Thinkers and Doers: the American Academy of Arts and Sciences

By James David Jacobs

Thomas Hampson
Thomas Hampson on the stage of Sanders Theatre, Oct. 6, 2012 (photo courtesy of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences)

Exactly one month before Election Day, October 6, 2012, I witnessed another periodic rite that dates back to the beginning of the republic: the Induction Ceremony of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. The collective brilliance of the population of Sanders that day was truly staggering.

That afternoon, I had a front-row seat at Harvard's historic Sanders Theatre, a monument to the wisdom and contributions of generations past. It was a more-than-appropriate setting for honoring wisdom and contributions of our own time.

While there were a few household-name celebrities in attendance, the currency for the day was not fame per se, but accomplishment and influence in a specific discipline. The gathering at Sanders was the 1987th Stated Meeting of an organization that has been in existence since the very beginning of the United States, and whose original members included many of its founding fathers.

The American Academy of Arts and Sciences was founded in 1780, based on an idea proposed the year before by the nation’s future Second President John Adams in the Philosophy Chamber of Harvard College. Its original motto, Sub Libertate Florent, conveys the idea that arts and sciences flourish best in an atmosphere of freedom. Its current motto, “Cherishing Knowledge – Shaping the Future” describes what the Academy has become, and how over time it has put Adams’ original idea into action – to provide a space in which the nation’s leaders in the arts, sciences and humanities can gather to collaborate on an interdisciplinary approach to the challenges facing the country and the world. In the words of the Academy's charter, the "end and design of the institution is ... to cultivate every art and science which may tend to advance the interest, honour, dignity, and happiness of a free, independent, and virtuous people."

Thus the people I witnessed taking the stage that Saturday afternoon were participating in an unbroken tradition of service that is inextricably tied to the history and progress of the country itself. There was a sense of awe among all the participants, a feeling that, for all their other accolades and accomplishments, this was something truly profound and larger than themselves.

The ceremony began with the sound of bagpipes as the Boston Police Gaelic Column of Pipes and Drums marched through the audience. Louis W. Cabot, the Chair of the Academy’s Board and Trust (elected to the Academy in 1958), welcomed the inductees, invoking John Adams’s characterization of them as “thinkers and doers.” Youth Pro Musica, a children’s choir led by Robert Barney, took the stage to sing “America the Beautiful., right before Academy President Leslie Cohen Berlowitz, called the meeting to order with the bang of her gavel. Here is her summation of the Academy’s history and mission:

Berlowitz then introduced 2011 inductee Daniel Day-Lewis(“Winner of two other Academy Awards,” as Berlowitz dryly put it), who read documents by Washington and Lincoln:

Secretary of the Academy Jerrold Meinwaldtook the stage to talk about the Academy’s traditions, and introduced wife and husband Bonnie Berger (from MIT, one of that day’s inductees in Mathematics) and Tom Leighton (a member of the Academy’s governing board) to read from the letters of John and Abigail Adams:

We then got to the real business of the day: the induction of the members, organized into five Classes. The first Class, Mathematical and Physical Sciences, numbered 52 inductees. Speaker was Steven H. Strogatz of Cornell University, who called Class I “the most romantic class” and told a touching “love story” of how he came to pursue mathematics: :

The speaker for Class II: Biological Sciences (44 inductees) was Margaret J. McFall-Ngai of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She spoke of recent developments in microbiology that she termed “revolutionary.”

The prominent Washington lawyer and Supreme Court advocate Maureen E. Mahoney, spoke on behalf of the 37 inductees of Class III: Social Sciences. Mahoney opened her remarks by declaring, “y’all may want to know that you’re a very intimidating audience – but not quite as intimidating as Justice Scalia.” She then gave her perspective on John Roberts’ casting of the deciding vote to uphold the core provisions of the Affordable Care Act.
Class IV: Humanities and Arts (55 inductees) is perhaps the category with the most name recognition. Among this year’s inductees are playwright David Hare, violinist Midori, film director Terrence Malick, critic Alex Ross, composers August Read Thomas and Kaija Saariaho, whose Circle Map was premiered this month in the US by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and broadcast by Classical New England. Mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade, and choreographer Christopher Wheeldon were also in this category, as were three people rather innocuously identified in the program as William H. Cosby, Jr., Clinton Eastwood, and, as a Foreign Honorary Member, Paul McCartney (all three in absentia). The speaker for the class was David Blight, Professor of American History at Yale University, who gave what was, for me, the most remarkable speech of the afternoon, about the role of history in our lives:

Class V: Public Affairs, Business, and Administration (40 inductees – Hillary Rodham Clinton didn’t show up, but Sanford Weill did) was represented by Penny Pritzker,who talked about the importance of education in her own family’s rise to success from impoverished immigrants to extremely successful entrepreneurs, and how she is working to ensure that today’s children have the same opportunities to succeed that she did: “I refuse to accept a future in which stories like ours are a thing of the past.”
The program continued with a performance by baritone Thomas Hampson (2010 inductee). Hampson has been working with the Library of Congress on the “Song of America Project”, exploring the nation’s history and spirit through its songs, from the 1700s to the present day. Accompanied at the piano by NEC faculty member Tanya Blaich, Hampson sang three of his discoveries through this project: “My Days Have Been So Wondrous Free” by Francis Hopkinson, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence; “Ethiopia Saluting the Colors”, a setting of the Walt Whitman poem by the great African-American composer Henry Burleigh; and Michael Daugherty’s setting of Lincoln’s “Letter to Mrs. Bixby”, all three of which are discussed by Hampson before the performance:

The event ended with Hampson leading a sing-along of “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
As we reflect on the conclusion of another Presidential campaign, no matter which votes you cast, and no matter what your perspective is on our institutions, it is important to remember that this country has always engaged in a cycle of re-invention, re-assessment, and seemingly insurmountable crises messily resolved and followed by periods of prosperity.
One constantly marvels at how prescient the founders were at anticipating both the peaks and valleys of the American experiment. The Academy of Arts and Sciences is yet another example of how the founders anticipated our needs, providing an ongoing repository of wisdom and experience from which we will continue to draw for many years to come.

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