Robert Darnton ’57 and George Whitesides ’57, 2013 recipients of the Claude Moore Fuess Award, discussed their professional experiences and motivations behind their ground-breaking public service during All-School Meeting (ASM) on Wednesday.
Darnton and Whitesides hold two of 21 University Professorships at Harvard University in cultural history and chemistry, respectively. Both are recognized internationally as leading scholars in their fields.
Applying their academic expertise to “Non Sibi” work, Whitesides founded Diagnostics for All (DFA) and Darnton is a founder of the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA), both organizations dedicated to bettering society. DFA provides low-cost medical diagnostic tools to the developing world, and the DPLA, which will be launched in April, will provide free access to the world’s largest collection of digitized library materials.
“There is a big issue in trying to distribute the benefits of technology to civilizations across the globe, to rich and poor,” said Whitesides in his ASM address.
“It doesn’t seem like a reasonable world, in which we have healthcare coming out of our ears, while people in the slums of Mumbai don’t,” he said.
Darnton said in his address that DPLA is a part of an ongoing movement that aims to broaden worldwide, free access to knowledge via technology and the Internet.
“In the 18th century, the Founding Fathers all believed in the power of the printed word, but that power was frankly utopian in character. Most people at the time couldn’t read, or those who could read couldn’t afford the books,” said Darnton.
“However, what seemed utopian is possible [today] because we have the technology to make it happen. We have the ability to make the entirety of our cultural heritage stored up in libraries to be available to all of the citizens—not just in this country, but [to people] everywhere in the world,” Darnton continued.
Both honorees shared experiences from their time at Andover that shaped their characters and successes later in life.
“You are all unbelievably fortunate. The education I got here provided the basis for everything I have done since. You are getting the right kind of education here, so pay close attention,” said Whitesides at ASM.
“One of the things I believe Andover taught me was how to read: to read deeply, to read analytically and to understand that the groups of fiction and nonfiction alike have structures,” said Darnton in an interview with The Phillipian.
Darnton cites his time at Andover as the origin of his lifelong endeavor to cross cultural boundaries.
“I was once sitting years ago [at an ASM] when there was a talk by a very well-known specialist in the study of Navajo Indians, and I dared to ask a question. I don’t remember the question, but I clearly remember his answer. It went as follows: ‘Now, that is a culture-bound question,’” Darnton recalled during ASM.
Even though he did not know at the time what a “culture-bound question” was, the response sparked his interest in venturing outside his own cultural comfort zone, said Darnton. His experience as an intern news reporter at the “Newark Star Ledger” further reinforced this interest.
“Once, I thought I had found a great news story and went to the [police] lieutenant for more information. He said [to me] in utter disgust, “Kid, don’t you get it? This is not news.” He pointed to the parentheses next to the names of suspects and victims, and there was a ‘B’—a ‘B’ for ‘Black,’” he said.
“So there was a cultural sieve that was used to sift information, and for stories in 1956, black people were not ‘news.’ They did not appear in the newspaper. This is what I mean by culture-bound conventions,” he continued.
“I think it is possible, through hard study at Andover in particular, to break out of culture-bound thinking and roam around the mental universe of other places,” said Darnton.
Whitesides advised students to ensure that there is a clear “story” to everything they do. He referred to these stories as having four parts: a puzzle, a journey, a surprise and a resolution.
“First, you need to have a puzzle or a conflict in order to motivate people. If others don’t care about what you are doing, then you haven’t done anything. The second part is just how you go about it. The third part is that there always has to be a new idea, a surprise. Finally, the last part is the issue of resolution or, in other words, application in the real world,” he said.
“The puzzle for DFA was how to do [deliver diagnostic tools] under difficult circumstances. It’s a very challenging and interesting problem because in the developing world, usually there is no money, no resources like electricity and refrigeration, no clean water and often not even an idea of what disease is,” he said.
Whitesides urged the students to think about their actions in terms of these four components of a “story” and to consider the larger value of their personal goals to others.
“In a sense, [all four parts of the story] are addressed to a single question we are trying to answer: ‘Who cares?’” he said.
In addition to speaking at ASM, both Whitesides and Darnton taught master classes in their respective field of study on Wednesday.
First awarded in 1967, the Fuess Award is Andover’s highest honor. It recognizes alumni for their distinguished efforts and achievements in public service, according to a press release on the Andover website.
“The reason why we think the Non Sibi spirit is so completely evident in [Darnton’s and Whitesides’s] work is that they lived great lives of distinction and scholarship that had a particular quality to it, which is to say that they have done work at the absolute highest levels—in terms of not only what we think of as academic work, but [they] also have had an enormous public impact through their work,” said Head of School John Palfrey at ASM, who selected this year’s recipients with former Head of School Barbara Chase.