Compared to most other nations, America is a young country. As with people, youth has its advantages as well as its shortcomings. We might not yet have gained the wisdom (or, some might say, the inflexibility) of age-old experience but we have all the right stuff for creativity: boundless energy, originality and independence, a spirit of inquiry, fearlessness. Or do we? Has America become old before its time?
Google Chairman and Chief Executive Eric Schmidt recently wrote in the Washington Post that the United States is facing an ‘innovation deficit.’ He acknowledges that in the past we were far ahead when it came to technological advances (everything from medical research to space technology to the Internet) but recently we have begun to lag behind. If not corrected, falling short in the innovation race could have disastrous consequences for our economy and our society. Concerns about this looming problem have been broached before. Judy Estrin, author of Closing the Innovation Gap: Reigniting the Spark of Creativity in a Global Economy, and Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, among others, have raised the alarm.
Innovation is messy. It’s the opposite of endeavors that are predictable, controllable and safe, and where the goal is a modest short-term result, not an uncertain but magnificent long-term payoff. To be innovative one must embrace at the outset the real possibility of failure – and be prepared to welcome the invaluable lessons that only failure can offer.
Schmidt advocates other remedies: Level the playing field so that small companies and start-ups can compete with larger organizations. Encourage the open sharing of ideas. Reform draconian visa restrictions so that bright international students aren’t kicked out immediately upon graduation. These solutions would seem to be no-brainers, but I think the obstacles to any real change toward a more positive direction are subtle and profound.
Most public school programs are structured to address problems from the bottom up. The biggest failure (in my opinion, among many) of No Child Left Behind is the focus on test scores as the primary measure of accomplishment. These tests involve information that is learned by rote – the spirit of innovation, the kinds of creative intelligence that foster original thinking, are nurtured not by one-size-fits-all drilling but by exposure to a diversity of perspectives and media. That is why the arts as essential elements of curricula are so important and why, in my view, there is a correlation between lack of innovation and the dismantling of school arts programs.
This narrow focus also leaves our best and brightest behind. Schmidt and Estrin both make the point that innovators often exist outside of the mainstream. The attempt to acknowledge the potential and increase educational opportunities for all children is altogether admirable; however, truly gifted students are often left bored and neglected by unimaginative curricula that emphasize bringing everyone into the middle ground. We need to find a way to nurture and reward kids of exceptional talent as well as those whose abilities need special attention in order to develop.
More ominously – at least in my view – is the increasing distrust of, and contempt for, genuine science. Our national discourse continues to blur the distinctions between science and religion, between fact and belief. Yes, facts, like beliefs, are open to interpretation but sometimes we have to trust the best evidence that we have. And we need to know the difference.
For many, it apparently is of no importance that the vast majority of the world’s scientists agree that global warming is a fact, a result of human activity, a looming catastrophe – based on various agenda (financial self-interest, religious conviction, sheer obstinacy) these people simply don’t ‘believe’ that global warming exists. They don’t want it to be real. This kind of confusion, about what it means to investigate and trust evidence versus what it means to have faith in something unseen and not provable, is not the kind of climate that fosters innovation.
When I asked, at the beginning, if our nation were aging prematurely, what I meant was that we seem to be heading backwards. The spirit of innovation is a youthful one: looking forward, willing to take risks, embracing the unknown. To grow old in spirit is to become afraid of loss. It is to want things to stay predictably the same, to resist change, to reject what might be new and threatening. ‘Old’ is a state of mind where the familiar past is far more comfortable and desirable than the challenging, risky but potentially exciting and enriching present. If we can change course and learn to face the uncertain future with determination and guts we might just be able to reclaim our fading glory.
created by Peaco Todd