Lifelong Learning and Learned Societies

by Howard Gardner

Even if you are involved in education, you may know very little about academic learned societies. Perhaps you have heard about the Royal Society (London), or the National Academy of Sciences (Washington). And you may even have heard of the American Academy of Arts and Science in Cambridge (to which I am fortunate to belong), though I doubt that you have heard of the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia (to which I also am fortunate to belong).

If I were going to caricature these learned societies—often called academies—I’d say that they are composed of accomplished scholars who have been elected to an honorary group and who now congratulate themselves for this honor. The mean age in such societies is very high (60-70 or more) and, in Western societies, the membership is overwhelmingly white, male, and coming from a few elite institutions. (Alas, I fit the profile all too well.) I am reminded of what physicist Richard Feynmann allegedly quipped: “I don’t want to belong to an organization whose main purpose is to keep other people out”; or what comedian Groucho Marx supposedly said: “I don’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member.”

But there are other important features about the aforementioned societies. The National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society study complex scientific issues; compose reports carefully; and, as appropriate, make recommendations that represent the consensus of the team that prepared these materials. The American Philosophical Society awards about 200 fellowships a year to worthy scholars, most of them young; and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences commissions studies on a wide range of topics, issues reports that are comprehensive and clear, and also publishes Daedalus, a wide-ranging quarterly. Learned societies bring together scholars from a wide range of disciplines and specialties; these gatherings enrich the intellectual lives of members and, in the best scenarios, draw on this breadth in their subsequent scholarly work and in their communications with students and with the broader public.

For the most part, these learned societies remain below the radar screen and are pleased to do so. They’d prefer to be private and prestigious, rather than public and controversial. The mix of self-congratulation, periodic meetings, and public good seems about right.

But not since the Enlightenment, two centuries ago, has the pursuit of knowledge, of truth, of objective and disinterested study been as much under attack, across both developed and developing nations. We discern these disturbing trends in the vocal critiques of colleges and universities, the challenges to scientific consensus on topics like climate change, the administering of vaccines, and even Darwinian evolution. As one interested in education across all levels, and convinced of the importance of scholarship within and across the disciplines, I find this situation most disturbing—indeed alarming.

For these reasons, I welcomed the chance to attend a meeting with leaders of over 20 learned societies from around the world—ranging from Australia and India to Estonia and Peru. While I don’t occupy a leadership role in any such organization, I am an enthusiastic member of the American Philosophical Society, which hosted the gathering, and so I was allowed to attend as a mostly silent observer.

In due course, a skilled rapporteur will provide a summary of the two days of discussions. Conversation encompassed a wide range of topics, including criteria for membership (expulsion was not discussed), sources of funding, communication of reports to the general public, the role of technology, and prospects for collaboration. No need for me to anticipate this report. But I did have one major takeaway as well as one self-assigned task.

The Takeaway

Whether the learned academics are large or small, old or new, there is a big difference between those that focus on explicitly on science (or science and technology or STEM) and those that seek to cover a broader scholarly terrain. Science is as close to a universal language as exists in the world. Accordingly, the scientific academies cover similar range of topics, have similar criteria for membership, and are concerned with many of the same issues. As a result, scientific academies can communicate readily with one another—they are members of the same species, so to speak.

But once a learned academy extends beyond science and technology, or concerns itself with the arts, the humanities, or even the “softer” social sciences, then the differences across academies becomes much more noticeable, if not occasionally unfordable. If not only scientific excellence, then what are the criteria for membership, awards, topics for discussion, debate, reporting—indeed, even mode of presentation (a slide show vs. a paper read aloud). What’s NOT on the radar screen? If the arts are featured, does this include performers or painters, or only those who study or critique the arts? And if the scholarly front covers the humanities, what to do when, unlike the sciences, no consensual method exists—where, for example, a post-modern approach is one branch’s ideal and another branch’s anathema; or where the study of language or literature is conducted entirely differently in different communities around the world?

We may assume that whatever their differences, scientific academies can make common cause. No analogous assumption obtains to different or broader learned academies.

The Task

If these learned academies from around the world are going to attempt more collaboration, rather than simply occasional meetings, it’s important to identify the features on which they may differ.  Some divergences may be consequential, others less so. It might be useful to have a taxonomy of the key features of several dozen learned societies that exist today. Here’s a sacrificial opening.

The criteria on which one might classify the societies:

  • Are they organized around a single discipline, several disciplines, or do they cover the academic waterfront?
  • Are they restricted in membership and if so, on what criteria? Are members only from one nation or one region, or can they come from around the globe? Are meetings open or closed? Private or publicized?
  • Are there associated organizations or collections of younger individuals and, if so, how do they relate to the “parent” organization?
  • For both full members, and young affiliates, are there special efforts to diversify the population—by gender, ethnic, racial, or other criteria?
  • Are these academies restricted to scholarship (as carried out in universities or research centers), or do they include performers, members of diverse professions, individuals who are accomplished in different sectors or careers? What about individuals prominent in business or politics?
  • Are the academies certified by the government, supported by the government, or completely independent of the government? If connected to the government, in what ways, if any, does this connection restrict what they can do, whether it is made public, and, if so, in what forms?
  • Do they have an affiliation with a university or with some kind of professional organization? What are the benefits or drawbacks of such an affiliation?
  • With what other entities (including other learned societies) do they have an ongoing relation? What’s the nature of that relationship?
  • Do they have some kind of charter, and if so, who issued the charter, can it be altered, and, if so, in which ways?
  • Do members have any responsibilities (ranging from yearly fees to attendance at meetings) or can membership be entirely honorific?
  • On what grounds, if any, can an individual be expelled from the organization? Is there a “senior” status and, if so, what are the rights and obligations of “senior” members?

Final Comments

In and of itself, such a taxonomy is just an exercise, useful perhaps to someone like me (an inveterate taxonomist and synthesizer) but not to many others. But if the societies are to work together, then it’s important to understand the opportunities and the constraints, and such a taxonomy could be a useful first step—indicating possible incommensurabilities and how one might circumvent them.

Why is this essay relevant to a blog on “lifelong learning?” We tend to think of learning as restricted to formal educational institutions (K-12, college, professional school) or to courses offered online or to residents of a nearby community. But if learning is truly to be lifelong, the knowledge and contributions of illustrious scholars becomes important. It’s wrong—especially in these fraught times—for such scholars simply to congratulate one another and to congregate with one another. They should be “giving away” what they know and have learned and help others to join in this enterprise. Some of these activities can and should be carried out in universities and other research centers. But the learned societies have a breadth and sweep—and even a longevity—that transcends that of most institutions of higher education.

Importantly, if, as I fear, scholarship is under threat around the world, it is no longer appropriate for these organizations to stay below the firing line. They need to be public, and they ought to work together. At the meeting that I attended in Philadelphia, those in attendance sat underneath the portrait of Benjamin Franklin, who founded the American Philosophical Society in 1743. As Franklin memorably uttered after signing the Declaration of Independence, “We must, indeed, hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”

I thank Robert Hauser for his insights about learned societies.

© 2019 Howard Gardner

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2 Comments on “Lifelong Learning and Learned Societies”

  1. Rocio September 27, 2019 at 1:00 am #

    Great article. We love the blog. We are agree about all. How can we change the academic organization in Argentina? Do you think that it’s possible? Thank you. Regards.
    Students of Argentina

    • Howard Gardner October 3, 2019 at 7:58 pm #

      It’s never easy to change an organization, and especially not colleges and universities which are very conservative. If you have a good idea, you should discuss it with peers and colleagues and see whether others share your beliefs and recommendations. And if you can find consensus, then you need to approach individuals in authority and see whether they will ‘bless’ your implementation of the idea. If there is no hunger on the part of leaders to bring about the change, then it’s probably a hopeless undertaking– unless you can change the leadership.

      My colleagues David Perkins and Jim Reese have written insightfully about the three kinds of leaders needed to bring about change: Conceptual visionary, political visionary, and practical visionary. Some of their work is based on their experiences in Latin America

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