“The Courage to be New” – A Celebration of the Arts and Sciences

On April 6, 2017, Jonathan Fanton opened the ceremony for the awarding of the Emerson-Thoreau Medal and the Talcott Parsons Prize. Toni Morrison, recipient of the Emerson-Thoreau Medal, accepted her award via video after an introduction from Christopher Benfy. Joan Wallach Scott accepted the Talcott Parsons Prize after being introduced by Laurel Ulrich.

The ceremony served as the 2053rd Stated Meeting of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Good evening and welcome. I am Jonathan Fanton, President of the Academy, and it is my pleasure to call to order the 2053rd Stated Meeting of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Today, the Academy’s Council, Trust, and Board met for their semiannual in-person meetings.  Please join me in thanking all of the members of our governance bodies for their guidance, wisdom, and optimism about the Academy.

I especially want to thank the chair of our board, Don Randel, for his partnership throughout the years and his dedication to this institution. Don’s extraordinary term as chair is coming to an end in June.  The Academy is a stronger, more active, interesting, and vibrant organization as a result of his leadership.  Please join me in thanking Don Randel for his service to the American Academy.

This evening is our annual awards program – our version of “the Academy Awards.”  We have seven major prizes and awards representing the variety of field and disciplines within the Academy – the Francis Amory Prize in Biology, the Rumford Prize for Physical Science, Award for Humanistic Studies, the Sarton Prize for Poetry, the Sarton Prize for History of Science – and tonight’s awards – the Talcott Parsons Prize for Social Science and the Emerson-Thoreau Medal for Literature.

Academy prize selections are overseen by a committee chaired with great care by Pauline Yu, president of the American Council of Learned Societies and a member of our board.  The committee solicited nominations from Academy Fellows, compiled strong lists of candidates, and then sent the lists out for appraisal by other Academy Fellows.  We are grateful to all of the Fellows who participated in this process and honored by the selections they have made.

Tonight, we present awards to two Fellows whose work has changed how we think about the past, has helped us to see the present more clearly, and has encouraged us to dream of a future society that is more compassionate and more inclusive.

The Emerson-Thoreau Medal was established in 1958 to give special recognition to distinguished achievement in the broad field of literature.  The first recipient was Robert Frost.  Other recipients include T. S. Eliot, Katherine Anne Porter, Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer and, most recently, Phillip Roth.

This evening, Professor Christopher Benfy from Mount Holyoke College will provide a formal introduction of the Emerson-Thoreau Medal and this year’s recipient: Toni Morrison.

Our second award this evening was first presented in 1974.  The Talcott Parsons Prize is awarded for contributions to the social sciences, broadly defined.  It was established to honor the noted sociologist and president of the Academy from 1967 to 1971.  Past recipients include political scientist Robert Dahl, sociologists Robert Merton and Daniel Bell, and psychologist Daniel Kahneman.

Later in tonight’s program, Laurel Ulrich, from Harvard University, will introduce the Talcott Parsons Prize recipient: Joan Wallach Scott, Professor Emerita of Social Science, Institute for Advanced Study.

In accepting the first Emerson-Thoreau Prize almost sixty years ago, Robert Frost offered an eloquent defense of the virtues of original thinking.  Originality, Frost suggested, was the root of Emerson’s thought and a central feature of the American character:

“I am on record as saying that freedom is nothing but departure – setting forth – leaving things behind, the brave origination of the courage to be new.”

In that phrase, “the courage to be new,” Frost also identified the mission and character of the American Academy.  In our projects, our programs, and our publications, we strive to convene scholars and experts from diverse fields in the faith that, by coming together, they can arrive at new insights and bring fresh perspectives to the challenges of our times.

Our new work includes a study on how the public develops trust – or mistrust – in science and evidence.  Another examines how we can strengthen the capacity of our citizens to participate fully and responsibly in our democratic society.

We are able to do this important work because we draw on our distinguished Fellowship as we put together project committees—and because our Fellows answer the call and volunteer their time and expertise.  The Academy is distinct among honorary societies for the breadth of its members.  Each Academy Fellow has displayed the “courage to be new” in his or her respective field—and together they represent nearly every field and profession.

It is appropriate, therefore, that we award prizes in two separate disciplines tonight, one in literature and one in the social sciences—and fitting that we will, in years to come, also recognize Fellows who have shown the “courage to be new” in the sciences and humanities more broadly.

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