This editorial has two, count them, two points to make. One of them is political and the other one isn’t, or if it is, it has to do with the politics of the university and academics.
I just finished reading historian David McCullough’s new book, The Wright Brothers, which is another masterful look at American history. If you are not familiar with this disntinguished author, you should be.
McCullough has written histories of some of the greatest feats of human endeavor, such as the Panama Canal, (The Path Between the Seas), the Brooklyn Bridge (The Great Bridge) and reintroduced Americans to a forgotten but great Founding Father (John Adams) and retold the story of an infant United States’s most fateful year, 1776. He is something that “serious” historians abhor, someone who make history interesting enough that ordinary people want to find out more about it.
When I obtained my master’s degree in Military History a few years ago I often ran into a lot of those “serious” acaemic historians who don’t think that history is any darned good unless it’s not interesting to the average person. The more murky and turgid the prose the better they like it. These are the guys who think it’s a bad idea to use a contraction (i.e don’t, instead of “do not”) and will subtract points from a paper that has them.
Suffice it to say that McCullough, along with a few other popularizers of history such as Bruce Catton, Shelby Foote and Stephen Ambrose, draw down the wrath of serious historians because they simplify history. They dramatize it. As one academic, David Greenberg, put it when 1776 came out: “Our exasperation will stem partly, to be sure, from envy of McCullough’s undeniable gift for storytelling and of his smashing popularity. But my academic colleagues will (or should) raise legitimate objections to the approach of a book like this—the surfeit of scene-setting and personality, the meager analysis and argument, the lack of a compelling rationale for writing about a topic already amply covered.”
We’ve heard arguments like this before. I heard them when I was a child who honed his reading skills by devouring comic books. Nothing is worse, goes the refrain, than learning that is actually fun!
McCullough’s rather short book on the Wright brothers covers a relatively short few years when these bicycle manufacturers became interested in heavier than air flight. They became serious scientists, reading everything they could find and approached coming up with a solution to the conundrum of flight meticulous, stubbornly and quietly.
Interestingly enough, they did it without a dime from the government, or anyone else for that matter. In fact, a couple of times when they approached the U.S. government, after they had achieved flight, they were rebuffed. Instead the U.S. government put all of its funding eggs in the basket of the head of the Smithsonian Institute, Samuel Langley, whose steam airplant failed miserably about the same time that the Wright brothers were achieving manned flight at Kitty Hawk.
It is one of the great ironies of American history that the first U.S. Aircraft carriere was named after Langley, whose creation was basically a ruptured duck. Eventually the U.S. Navy came around to recognizing the Wright brothers with an aircraft carrier named the Kitty Hawk.
Langley spent about $70,000 government dollars failing to produce an airplane. The Wright brothers spent a few hundred dollars of their own money and produced the first airplane.
Which brings me to the political part of this piece.
The Democratic party’s Twin Strident Ladies of Song Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren, and the tenor of the group, President Barrack Obama, have been shrieking for some time now “You didn’t build that!”
They are, of course, talking about the people who actually accomplish things in the world, the bridge builders, the software designers, the inventors of new ways of catching mice, and other pioneers of the mind, as opposed to persons such as themselves who live off of the fruits of those who accomplish things.
Warren was probably the first to coin the “You didn’t build it,” refrain: in her 2012 speech in which she said, “ If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business—you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”
Not entirely fallacious—Warren is not a stupid woman—because we all of us, including and especially the geniuses among us, stand on the shoulders of giants. However, many of the world’s great advances were pioneered by people who were not relying on the government or anyone else.
So when you hear someone claim, “You didn’t build that,” consider that there are, occasionally, people who do.