The Academy and its History
“We have no difficulty in being proud of the Academy’s achievements. That pride can and should guide us. But our shame should guide us, too; driving us to work to eradicate the practices and reform the institutions whose behavior is the ground of that shame.”
In 2030, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences will celebrate its 250th anniversary. This milestone will be commemorated with a series of celebrations and the publication of the first retrospective history of the organization. In advance of the occasion, a new section was launched on this website to share information online about the Academy’s history. By undertaking these activities, the Academy hopes to more fully understand the organization—our membership, our institutional development, our work—the good and the bad, and how it has been shaped by all aspects of our national story.
Our Common Purpose
One of the recommendations for strengthening democracy in Our Common Purpose, the final report of the Academy’s Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship issued in 2020, is for Americans to acknowledge the best and worst of the nation’s history. The bipartisan report encourages individuals and organizations to engage in direct, open-ended, and honest conversations about our country’s past failures. The Academy is committed to this recommendation for our own institution.
“Whatever new narratives emerge from these conversations, they should be honest about the past without falling into cynicism, and should demonstrate appreciation of the country’s founding and transformative leaders without tipping into deification. They should acknowledge our faults and take pride in the progress we have made…”
Learning from Leaders
The Academy is neither expert nor alone in the work of reckoning. Other organizations preceded our own process on grappling with institutional history, and we benefit from their insights and examples—some of which are included in the “Additional Resources” section below.
The Academy’s virtual event on “Reckoning with Organizational History” explored why historical self-examination matters and what can be gained from these studies. At the event, context provided by Academy President David Oxtoby, and commentary from poet and playwright Claudia Rankine preceded a panel discussion with Georgetown University President John J. DeGioia, National Geographic Editor in Chief Susan Goldberg, and Executive Director of the African American Cultural Heritage Fund (within the National Trust for Historic Preservation) Brent Leggs that was moderated by Ben Vinson, the Provost and Executive Vice President of Case Western Reserve University (President, Howard University, effective September 1, 2023).
These leaders from a diverse group of institutions discussed the reckoning process, best practices that other organizations can use, and how this work can create opportunities for a better future.
Work is underway to reveal new information and insights about the Academy. The initiatives include ongoing efforts of Academy archivists to process materials, a book about the Academy’s history, and new website content. These initiatives are guided by a commitment to sharing the Academy’s brightest and darkest moments to illuminate the organization.
The researching, writing, and recording involved in these endeavors are essential to the Academy’s ability to reckon with its own history and to share it with others. All three resources are being added to as new information becomes available.
At a virtual program in October 2020, hosted by the Academy’s Research Triangle Program Committee in partnership with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Research Week, John Aldrich (Duke University), Phoebe Stein (Federation of State Humanities Councils), and William Sturkey (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) discussed how communities across the Research Triangle can meld the pride and pain of their regional history to create a more honest and inclusive common narrative. The program included introductions from Terry Magnuson (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) and Paula D. McClain (Duke University) as well as opening remarks from Congressman David E. Price (4th District of North Carolina). An edited transcript of the event was published in the Academy’s Bulletin and can be read online. And the remarks of William Sturkey are can be viewed in this video excerpt.
In 2021 the Academy invited leaders from Georgetown University, National Geographic, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation—who had undertaken difficult work on reckoning—to share their experiences and recommendations at the Academy’s Reckoning with Organizational History event. A recording of the event is available for viewing here, and a transcript here.
Tools for Inclusive Histories:
- The American Association for State and Local History’s Semiquincentennial Field Guide provides guiding themes that historical professionals can use to prepare for 2026. These themes are designed to help advance a common narrative about the American past that acknowledges its tensions and promises.
- Historic Decisions: Looking Deliberatively at the Past. These materials from The Kettering Foundation support critical deliberations about historical problems. They provide educators with tools to use in the classroom to foster critical thinking about historical topics.
- More in Common’s Defusing the History War: Finding Common Ground in Teaching America’s National Story. These research findings illustrate how Americans are not as divided over their history and national identity as one might believe. There is a lot of common ground across the partisan divide about acknowledging historical failures and celebrating American achievements.
Tools for Memorialization and Historical Reckoning:
- The History of Racist Violence in the United States. List of articles, resources, and teaching materials collected by the American Historical Association that provide background of various issues related to race and reckoning.
- Report of The Working Group on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation to the President of Georgetown University (2016). You can read more about Georgetown’s working group, the university's history, and its ongoing reckoning efforts here.
- Website of the President’s Commission on Slavery and the University, University of Virginia: Consortium of higher education institutions engaged in the work of historical reckoning. Also of note is “Memorialization and Mission at UVA,” a 2020 report from a working group charged with rethinking the names of buildings on UVA grounds.
Brent Leggs is the executive director of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund and senior vice president of the National Trust. He participated in the Academy’s initial event on reckoning. A collection of his articles and appearances is available on the National Trust for Historic Preservation website.
We hope the materials in this section, the Academy’s Archives, and the online Academy history are helpful for all seeking to learn more about the Academy and the important work of reckoning with institutional and national history.