“If we don’t restore the manufacturing sector in this country, we’re scr*wed in the long run.”
Those were the blunt sentiments expressed last week by an industrial engineering professor and close friend summing up the future economic outlook of the United States barring a radical turnaround.
Yes, I know that historically speaking these two youth organizations have been closely tied with agriculture rather than with the manufacturing base. But their historical emphasis on practical knowledge and the critical thinking that accompanies it is the reason why I’m convinced these two organizations have an invaluable role play in the future as practical scientific vanguards.
Practical scientific vanguards? Yes, I know that sounds a little grandiose, if not slightly bizarre. But I’m serious. I believe our success as a nation depends on whether we reverse the trends that are moving us away from the traditional American emphasis on practical science and critical thinking.
I was reminded of this yet again last week while finishing last chapter of Arthur Herman’s “How the Scots Invented the Modern World,” a book that chronicles the enormous Scottish contributions to modern thought and technological achievement.
Herman credits the Scots with fostering huge leaps in moral philosophy, history, economics and scientific and technological advances throughout the 18th century. Intellectual discussions throughout the civilized world were peppered with Scottish names such Hutcheson, Kames, Ferguson, Smith and Hume, Reid and Carlyle.
Medical training at Edinburgh University set the standard for the rest of the world, particularly the newly independent United States. Similar standards were set in engineering, steelmaking, ship building, textiles and chemistry.
Yet, as the 19th century drew to a close, Scottish intellectual achievement began to wane.
Scotland’s brightest students abandoned Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen for Oxbridge.
By the close of the 19th century, Scottish businessmen, whose professional forebears had advanced printing and the book trade — not to mention renowned publications as the Edinburgh Literary Review — turned their energies to the tabloid press.
Likewise, Scottish writers abandoned their interests in philosophy, political economy and history for escapist literature.
A growing Scottish preoccupation with conformity blocked innovation and creativity — a change that Herman ascribes to the disastrous results stemming from World War I battles of Gallipoli, the Somme, Ypres and Passchendaele, when Scottish generals, once vaunted for their independent-mindedness in addition to their courage and sense of honor, concentrated on means while losing sight of the ends.
A Lesson for Americans?
Could it be that American society is following the same course? Is our longstanding reverence for practical science and critical thinking, which sparked similar scientific and technological advances throughout much of the 19th and 20th centuries, eroding?
The symptoms are all around us. Recently, New York Times columnist David Brooks bemoaned the degree to which U.S. young people, especially elite college graduates, have “drifted away from the hardheaded practical mentality that built the nation’s wealth in the first place.”
“The shift is evident at all levels of society, “Brooks writes. “First, the elites. America’s brightest minds have been abandoning industry and technical enterprise in favor of more prestigious but less productive fields like law, finance, consulting and nonprofit activism.”
Yet another observation that left a deep impression last week was expressed by U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, a former Texas A&M University president, who stressed that American society is more self-aware and self-critical than any other in history.
“That doesn’t mean we’re a bunch of geniuses,” Gates said. “It just means — due, in no small part to a free press — that we recognize our problems faster than anybody else and move to correct them faster.”
Back to my premise: 4-H and FFA and the need for nothing less than a practical scientific counterrevolution. What two change agents are better equipped to provide young people with an appreciation for practical science and critical thinking and to restore these values to a preeminent place in American life?