November 29, 2020

Tinkering with American History

In the latest Newsweek, Malcolm Jones reports on the hot new American History textbook, “Inventing America,” by Pauline Maier, Merritt Roe Smith, Daniel Kevles and Alexander Keyssar.

As soon as you start reading the new college textbook “Inventing America,” you wonder just how far the authors are going to go. They promise to tell the story of America, complete with bewigged Founding Fathers, abolitionists and the Sherman Antitrust Act—all the stuff you dutifully highlighted in yellow when you took American History 101—but with a twist: it will all be seen from the point of view of innovation.

Americans, they passionately believe, are inveterate creators and tinkerers, whether it’s the light bulb they’re inventing or constitutional government.

The spirit of experimentation is an important part of what America is about, and I’m thrilled to see that fact recognized in an important textbook. Best of all, the book appears to see the deep unity between seemingly diverse types of tinkering, whether cultural, technological, or political.

… the theme of innovation [is] woven through the sections on the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. “The inventions of this period weren’t technical,” [a professor using the book] says. “They were inventions that put ideology into practice.” Or as “Inventing America” puts it, “The Constitutional Convention became in part an intense and productive working seminar on the cutting issue of its time, the architecture of a free government.” It was, in other words, a lab or studio, and those famous Founding Fathers were experimenting and improvising just as surely as Thomas Edison or Thelonious Monk.

The deep linkage between different types of innovation is a powerful theme for defenders of technological freedom. Technology is not separate from culture; bans on technological progress bleed over into the rest of our lives and impede cultural and political innovation as well. It’s time for our representatives in Washington to wake up and realize that the American way is to embrace innovation, not to ban it.