On October 6, 2018, the American Academy inducted its 238th class of Members at a ceremony held in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The ceremony featured readings from the letters of John and Abigail Adams by Katherine Farley (Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts) and Jerry Speyer (Tishman Speyer), a performance by André Watts (pianist; Indiana University Jacobs School of Music), and presentations by Linda T. Elkins-Tanton (NASA Psyche mission; Arizona State University), Huda Y. Zoghbi (Baylor College of Medicine), Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar (Supreme Court of California), Robert Gooding-Williams (Columbia University), and David Miliband (International Rescue Committee).
Two years ago, right around this time of year, I was giving a presentation much like this but under quite different circumstances. I was not addressing a group of old and new friends. In fact, I was speaking in front of a panel of thirty professional NASA reviewers whose job it was to decide whether or not they would recommend the Psyche mission for flight. As you already have heard, the mission was approved, but that day was one of the most intense days of my life. It came at the culmination of a week of on-site preparation by the team of then 140 people. That day and that week and the six years that preceded it paid off because on January 4, 2017, the NASA administrator woke me in the morning with a phone call and the happy news that we had been selected for flight. By the way, the Psyche mission is named after Psyche the asteroid, and so indeed we are sending a robotic spacecraft to a metal world.
Now humankind has visited rocky worlds like Mars and the moon and Venus and Mercury, we have visited moons made of ice, and we have visited gas giants like Jupiter, but humankind has never before seen a metal world. We are pretty certain Psyche is made of metal because of its radar properties, but if there is one thing we have learned about exploration, whether it is exploration of the new world, exploration of the North Pole, or exploration of a new kind of solar system body, nature surprises us. And though I am standing here asserting to you today that it is made of metal and we suspect that it is the core of a little planet, perhaps in a few years you will remember what I said and know that we were wrong. There are very few places where humankind has not been, and this is one of them. It is a huge honor to go there. And so indeed we will launch this robotic probe in August of 2022. I invite you all to come to Florida for the launch on August 6, 2022. Put it in your calendar and we will rendezvous with Psyche and begin orbiting in 2026.
NASA is very clear that this mission is about science, but for me, it has never been just about science. We explore because we can’t help it. I think it is in our DNA. As humans we are compelled to explore, but I do truly believe that the reason that countries pay for this, and not just as a substitute for war or for posturing, is because it encourages everyone to take a bolder step in their own lives. And that is what we wish for everyone. Now, before I returned to science to get my Ph.D. – and incidentally let me say that my son who is here today went to kindergarten the week I went to graduate school and we did our homework together for many years – I worked in business for almost a decade and that time in business gave me a very deep appreciation for high functioning teams. The criticality of being able to work in high functioning interdisciplinary teams is often not something that we are trained to do as academics. During that time I really learned how to work as part of a team, and I also frankly developed a deep skepticism about the value of many of the ways that we spend our time as people.
I think we have choices. So I became very motivated to think about what is the biggest question that I could ask. How could I make a team that really had an effect? And that began several decades of conversation in our family about what is a virtuous career? What are the things we could do that would truly make a difference? Psyche is now deep into formulation: we have about three hundred people and we will grow to five or six hundred people on this team. We are located all across the country. I have about 15 hours of regular telecons every week and I have a really increased appreciation for the criticality of working in large interdisciplinary teams. On these teams the systems engineer has a great reverence for the knowledge of the scheduler, and the marketer has a great reverence for the knowledge of the graphic designer. And these kinds of things are not taught in school. They are not taught in college; they are not taught in high school. And so that is really the point of what I am trying to say today. These things are not taught in college.
The traditional mode of education is one of content delivery. I, the instructor, bring my knowledge and I deliver it to you, the learner. And I would guess that most of us in this room excelled at that model of education and in fact that is why we are here now. By the end of high school most of us who are going on to college have become experts in the blind acceptance of content and the regurgitation of it onto an exam. That is almost exactly antithetical to what I think we actually need in this world. It is almost exactly antithetical to truly understanding content and taking action. So what I posit is that we need to abandon the blind acceptance of content. We need to train a generation of problem solvers who are motivated by unsolved problems, who understand and have the courage to struggle forward in partial steps over time to find a solution.
We are living in interesting times. Imagine if our society was fully trained to ask the question, how does that reporter know that? Why should I believe that information? Content is ubiquitous. Content is no longer the differentiator. We are drowning in content. What we lack is critical problem solvers. So what am I proposing? How can we do this? Let me introduce you to one thing that we have developed, which we have been working on for some time, and not just within my academic group or with my colleagues at ASU or across the country, but also in our tech startup, Beagle Learning. We are trying to find effortless ways to introduce critical thinking and problem solving into the classroom. One really powerful idea I want to share today is the concept of a natural next question. I think this is actually the key not to just problem solving and critical thinking but to leadership. And it goes like this.
Imagine that you have some big goal, some big problem that is on your mind. Say your question is, how could visiting a metal asteroid teach me about the inside of the earth or how planets are formed? Or what if your question is, how can I get an education when girls are not allowed to go to school in my town? These are the kinds of problems I would like everyone in the world to have the grit and the resilience to address. You might go on the Internet or visit your library; you might ask your friend or interview someone. You would start with a little seed of content. And then comes the natural next question. Rather than asking a question about what you already know, which is what we are mainly trained to do, we would ask our natural next question, the question that takes us one step away from what we know and toward our big goal, which is too far to be reached in one question, but you can do it in many little questions. And as you tune your ability to ask your natural next question you become better and better at problem solving.
We are doing that in the classroom right now and in the lab, and it is transformational. I had a sophomore working on his natural next questions every week for four weeks and at the end of the fourth week he said, “Now when I listen to the news or I read the media I ask myself how do they know that and I want to ask more questions about that.” And he said that had never been the case for him before. I think this is a beautiful and simple step on the way to problem solving. And so whether it is a mission, a big science question, or a big problem, the wish is that everyone in the world would feel empowered and enabled to take a bolder step in their own lives. It is up to all of us here today to make sure that that opportunity is available.
© 2019 by Linda T. Elkins-Tanton
I am honored to be here today and to be part of this inspiring community of artists and scholars. In the next few minutes I want to share a bit of my background as a prelude to a theme that has emerged from my own work that I think has relevance to the Academy’s mission.
I grew up in Lebanon and started medical school at the prestigious American University of Beirut. Everything was idyllic: I loved my studies, I had wonderful friends, and I met William, the man who would later become my husband. But then the Lebanese Civil War broke out. Grenades, bombs, and bullets made it dangerous to go above ground, so we lived and held classes in the basement of the medical school buildings for the next several months. At the end of that first year, my parents thought it would be safest for me to stay for the summer with my older sister in the United States. We all expected the war to end quickly. The war did not end that summer, however, and when I tried to return to Lebanon, the borders had closed. Thankfully, U.S. immigration policy at the time allowed me to convert my tourist visa to a student visa, and then to permanent residency.
Unfortunately, the fall semester for medical schools in the United States had already started, and no school I reached out to would even give me the time of day. Then a remarkable thing happened: the dean at Meharry Medical College, a historically black medical school in Nashville, Tennessee, took the time to talk with me. He made the decision to allow me to transfer to Meharry even though it was already two months into the semester. I am forever grateful to him. After graduating, I went to Baylor College of Medicine for training in pediatrics and neurology.
During my residency, I had a fateful meeting with a young patient named Ashley. She had been a healthy, lively little girl until she turned two. Then, over a period of just a few weeks, she stopped speaking and seemed to lose all the milestones she had achieved so far. She withdrew from her parents and spent hours wringing her hands. My clinical professors and I recognized the disease as Rett syndrome, which had just been reported by a European group the previous week. I soon found other girls like her. All had been born healthy, only to lose all their learned skills around age two. They developed seizures and many other heart-breaking symptoms as well as experienced fits of inconsolable crying. What puzzled me was that the disease was neither congenital nor neurodegenerative: Rett was one of a kind.
I was frustrated because I had nothing to offer these patients or their families. So I turned to science for answers. I was convinced the disease had to be genetic, but I had no training in genetic research. In fact, I had no research experience whatsoever. But I had met the renowned geneticist Art Beaudet in clinic, and he agreed to take me on as a postdoctoral fellow. With Art’s guidance, I soon became adept in the lab. By the time I was ready to look for faculty positions, Art persuaded me to stay at Baylor.
It was difficult to study Rett syndrome because the disease is sporadic – only one case occurs in a family, and we didn’t have the technological tools then that we do now. Nonetheless, sixteen years from the day I met Ashley, we discovered that Rett girls have mutations in a gene called MECP2. The MeCP2 protein acts like the conductor of a very large and complex orchestra: it guides the expression of thousands of other genes in the brain. The mutations that cause Rett either lowered the levels of the MeCP2 protein or inactivated it. Wondering whether having too much MeCP2 would also be problematic, we created mice that have an extra copy of the gene and found that they, too, develop a progressive neurological disorder. We now know that MECP2-duplication syndrome is a common cause of developmental regression in male children. In fact, it is now clear that even modest changes in MeCP2 levels of 10 percent or 20 percent can affect brain function. I started thinking of MeCP2 as the “Goldilocks protein” – you shouldn’t have too much or too little, but just the right amount.
During this time, my lab was also studying a protein called ataxin-1, which is involved in a late-onset neurodegenerative disease. It turns out that the brain is sensitive to small changes in the levels of ataxin-1, too. In fact, this is the case for several other proteins we study, and probably for many more.
From a genetic point of view, we have become accustomed to thinking about how mutations change a protein’s function. Now we are seeing that too much or too little of a completely normal protein can also lead to disease. Smaller changes in protein levels may take a long time to manifest, though. For instance, we found that a slight deficiency in one protein involved in inner-ear development did not affect juvenile mice at all, but made adult mice lose their hearing. Many late-onset human diseases may have their roots in subtle changes that begin early in life.
If we take this beyond biology, the same principle holds. For example, a seemingly small change in global temperature is enough to spell disaster in the long term. As scientists, we need to do better at explaining how seemingly small effects add up over time to dramatic, large-scale changes.
Even in genetics, it is important to emphasize that genes are not the whole story. There is ample evidence that education, diet, social support, and our environment all have an enormous effect on our ability to be healthy. For example, we know that elevated levels of the alpha-synuclein protein in the brain are associated with developing Parkinson’s disease. But the levels that cause symptoms in one person in their seventies might cause symptoms in another person who is only forty if that person has been exposed to agricultural pesticides.
The fact that both the micro- and macroenvironment are important gives us more opportunities to intervene. As we work toward therapies for individuals with a given disease, we also need to work on providing healthier environments that promote resilience. As my own history demonstrates, I would not be here today if it had not been for a favorable immigration policy. But I also would not be here without a medical school dean who chose to bend the rules for me. Or a geneticist who was willing to take a chance on someone without research training. We cannot control genetics or life’s circumstances, but we can – and should – do our utmost to create the conditions that foster a more healthy population and sustainable planet.
© 2019 by Huda Y. Zoghbi
I am enormously humbled to join this Academy and privileged to speak on behalf of my class members. I feel like my kids would if they were told they could join a group that included Beyoncé, Steph Curry, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Yoda, Constance Wu, and Katniss Everdeen.
Speaking of heroes: in 1945, a young German American immigrant was working for the U.S. Army conducting interpretations in the war crimes trials that followed the Allied victory in Europe. He would become one of my favorite social scientists – he is the economist Albert Hirschman. I recently heard a story about him that nicely sets the stage for the brief thoughts I want to share this afternoon. In his older years, Hirschman had decamped to the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, and one day he received a visit from a friend of mine who was also an admirer of Hirschman’s work. My friend asked this elder statesman of economic history what was he working on then. Hirschman indicated he was working on a collection entitled “Final Essays.” My friend was eager to hear more, but expressed concern that Dr. Hirschman seemed to have decided this would be his last contribution, whereupon Dr. Hirschman leaned closer to my friend and slowly said: “Final Essays, Volume 1.” We are never entirely done understanding our world or its people, even when it is time for another generation to take the laboring oar and have its (also inevitably numbered) days in the sun.
It was a sunny day a bit more than a quarter century ago when I arrived here in Cambridge as a college student from the U.S.-Mexico border. I was far from home but hoping that raw enthusiasm would make up for some serious naïveté. Slowly I learned to discern the subtle melodies connecting psychology and economics, biology and politics, and my own experiences and those of classmates with whom I had once thought I had almost nothing in common. I was thrilled by political theorist Judith Shklar’s lectures on civic obligation. Sitting in that lecture hall listening to her distinctive European-Canadian-American voice I understood better why it was that the American citizenship to which I aspired felt much more like a giant leap than a small step. I was eager to write one or a half-dozen papers under her guidance as soon as the class was over.
But of all the works I read in those years, I found Hirschman’s slim little tome on Exit, Voice, and Loyalty to be among the most compelling. He wrote like a dream, but there was something else: his reflections on how people dealt with distress and opportunity in social life paid attention to the particular nuances of place and time while cautiously generalizing. His examples and diagrams explained not only fraying treaty organizations and coups in Latin America, but family arguments and even how partners were chosen in folk dancing groups (and yes, I was in one – but I hope there aren’t any tapes left). His ideas made sense of dynamics affecting the whole world, because everyone from scientists to criminals to hip hop artists to international security professionals work in the shadow of institutions.
From the way he wrote and reasoned about institutions one could glean something else: that Hirschman understood how focusing on people’s choices to leave a group, or their courage to dissent, or their definition of loyalty was about far more than delivering a conveniently boxed set of school supplies useful in discerning occasional quirks of our institutional world. His insights were pieces of an extraordinary puzzle: one depicting how learning happens in churches, courts, colleges, and countries. And as he implied and I have come to believe, certain ideals must be taken seriously for that process to work – for us to be able to live in a world where the search for knowledge does more than serve as a shared calling for scholars and instead gives society itself the means to learn from our collective mistakes. It takes certain preconditions to make it feasible for society to deploy shared wisdom in protecting the weak, or in cleaning up polluted rivers like the one flowing from Southern California into Mexico five blocks from my childhood home. To share knowledge across generations just as we hand a burning candle – carefully – to an eager child so she can sense not only the flame’s beauty, but its power to enlighten or sear.
Among the ideals and preconditions that make all this possible are candor and intellectual honesty – or at least a measure of it – from those with the power of public office. I still have Professor Shklar’s old course reader in my garage, and a few nights ago I found myself leafing through it. I recalled a passage written by Hannah Arendt, who provocatively observed: “[I]f everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer.” Making knowledge count also means understanding the value of freedom to exercise voice, and having the wisdom to do so with prudence. It means seeing the risks revealed in a vast array of numbers about changing climate and also the risks posed by some countries that limit meaningful voice in their own societies and seek to do so even in constitutional democracies. It means a civil society robust enough to make exit a meaningful option for a whistleblower. It means realizing the cost to all of us when a domestic violence victim fears coming to one of our state courts – where we adjudicate more than 90 percent of all cases in America – because she is undocumented and federal authorities are showing up at state court proceedings to detain people like her. That these ideals raise their share of dilemmas and line-drawing problems is no reason to shirk from defending them, time and again, without hesitation or compromise.
The very same gift of our humanity that makes us strive for a better life across borders and protect our own also sometimes makes it difficult to achieve the ideals necessary for society to learn at a complicated time. Our world today features less hunger but rising oceans, longer lives but rising interest in authoritarian politics. We have been entrusted with a planet that delivers a succulent bounty but also serves up bitter problems often made worse by our acts and omissions. Harnessing the gifts will take commitment to integrity, creative expression and empathy, and persistent attention to the transmission of knowledge across not only geography and social class, but across generations.
Professor Shklar sadly died shortly after I finished my first course with her. But I think of her when I have a tough decision to make at work. Or when I am lucky to be in the proverbial “room where it happens,” where wisdom is shared across generations, affirming commitments to understanding our planet that run deeper, and last longer, than what anyone can achieve in a single lifetime. I remember a seminar some years ago with a Noah’s Ark of disciplines around the table, from historians to nuclear physicists. A bright and articulate young scholar was presenting on the challenges posed by homegrown violent extremism. At one point an experienced older scholar sitting around the table gently raised an objection. I recall the presenter suggesting that the problem could be resolved by applying the work of a scholar with whom the questioner might not be familiar – someone named Charles Perrow. The older scholar then patiently explained: “I am Perrow.”
As we make our way through this fragile and beautiful world we have inherited, with supercomputers tucked in our pockets, true wisdom may often seem as elusive as it is precious. But sometimes we find it sitting right next to us, waiting for a quiet moment to raise its voice. Listening has its rewards. Done right, it helps make the story we write together an invigorating Volume 1, replete with never-entirely finished histories and equations that will someday let our descendants answer questions we are only beginning to ask.
© 2019 by Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar
It is a great honor to be here and to be invited to speak this afternoon. I come before you as a political philosopher, and with the time I have here I want to trace the evolution of my thinking about the role of deliberative democracy in promoting racial justice.
Deliberative democrats believe that our political culture should be geared less to the distinction between allies and enemies and more to the idea that, the diversity of our communities notwithstanding, ordinary, democratically energized Americans can debate and mobilize their way toward shared understandings of the public good. On one, representative account, deliberative democrats encourage citizens “with conflicting perspectives to understand each other’s point of view, to minimize their moral disagreements, and to search for common ground.”1
For about twenty-five years or so, we political philosophers have argued about the value of the deliberative democratic ideal. Our arguments took on a practical relevance when President Obama, during his first presidential campaign, expressly aspired to transform our political culture, aiming to replace the allies versus enemies model with the ideal of establishing common ground. I initially expressed my own sympathies with the deliberative ideal in a paper I published a decade earlier, in 1998. There, I defended the idea of race-conscious, multicultural public education. Specifically, I proposed that public education that is multicultural and race conscious can advance the cause of racial justice because it can help diverse, fellow citizens forge a shared vocabulary for understanding themselves and for coming to a common moral perspective through democratic deliberations. Consider, for example, the view held by many African Americans that the relative poverty of black Americans, because it is due to the cumulative effects of racial slavery and anti-black racism, is an injustice. White Americans often dismiss this view, denying that racial inequalities are, in part, effects of the unjust and brutal legacies of slavery and Jim Crow. But if whites learned more about these legacies and their impact on black lives, then, I argued, they might come to appreciate the moral soundness of public policies intended to redress racial inequalities.
- 1Amy Gutmann, “The Challenge of Multiculturalism in Political Ethics,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 22 (Summer 1993): 199.
Since writing that paper, my confidence in its argument has waned, for it has become increasingly clear to me that the American political culture we inhabit too often relies on democratic deliberation either to equivocate about commitments to ending racial inequality or to promote the illusion that citizens share a common moral perspective on racial inequality when they do not. More than seventy-five years ago, W.E.B. Du Bois presciently explored both these tendencies.
Du Bois was the first African American to receive a Ph.D. from Harvard. A prolific writer and activist, he was the director of publications and research for the NAACP and co-founder of the American Negro Academy, a learned society not unlike the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 1940, after a long career advocating for racial justice, Du Bois analyzed the tendencies of white citizens to equivocate and to presume a common moral perspective when none exists with a published, fictional sketch of a conversation with an archetypal, educated, white friend. To simplify, the question about which Du Bois and his white friend deliberate is whether his friend should endorse the ideology of the “Christian Gentleman,” which promotes the values of good will, justice, peace, and the golden rule, or the ideology of the “American White Man,” which promotes white supremacy, the closely related fear that colored folk, through “sheer weight of numbers,” will soon overthrow white folk, and careful surveillance to see just who is sitting down and why when the “Star-Spangled Banner” is played – all in the name of the values of caste, exploitation, empire, and power.
Du Bois and his friend eventually agree that, the contradictions between the two ideologies notwithstanding, most whites prove impervious to reason. Tending to equivocate, they qualify their endorsement of the Christian Gentleman’s principles to accommodate the American White Man’s moral outlook. They say that they “are filled with Good Will for all men, provided these men are in their places”; or that they “aim to treat others as they want to be treated themselves, so far as this is consistent with their necessarily exclusive position.”2 But Du Bois’s friend is logical and, recognizing the contradictions between the two ideologies, resolves his dilemma by embracing the ideology of the American White Man. In contrast to other white citizens, Du Bois’s friend sees through the illusion that there is a moral perspective – a normative common ground – that he and Du Bois share, acknowledging that his devotion to the code of American White Manhood ultimately trumps his devotion to the code of the Christian Gentleman.
With his dialogue sketch, Du Bois suggests two reasons to be skeptical of a deliberative democratic politics that seeks racial reconciliation through appeals to the common ground of shared moral values and judgments. The first is that whites typically qualify their allegiance to judgments and principles that they seem to share with non-whites to a point that effectively eviscerates that allegiance. This is the problem of equivocation that is evident today, when, for example, our fellow citizens’ categorical rejection of direct measures for reducing racial inequality practically compromises their professed judgment that justice requires reducing it – or, more generally, when they qualify their professed commitment to racial equality to accommodate policies that reinforce racial inequality. The second reason is that it would be bad politics to predicate hope for racial justice on the possibility of racial reconciliation through the discovery of common ground if, as Du Bois proposes, any assumption of a normative common ground may well be an illusion.
To my mind, much of the tone of our contemporary politics resonates with the perspective of Du Bois’s white friend, who refuses to equivocate, abandons the appeal to a common ground, and embraces the ideology of White American Manhood. Indeed, it is appalling that the code of White American Manhood has again acquired prominence in the public square: that athletes are castigated for kneeling during the national anthem to protest practices of policing that criminalize blacks; that non-white Hispanic immigrants are targeted for persecution meant to promote a racialized conception of American citizenship; that anxieties about the browning of America infect public debate; and that the perceived threat of a white supremacist political rally compelled the city of Charlottesville, Virginia, to declare a state of emergency.
Du Bois’s deep insight, I believe, is that the ideology of the American White Man is not at all an anomaly; that it is a recurrent, constitutive motif of American history. By Du Bois’s lights, the motif was operative when President Andrew Johnson, after the Civil War, sacrificed his democratic opposition to aristocracy to his deeply rooted antipathy to racial equality; it was likewise operative in 1899, when Du Bois, having just begun his first term as president of the American Negro Academy, learned that the knuckles of lynching victim Sam Hose were on display at a grocery store down the street from where he was walking; and when Rudyard Kipling, having recently published “The White Man’s Burden,” accepted his election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. The motif has remained operative through the early years of the twenty-first century, persistently available for political exploitation. The ideology of white supremacy is always to be contended with in American political culture; it is not something that we should expect ever to eclipse by appeals to a common ground of shared moral judgments and principles.
I conclude by recalling my trip this summer to the National Memorial of Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, a work of art that brilliantly contends with the ideology of white supremacy by demanding that we acknowledge our difficulty in reconciling ourselves to its brutal effects. The centerpiece of the memorial is a structure comprising 800 steel monuments, each representing a county where lynchings occurred. In these 800 counties, more than 4,400 black men, women, and children were murdered between 1877 and 1950. Each monument, the size and shape of a coffin, bears the names of the lynching victims who died in the county the monument represents, as well as the dates they died. Signs posted around the memorial stress that it is a sacred site.
Walking through the first of the site’s three passageways is like walking through a well-tended burial ground. Moving from pillar to pillar, visitors can effortlessly read the inscribed names of states, counties, and lynching victims, as well as the dates on which the lynchings occurred. Traversing a path through the steel structures is initially a matter of following the contours of a three-dimensional map that legibly chronicles decades of white supremacist violence, state by state, county by county.
Turning into the second and third passageways, however, the floor begins a slow descent, and the monuments gradually rise above the visitors. As the pillars ascend, the inscribed names of states, counties, and victims, looming higher and higher overhead, become increasingly illegible. Treading beneath a densely packed expanse of weighty steel caskets, bereft of the ability to read the inscriptions that mark them, I suddenly found myself feeling overwhelmed and disoriented at this point, for I was no longer able to identify the names, places, and times that the pillars bearing down on me memorialized.
If the lynching memorial evokes a sense of the sacred, that is partly because our descent through it is finally a movement beyond what is legible, chartable, and comprehensible to a viscerally devastating confrontation with a history that, hovering beyond our reach, inhibits and paralyzes our powers of understanding and imagination. What the memorial ultimately warns us against is the temptation to make peace with the past it commemorates; the temptation, that is, to reconcile ourselves to that past by finding comfort in the knowledge of where, when, or even why white supremacists lynched black bodies, as if through a sort of cognitive achievement, important as that might be, we could deflect and appease the horror of the history all American citizens inherit. The memorial contends with the deadly violence belonging to the history of white supremacy by alerting us to the difficulty, perhaps the impossibility, of coming to terms and feeling at home with the massive, impenetrable, horror of that violence.
Leaving the memorial site, we encounter Hank Willis Thomas’s Raise Up, a sculpture that protests the contemporary, anti-black police brutality that Black Lives Matters campaigns against. Works of art like the lynching memorial and Thomas’s sculpture help us to steel our opposition to the resurgence of white supremacy. For where democratic deliberation fails to establish common ground, Du Bois suggests, the struggle for racial justice requires a “long siege” against white supremacist political forces entrenched within an American polity still divided in its commitment to end racial inequality.
© 2019 by Robert Gooding-Williams
- 2W.E.B. Du Bois, Dusk of Dawn: An Essay Toward An Autobiography of A Race Concept (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 1984), 164.
I am honored to be inducted into the Academy today and feel even more privileged to address you. When I studied at Bigelow Junior High School six miles from here in the 1970s, and when I was a graduate student at MIT in the 1980s, I could never have imagined that I would be joining the same club as Hamilton and Madison or John Stuart Mill and Stephen Hawking. And while I could not have imagined it, I’m sure my teachers would never have believed it.
This feels like an especially important time for liberal democratic societies in the West, and for academic institutions whose freedom of thought and commitment to the advancement of knowledge have been important features of these countries.
Speaking for myself, I find it chilling that in the Brexit campaign the answer from a leading Cabinet minister to concerns about the economic impact of Brexit was the argument “people in this country have had enough of experts.”
We know that this demagoguery is not confined to the United Kingdom. In the United States there are now facts, and if you don’t like them, there are alternative facts. I flinch at this rhetoric in part because of my own history.
I look and sound like a product of the longest period of peace and prosperity that Europe has ever known. I am indeed that product. University life was part and parcel of my childhood. My dad was a professor of political science in the uk. When I was at primary school I remember well my mother sitting at her desk working on her Ph.D. about women munition workers in World War I. And when I was nine I remember that our home was shared with a Chilean student who was a refugee from the Pinochet regime.
In the Miliband household I was always encouraged to have my own opinions. But as the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan put it, I was never entitled to my own facts. I was brought up to know that at least in the eyes of my parents there was no higher accolade than to be described as a serious person.
Obviously, my pursuit of a career in politics suggests that I was truly a rebel against this dictum.
My parents were not only the product of academe. Both were refugees to the United Kingdom from war in Europe: my dad as a sixteen-year-old from occupied Belgium; my mum as a twelve-year-old from a twice-conquered and many times demolished Poland.
They knew from their own life stories that history and memory, the collective and the personal, were intertwined. And it is in that spirit that I hope that my membership in the Academy can draw attention to three aspects of this institution’s character that seem especially important today.
First, the most obvious fact about me is that I am not an American. I am grateful that the Academy does not see this as a defect.
Our connected world needs more institutions that reach across national divides. A member of this Academy – President John F. Kennedy – reminded his audience in a landmark speech on July 4, 1962, that while Alexander Hamilton had urged Americans to think continentally, Kennedy’s generation needed to think intercontinentally.
That is even truer today, whatever the winds of nationalism and nativism.
Second, I am not an academic, yet I have been welcomed into the Academy.
As some of you may know, I run an NGO. At a time when governments are in retreat, it seems to me that ngos, universities, and the private sector need to step forward together. My NGO is funded to deliver life-saving services, not write policy papers, but I hope that our experience can be of value to the Academy. We can certainly benefit from your rigor and insight.
Third, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) is not just any old NGO. We were founded by another member of this Academy, Albert Einstein, who was a refugee. In fact, there is a double honor for the IRC today because our cochair, Katherine Farley, is also being inducted into the Academy this afternoon in recognition of her success in business.
IRC’s mission today is to help those whose have been shattered by conflict or disaster to survive, recover, and take control of their lives. We are a growth business because there are more displaced people today than at any time since World War II.
However, I am sad to report that the spirit of openness which welcomed Einstein in the 1930s is not present today. In the United States, which until recently had the world’s largest and most successful refugee resettlement program, the existence of that program is under threat.
It would not be right for the Academy to fight this battle for us, but the prominence in the Academy’s alumni of refugees is a reminder that amidst the rubble of Aleppo or Sana’a there are people with an extraordinary amount to give, and it is gratifying that in the work on humanitarian operations in warfare led by Professor Paul Wise there is recognition of that.
The American sociologist C. Wright Mills wrote an extraordinary book in 1959 entitled The Sociological Imagination. In it he warned us all of two dangers: the bureaucratic ethos that treads on originality and independence, and the “moral scatter” that renders liberalism illiberal. He called on students to make a difference in the world by seeing the link between the homeless man on the street and the society in which he lives, between the troubled teenager and the wider social order. He called this the linking of public issues to personal troubles.
This is an especially important call today. When refugees are dehumanized by politicians or by statistics, remember they are people. When countries far away are dismissed as being of no interest, remember no man (or woman) is an island. When you are told that globalization means that power has been ceded by democracies to market forces, remember that the resources for organization and engagement have never been greater.
The Academy represents so much that is good in the American story: open, rigorous, international, humble efforts that bring people together to advance the frontiers of knowledge. I am very grateful indeed to acknowledge that tradition and to join it.
© 2019 by David Miliband