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Phil-osophically Speaking - March 12, 2010

Reevaluating America’s Commercial Culture in the World

Marching triumphantly into Nate Bennett Pavilion Hall, they swept into Hempstead Town like a crisp breeze of fresh air. Young, bright-eyed, bristling with intellectual curiosity, the world seemed to belong to them or, at least, its future. They were among America’s best and brightest — the spiritual descendents of Edison, Einstein, Salk, Crick and Watson and a host of other scientific luminaries.

Here were the semifinalists of the “Intel Talent Search” widely heralded as America’s most prestigious pre-college scientific competition. These students had distinguished themselves for their originality, creative thinking and resourcefulness in applying science to the world around them. Sixty-nine of the 300 selected candidates nationwide live on Long Island.

Perusing over this galaxy of future engineers and scientists, I felt that the future of our country is assured. Or is it? For years, I’ve been hearing alarm bells that our science and engineering programs have been losing serious yardage. That while America still dominates the key industries and life sciences, the human capital that propelled this technological miracle is drying up in the heat wave of international competition.

Surely, this prognosis is too severe. While America’s dominance is not what it once was, it still has the world’s most competitive economy and is still its greatest technological trailblazer. But this state of affairs is more a fact of its past than a forecast of its future. With economies growing rapidly in Asia and government funding for research and development in the United States plummeting, it is no mystery why the gap is slowly, but inexorably, closing.

Research and development had been the jewel of government investment. Channeled mostly through our universities, it served as a giant magnet for brilliant minds throughout the world. But now with government spending so much more in so many other areas, and our national debt soaring to the heights of the Himalayan Mountains, funds for research are either lacking or non-existent. This is dismaying, since many of the innovative economies that shaped the modern world, were spawned by government investment.

This is not to relegate the American success story to a dusty memory, a panegyric for historians and archivists to ponder over, but it does argue for a reevaluation of America’s commercial culture, its trends and its goals, as it moves forward into an ever-competitive world.

In 1893, Frederick Jackson Turner, a young professor from the University of Wisconsin, in a famous speech to the American Historical Association, announced that America’s frontier was no more. That American history had been, in large degree, the colonization of the Great West. He went on to define exactly what this relevance was: “To the frontier, the American intellect owes its striking characteristics … coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness; that practical, inventive turn of mind … that restless turn of energy; that dominant individualism … and withal that buoyancy and exuberance that comes with freedom.”

In other words, it was the challenge of the frontier, the wilderness, and the vast, wide-open spaces of the continent that forged America’s greatness. Americans tamed the wild, subdued the frontier, and had built upon it a great civilization. This was the result of rugged individualism, risk-taking and perseverance. The implication was clear: without these challenges, that nebulous quality that made America great, could vanish like the windblown, unbroken prairies of its past.

Similarly, America is again at the precipice of another historical crossroad. But are those qualities that rocketed us to unprecedented wealth and innovation still extant? If America is to continue to grow, pioneer another technological revolution, it must embrace its proud legacy by investing more in research and development, restore our universities to their former glory, and reclaim the mantle that we are the land of opportunity.

It is wise to remember that our social safety net, which has given security to millions, is the fruit of this wealth, not its cause. If we do not master the spending juggernaut propelling us ever deeper into the red, then it will master us, and we, as well as future generations, will rue its awful consequences.

This does not mean we should become a society bereft of a social conscience and moral responsibility. Civilization requires there be provision for the needy, to help those who cannot help themselves, but these moral protocols, however worthy, must not be exercised with foolish sentiment, or comported with narrowness of mind, much less entertain the illusion that we can, as C.S. Lewis once memorably said, “Castrate the gelding and then bid it to be fruitful.”

In that light, our tax and regulatory policies should be oriented to engineer economic growth, fund research and development as well as encourage scientific literacy. But it is equally important, as ballast to scientific inquiry, to embrace the humanities that have enriched our culture and defined our most cherished values and beliefs.    

Well before science produced the Atomic bomb, and with it, the haunting prospect of apocalyptic denouement, the false hope that humanity can be liberated by science alone, had been contradicted. It is the moral order, our sense of right and wrong that is the most valuable part of our inheritance from patrimony. It is the lens by which we view ourselves, and from that understanding, make choices about how we shall live, what it means to be human, with all its obligations, shared sacrifice and commitment to the common good.

This self-realization includes, by its very nature, the vast tapestry of religious faith. Not its distortions and mindless caricatures that sometimes disturbingly surface, but rather its sense of life’s sacredness, its call for brotherhood and forgiveness, summonses that can motivate human aspirations and behavior toward an idealized truth like no other force on earth.

As we enter the even more complicated and nettlesome world of the 21st century, it is not, I believe, Pollyannaish to see the bonding of humanistic values in the milieu of a technological society; anymore than that science and faith, for all its inherent tensions, are not implacable foes, but together can serve as a fertile basis for uplifting the world.