Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Welcoming Remarks for Teaching the History of Innovation

Welcoming Remarks for Teaching the History of Innovation

  • August 27, 2012
  • Wachman Center for Civic and International Literacy
  • Program on Teaching Innovation

This weekend’s subject, teaching the history of innovation, struck me and perhaps some of my colleagues as itself embarrassingly innovative. We Americans take for granted a frantic pace of change in our material culture. But despite the tremendous and ongoing technological revolutions that we’ve all lived through and take for granted, few of us who teach in the humanities or the social sciences know or even think a whole lot about the process or even the definition of innovation. Or perhaps few of us—or not enough of us—stimulate our students to question our civilization’s faith in “progress.”

The histories of science and technology are very recent subdisciplines in history, really becoming self-conscious, institutionalized disciplines of history right around the time of the shock of Sputnik in 1957. Indeed, it wasn’t until I began researching my own book on the history of the Cold War space race that I began to learn and to meditate on the processes of, in that case, public and private research and development. But how naive I was, as late as the early 1980s, to think that the nuclear and space flight technologies born in WWII and so seemingly important during the Cold War represented the futuristic, technological late 20th-century era. Just right around the corner, of course, the digital computer and information technology revolutions would stand forth as the real breakthroughs, the real world-transforming technologies of our lifetimes.

Moreover, my baby boom generation grew up in an America accustomed to celebrate the wonders of science and technology. I remember as a boy being taken by my parents or on a school field trip to the wonderful Museum of Science and Technology in Chicago. We all took for granted, of course, that America was and would remain the world’s leader. We believed in continual improvement of our own steadily lengthening lives. As General Electric boasted, “Progress is our most important product.”

But at some point over the ensuing 50-odd years, we discovered to our dismay that innovation also conduces to growing anxiety—not only among us old folk who have to learn every new twist and turn of classroom or computer technology, but even younger generations of Americans have become conscious of the anxiety caused by innovation. Let me illustrate that quickly with two anecdotes from my own teaching.

First, about two or three years ago, after the final lecture in my course on the history of American foreign policy since 1776, a very bright student came up to me in the hall sheepishly and said, “Not until now have I really understood, thanks to your course, how extraordinarily rapid the rise of the U.S. was from a string of weak colonies to the greatest global superpower history has ever known.” Then she asked, “How long do you think it will last?”

I was taken aback at first, silent. I didn’t want to encourage complacency and triumphalism in the student, but neither did I want to breed pessimism in a young American, either. Then an answer came to me, I hope a good one. I said, “Well, if the U.S. follows the same pattern as previous world leaders, great powers, great empires, then I’d give us maybe 50-75 more years. But if Americans really are exceptional, as they like to believe—exceptional in their ability to self-reinvent, to attract new blood and ideas from abroad, to keep their economy and their institutions open to constant innovation, then maybe the U.S. can remain in the global vanguard for a very long time.”

The second anecdote emerged from my introductory survey course in modern European history, since the Renaissance. This time a student asked, having summarized how we’d seen so many great powers and empires rise and fall just over this brief span of 500 years, “Tell me, professor, has any great nation, empire, or civilization, having once lost its leadership or competitive edge, ever regained it at a later date?” I had to quickly scroll through and process about 3,000 years of history in my head. Then I answered, “No, I guess not. Except for China, which has come back at least twice before and may be doing so a third time today.

But of course, innovation is not only or primarily a factor in military and economic competition and the ultimately banal story of the rise and fall of the great powers. Innovation may in our own time not only transform international politics and economics to the point where merely national measures of power and wealth will become passé, but innovation in our time may indeed be fundamentally altering the relationship of the human species to time, space and our host planet. Such concerns as the origins, causes and consequences of human creativity take us far beyond the expertise of conventional historians such as myself. But happily we have with us a roster of unconventional, brilliant speakers who promise to make this conference an intellectual feast.

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