic: the ability to develop enough distance from our own commitments to recognize what is honorable in the commitments of the other side; the ability to subject everything we believe to challenge. But being a great lawyer and a great academic also requires the ability to recognize when there is no argument on the other side. When a position is indefensible.
And perhaps now is the moment to take a lesson from the lawyers about striking the balance between argument and truth, between holding values and questioning them. Perhaps it is time to stand up for truth even though our job is to disagree about what truth is.
John Adams – the Bostonian statesman who helped found this academy – once said that “facts are stubborn things, and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”
I will note that Adams uttered that quotation from a courtroom floor. In 1770, a unit of British soldiers killed five people in the streets of Boston; it was a massacre. Afterwards, the city was out for blood. And the soldiers were likely to be hung. But Adams stepped into the breach and volunteered to represent the soldiers in court. He was scorned for this decision. He was called a traitor. Adams nonetheless insisted that the dictates of passion and politics cannot and should not trump evidence and truth.
In the end, the soldiers were acquitted and the rest, as they say, is history. But Adams was right. Facts are stubborn things, and we should stand up for them even if every disciplinary bone in our body pushes us to remain silent and above the fray. This might sound like a call to resistance to some. But when a call to reason is a call to resistance, that only confirms the sorry state of our politics. In usual times, we take care to remain inside the bounds of university life, worried about venturing too far into the world lest we lose our critical distance. But sometimes we need to do more. This conversation is happening with or without us. Do not let it happen without us.
Universities have always been places that strike the balance between arguments and truth. They are one of the few remaining spaces where we can question everything and still believe in something. Where everyone has the right to speak but where we reserve the right to condemn something as wrong. Now is the time to protect those spaces, to insist on their importance, even if it requires us to take up an unaccustomed role of speaking out.
Just as my profession, trained not to believe in anything, has long stood up for the rule of law, so should we remind the world that even if we disagree about truth, we still believe in it. Facts are stubborn things, and so are we.
© 2018 by Heather K. Gerken
Jane Mayer has been a staff writer for The New Yorker since 1995. She was elected a Fellow of the American Academy in 2017.
I am so happy to be able to join you all here today. I was going to say that I am honored, but I am more than honored. After hearing of the other new Members’ accomplishments, I am blown away to be in the company of so many esteemed people. So before anything else, I just want to say thank you for welcoming me into the Academy, and for asking me to speak on behalf of my Class.
My introduction to the Academy’s president, Dr. Jonathan Fanton, actually began quite some time ago. Approximately forty years ago I had the pleasure of being taught in a small, undergraduate seminar at Yale University by Professor Fanton. The seminar was quite specialized and unusual. Its focus was to examine, in as rigorous a way as possible, how and why several momentous decisions in American history were made and assess whether these decisions had been wise. My particular focus was on how America decided to drop the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9, 1945.
All these years later, I can no longer remember what my own inexpert undergraduate assessment was as to whether mankind’s first and hopefully last use of atomic weapons was justified. But what I do remember, and have carried with me throughout the rest of my life, is my introduction to the timeless methodology of scholarship, which included approaching the subject with an open mind and searching relentlessly like an obsessed amateur sleuth for every available scrap of evidence – including reading the personal diary of Henry Lewis Stimson, President Truman’s Secretary of War, despite his admonition that “Gentlemen do not read other each other’s mail” – let alone their diaries! We pored over every relevant document we could find, and all manner of primary and secondary sources, grappled with gaps and contradictions, formed hypotheses, argued and tested them on each other, synthesized each others’ critical thinking, and finally arrived at what Carl Bernstein, one of the greatest investigative journalists of our era, calls “the best obtainable version of the truth.”
This has basically been the same evidence-based process I have tried to employ in pursuit of the truth as a journalist ever since. And it is, I would guess, the same methodology that most of you in both the humanities and the sciences employ in your work every day. It is the methodology that we have inherited from the Enlightenment, passed down through the generations, and that has contributed to all manner of breakthrough and progress in human history. But unfortunately it is an approach to scholarship that I fear is under political assault today, in both the humanities and the sciences.
It may seem a stretch to lump these two disciplines in together. In 1959, C. P. Snow famously gave his Rede Lecture about the vast chasm of understanding that divided the two cultures of science and the humanities. Today, I would argue that they are less divided than united in their pursuit of fact-based truth against a common threat, which for lack of a better phrase was best described by Kellyanne Conway, the counselor to President Donald Trump, as the production of “alternative facts.” You may remember that at the time that Conway uttered this phrase, she was arguing that despite demonstrable, photographic proof, Trump’s inaugural crowd was larger than that of his predecessor, because the president – and his dutiful press secretary – had said this was so. Although the dispute at hand was small and petty, the skirmish represented a much bigger and more prophetic clash. As our fellow Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and my longtime friend Jill Abramson succinctly responded, “Alternative Facts Are Lies.”
The fib about the size of the inaugural crowd was only the start. There have been many more, and much worse ones from the current administration. The New York Times has kept a running tally that lengthens almost daily, and fact checking has become a cottage industry, one of the few growth areas, perhaps, in the journalism field. Moreover, it is not just our current crop of political leaders at home who are waging this battle. Similar attacks have been launched on the truth, and those who tell it, by regimes around the world.
At home, of course, these attacks have included an effort to undermine the credibility of the independent mainstream news media as “fake news,” and those who write it as “Enemies of the American People.” But the targets range far beyond mere journalists. All manner of independent, fact-based research has come under attack, ranging from the economic analyses by the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office to research done by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Among the most worrisome of these attacks, actually, have been those on the scientific community in general, and on the science of climate change in particular, which President Trump memorably denounced during the 2016 campaign as a “hoax” perpetrated by the Chinese.
Falsehoods uttered by politicians are, of course, nothing new. What is new, however, is the amplification of these lies by new forms of social media. Overtly partisan, frequently false, and often viciously personal attacks are now spread virally and unfiltered by countless waves of trolls, bots, phony think-tank bloggers, junk scientists, and even for-hire opposition researchers, who literally stalk and “track” opponents with video cameras in search of compromising material that they can then post, as happened this year to the environmental activist Bill McKibben.
It is apparently apocryphal – an early form of fake news evidently – that Mark Twain ever said that “a lie goes halfway around the world before the truth pulls its boots on,” but whatever the derivation today, a lie can spread not just halfway around the world, but entirely around the globe, in minutes, and often the truth stands almost no chance of completely catching up.
As a result, large swaths of the population are being purposefully and constantly misled. Social media, especially Facebook, can circulate false information to two billion people each day. We now know that virally spread fake news helped defeat Hillary Clinton in our last presidential election, an unprecedented infection of our democracy. And any crackpot organization can now use the same tools to distribute fake information to so-called like-minded people. The careful research of scholars and scrupulous investigative work of journalists can be overpowered by a handful of keyboard clicks. A technology that holds the great promise of connecting people also has great destructive power to misinform and divide them. Humanity has never before had an instant, information distribution technology of such force – it has been compared to the seismic impact of Gutenberg.
Our political system is reeling from the blow. Charlie Sykes, the former right-wing radio talk show host, has described the fallout well: “The cumulative effect of the attacks” on fact-based media, he has said, has been “to delegitimize those outlets, and essentially destroy much of the Right’s immunity to false information.” He added, “All administrations lie, but what we are seeing here is an attack on credibility itself.”
It seems unthinkable, as we are celebrating the incredible achievements of this year’s Nobel laureates in science, that not just the news media but whole branches of science could be under attack, too, but sadly they are. As Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize – winning economist and liberal New York Times columnist, put it, “In the Trump era we are ruled by people who are completely alienated not just from climate science, but from the scientific idea itself . . . the notion that objective assessment of evidence is the way to understand the world.” He has called this “willful ignorance” “deeply frightening,” and has worried that it may end up undermining our democracy and “destroying civilization.”
At an upbeat occasion such as this one here today, I do not want to end on such a pessimistic note. So instead I will leave you with a thought, a kind of inchoate action plan at this worrisome moment, derived from my own experience in these culture wars. In 2010, after The New Yorker published my long and carefully researched investigative report on the outsized political influence exerted by two billionaire brothers, Charles and David Koch, they were unable to identify any errors, but nonetheless they hired a private investigator to dig up dirt on me personally, in hopes of undermining my credibility. It was, in other words, a page out of the current playbook that we are seeing all too often. If anyone had believed their attack, it could have been professionally devastating. But instead what happened was that several colleagues of mine jumped into the fray, and publicly defended my work and my integrity. They did so quickly and generously, even though this wasn’t their fight. But they did it, I think, partly because they sensed that this is all of our fight. So I hope that all of you will keep doing and honoring each other’s astonishingly fine work, and that when honest, evidence-based truth or those who tell it are attacked, you too will jump into the fray, speak up, and have each others’ backs, because whether we are in the humanities, the arts, or the sciences, this is actually all of our fight.
© 2018 by Jane Mayer
Gerald Chan is the Co-Founder of Morningside, a private investment group with venture capital, private equity, and property investments. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy in 2017.
Whereas each of the Academy’s Classes I through IV consists of individuals in coherent fields of scholarship, Class V is a diverse collection of people in business, education, public affairs, philanthropy, journalism, and more. As I am to speak on behalf of this medley of distinguished women and men, I can only do justice to the diversity by speaking on something that is of sufficient generality. I shall begin with life and time.
Axiomatic to all biological life forms is that life is bounded by time. We celebrate birthdays year after year to remember the beginning of life and to mark the progression of time. For a young person, this progression means growth, but past a certain inflection point, this progression equates to inching ever closer toward a terminus. The most primal assessment of a person’s life is simply how long did he live. I am cognizant of this conjuncture of life and time because much of what I do in biotechnology can be characterized as being in the business of giving life more time. Sometimes we succeed in bringing people back from the verge of expiration. Other times, the best we can do is to effect some form of disease modification and offer the patient an extended interregnum somewhere between life and death.
I remember when my grandmother turned sixty, I thought she was really old. My childish perception was not too wrong because statistically, she could expect no more than another decade of life. At the dawn of the twentieth century, the life expectancy of an American person was forty-seven years. At the close of the century, that life expectancy had climbed to seventy-seven years. Within the century that saw two world wars fought with ever more deadly weapons of mass destruction, humanity has also made great strides in the direction of beneficence.
Recent data, however, have called into question whether the success of this life extension project can continue ad infinitum. Two years ago, the world was stunned by a paper published by Anne Case and Angus Deaton (I should note that Anne is also being inducted into the Academy today) that showed that since 1999, death rates have been climbing among middle age, white non-Hispanics in this country. This phenomenon was not observed for comparable cohorts either from other ethnic groups in this country or from other developed countries in the world. More granular examination of the data reveals that this phenomenon was most pronounced for the less educated and that the leading causes of death were drug overdose, suicide, and cirrhotic diseases of the liver resulting from alcohol consumption or viral infection. Geographically, the phenomenon was particularly pronounced in rural America and in former industrial towns now left behind by a new economy powered by technology and globalization.
These data speak to the grip of social determinants on population health and life expectancy. Indeed, the earlier works of Sir Michael Marmot and others from the United Kingdom have shown a tight correlation between income and life expectancy. For example, Marmot followed a train line across the city of Glasgow in Scotland and showed that with every stop, income level dropped and life expectancy dropped in lockstep. He then repeated the study along a train line from Montgomery County in Maryland to Washington, D.C., and saw the same concordance. For every one and a half miles along the railroad track, life expectancy declined by one year.
Such population health data are a glaring reflection of social conditions. The study by Case and Deaton reveals that in parts of America, people are dying the “death of despair” at an alarming rate. In a connected society, it is simply not possible that the plight of this dispossessed population will not be felt by all even though they may live in small towns and we live in prosperous metropolises like Boston. History shows that at a certain point, the dispossessed will radicalize the polity whether it be effected through violence or through the ballot box. Signs of this were clearly evident in the voting pattern of last November’s election. What happened in Charlottesville, Virginia, this past summer will happen again as long as the same social conditions persist and irrespective of whether statues of Confederate leaders remain on public display. When the present is so unpalatable and offers no hope for the future, people will engage in a rabid pursuit of a vanished past or, worse yet, an imagined past.
The answer to reversing the decline in life expectancy is not a further increase in healthcare expenditure. America already spends 18 percent of its GDP in healthcare and yet the life expectancy of the American people is inferior to many nations that spend far lower percentages of their GDP on healthcare. We have long passed the point of diminishing return.
I submit that the answer lies in education, which is one of the strongest positive determinants of life expectancy. It is baffling to me that year after year, healthcare expenditure grows in this country while the public-sector budget dedicated to education shrinks. Witness the finances of the great state universities in this country. When I talk to my friends at UC Berkeley, I get the sense that the neglect by the politicians in Sacramento has the effect of dismantling that great university brick by brick.
Healthcare expenditure is an expenditure for the benefit of the present generation. Considering that the consumption of healthcare is weighted heavily in the latter years of people’s lives, including especially end-of-life care, it may be said that such expenditures represent an attempt in stretching the past. Education, on the other hand, is what we give to the young. It is an investment in the future. If we accept that resources are finite and that debts will have to be repaid, spending on the past or the present cannot but be at the expense of the future. Between the past, the present, and the future, there are hard choices – moral choices – that our society can no longer afford to sidestep.
If I am being recognized today for my philanthropic work, I would like to note that for me, philanthropy is a voluntary departure from a rights-based rubric of how one relates to his fellow men to one that has its source in duty, empathy, community, an exalted view of man, and an abiding commitment to the dignity of all. As much as we cherish rights, some natural and unalienable, over-assertion of rights does have untoward consequences. For the individual, it leads to narcissism, disregard for history and posterity, and will produce an atomized and alienated person. For society, it accentuates differences and risks social fragmentation and eventually the breakdown of society. Such are the perils facing our nation today.
In 1780, this Academy was founded explicitly with the future of the nation in view. John Adams, one of the Academy’s founders, once wrote to his wife Abigail, “Posterity, you will never know how much it cost the present generation to preserve your freedom.” It is only right that each generation should make sacrifices for the good of its children.
I recently attended a concert of Czech music in which I heard these lyrics:
Lord God, our Father
Turn your eyes on the multitudes,
Whose hands clasped in prayer reached for the weapons
In order to create bread for their children out of blood.
It is with this concern for posterity that we are being called to the Academy today. It is a calling to share in the stewardship of this country’s future. The American Experiment is as yet unfinished even though the American Century, in the lifetime of we the Baby Boomers, has come and gone. We press forward, still affirming that this is a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
© 2018 by Gerald Chan
To view or listen to the presentations, visit https://www.amacad.org/induction2017.