Fifty years from now, what will we say are the three innovations of the early 21st century that had a transformational effect on the economy and the world at large? That was the question posed by New York Times opinion columnist Bret Stephens at last week’s Upper School assembly.
Students offered a variety of responses including smart phones, social media, virtual reality, and artificial intelligence. Stephens’ three picks were: gene therapy and immunotherapy for their potential to extend the average human lifespan by making illnesses like cancer more treatable; fracking as a cleaner source of energy that can be generated domestically, thereby reducing our dependence on foreign energy sources; and smart phone apps for how they are transforming everything from how we order food to the ways in which individuals can participate in the economy.
He also noted that the three aforementioned inventions were largely the products of American ingenuity. This, despite the fact that there are plenty of other countries that have large, established scientific communities. What was happening in the U.S. coming in to the 21st century that made the U.S. fertile ground for game-changing innovation? According to Stephens, the U.S. has long taken positions on four key questions that have enabled America to become the global leader in innovation:
Are immigrants viewed as an asset or a liability?
Stephens made the case that, on the whole, the U.S. has been enriched by immigration, and that embracing the diversity of ideas and approaches that immigrants bring to the table has led to a culture of innovation. As supporting evidence he cited that America wins more Nobel Prizes than any other country and that more than one third of those winners are immigrants to the U.S. He also shared that a remarkable 40 percent of all Fortune 500 companies were established by immigrants or the children of immigrants.
How does a society view independent thinkers?
Stephens acknowledged that independent thinkers, those that defy socially accepted norms, can be provoking or challenging to engage. At the same time, he argues, you need people who are willing to stand in the minority if society is going to advance and evolve. It’s also why freedom of speech is so important he explained, because, “If you cannot speak freely, at some point you’re not going to be able to think clearly.”
How does a society react to failure?
When something goes wrong in a society, you can ask “Where did we go wrong?” or “Who did this to us?” The former leads to solutions, observed Stephens, while the latter results in a search for culprits.
Does a society define its interests according to its values, or values according to interests?
“America is at its best,” said Stephens, when we ask “What do we stand for and how do we pursue those things?” He cited examples like the Berlin airlift which was run by the U.S. and Britain for more than a year starting in 1948. The airlift had been costly and resource intensive, but the right thing to do, and supporting an independent West Berlin, he said, ultimately set the stage for a non-violent end to the Cold War.
In his opinion, at this moment in history, the U.S. is getting all four of these questions wrong. And he was clear with the girls that he didn’t view this as an issue of the political right or left. Both sides “are pointing fingers rather than taking ownership,” he said.
Stephens closed his presentation with a mandate for the girls; as they go to college and then on to their professional careers, he urged them to remember these questions and do their part to keep America moving in the right direction.