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PHILADELPHIA, PA May 15, 2020 — For the first time in more than 60 years, the American Philosophical Society (APS), founded by Benjamin Franklin and the nation’s oldest learned society, has issued a public resolution calling on Congress to enact a National Defense Education Act for the 21st Century. The resolution has been sent to the bipartisan leadership of the House and Senate.
Increased public skepticism around scientific validity and evidence-based policymaking, and the resulting spread of erroneous information about COVID-19 has moved the APS to call on our nation’s leaders to improve access to education nationwide. The APS is recommending an action inspired by the National Defense Education Act of 1958, a law that provided education funding at all levels at a time when the U.S, was perceived as falling behind the Soviet Union in the pressing international “space race,” another period of clear international challenge.
Over the course of its 277-year history, the APS has issued occasional resolutions supporting academic freedom and the unfettered pursuit of knowledge, particularly in the sciences. Previous examples include a 1945 appeal to allow research into atomic energy to continue without restriction, and in 1951, a strong resolution in support of academic freedom and protection for faculty on campuses nationwide, at a time when “loyalty oaths” were becoming de rigueur and diversity of thought was threatened.
The APS sees this resolution as a natural extension of its history as the intellectual bedrock upon which the U.S. was founded, as much a part of the early society’s fabric as courts and banking. With a mission of “promoting useful knowledge” throughout the new nation, the APS still keeps its focus on the intellectual wellbeing of our country by supporting a wide range of young and mid-career scholars; offering public programs that focus on U.S. history, the history of science, and Native American cultures; and honoring figures from Marie Curie to John Lithgow with America’s most rare learned society membership.
This action by the APS is exceedingly unusual, and motivated by the extraordinary circumstances in which we find ourselves.
The text of the resolution is below, and at https://www.amphilsoc.org/blog/aps-membership-issues-rare-public-resolution-light-covid-19-preparedness.
During the extraordinary times of the COVID-19 pandemic, APS Council has passed a rare public resolution on behalf of the Membership calling on Congress to enact a National Defense Education Act for the 21st Century. The following statement has been sent to the bipartisan leadership of the House and Senate.
Senator Mitch McConnell
Senator Chuck Schumer
Speaker Nancy Pelosi
Representative Kevin McCarthy
To the Leaders of Congress:
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted many deficiencies in the preparedness of our country for dealing with a worldwide disaster. The nation’s medical, public health, and emergency infrastructure was unprepared for the many and multilevel challenges. While we can point to many contributing factors, in this letter we wish to speak from the American Philosophical Society’s history — particularly the commitment of our founder, Benjamin Franklin, to the promotion of “useful knowledge.”
The effort to curb the spread of this disease has confronted Americans with drastic, life-altering changes in individual and collective behavior. While based on the best available medical and scientific expertise, these changes have been difficult for many to understand and accept, leaving the nation vulnerable to misleading and erroneous information. Rather than the deliberative, logical and analytical thinking that the country urgently needs, we find a disturbing skepticism toward evidence-based policy-making; a reluctance to accept and apply scientific knowledge; and a lack of familiarity with the relevant lessons of history, including long-past and more recent pandemics.
We therefore ask you to consider a bold initiative to re-energize education in this country as an essential part of the recovery from our current national emergency. This effort draws inspiration from the National Defense Education Act of 1958, a successful legislative initiative to support education in response to a clear international challenge.
WHEREAS, Factual evidence and fact-based decisions are the foundation of the nation’s strength and growth, and whereas, the promotion of education emphasizing the natural and social sciences, analytical thinking, and fact-based decision-making is essential for the nation’s welfare, it is
RESOLVED, That Congress enact a “National Defense Education Act for the 21st Century” to support at all levels the education of American’s youth in science, history, analytical thinking, and the primacy of facts as the foundation of the nation’s future health, general well-being, and security.
Linda Greenhouse, President
For the Council of the American Philosophical Society