(OpEd by Jim Waters, who is president and CEO of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, Kentucky’s free-market think tank. Read previous columns at www.bipps.org. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and @bipps on Twitter.)
It’s as if the creators of Kentucky’s new social studies standards ran as fast and far away as possible from the many extraordinary individuals throughout history whose achievements provide the “exceptional” in American exceptionalism.
Few are included in the new standards.
It’s one thing to admire inventions of Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell and George Westinghouse which were predecessors to life-changing instruments taken for granted today.
It’s quite another to grasp the development of these great characters and how they, as individuals, helped invent a more-prosperous America.
Edison learned early it wasn’t enough just to land patents; they had to result in profitable devices if he wanted to continue inventing.
So, he decided to change his approach and invest in inventions that proved irresistible to the purchasing public.
“I find out what the world needs,” he once said. “Then I go ahead and try to invent it.”
Edison’s adventurous life of inventing began in earnest at age 16 when he was given space in an empty baggage car into which he moved his chemical laboratory after his mother made him stop experimenting at home following a fire.
At the age of 21, Edison patented the first of his 1,093 U.S. inventions, including those which brought the world sustained electric light, recorded music, movies and the first modern research laboratory.
Those inventions weren’t without trials, through which this greatest of American inventors discovered how temporary failures provide clearer roadmaps to greater achievements – like Edison found in designing the world’s first light bulb capable of lasting long enough to market for widespread use.
While Edison went through countless versions before arriving at a workable combination, he didn’t consider the thousands of failed attempts as failures.
“I have not failed,” the inventor famously said. “I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
Those unsuccessful attempts “taught me something I didn’t know,” Edison said. “They taught me what direction to move in.”
Since Kentucky’s standards don’t even mention Edison or contemporaries Bell or Westinghouse, they almost guarantee the next potential great contributor to the American experiment sitting in a Kentucky high school won’t know or have the opportunity to be inspired by the dedicated perseverance and distinctive accomplishments of these noble creators.
Students in Massachusetts’ high schools, however, will learn about Edison since he’s included in standards of that state known for its stellar educational performance.
Mississippi’s historically lower-performing education system also requires Edison be taught, ensuring students in the Magnolia State will be impacted by his story while their peers in Kentucky miss out.
Students in states where Edison’s included in the standards will learn how the great originator sometimes initially thought he was right about an invention’s particular direction only to eventually acknowledge he wasn’t.
For example, Edison failed in his efforts to promote direct-current (DC) power systems he aggressively marketed while warning of the potential harm to the public from rival inventor Westinghouse’s alternating-current (AC) systems which ultimately won out and are still used in power stations today.
Edison eventually recognized – and regretted – missing it and accepted it was all part of the learning process for creating new miracles.
In that same spirit, nine former Kentucky Board of Education members recently sent a letter to legislators, including those who serve on the state House and Senate education committees, acknowledging that while they initially approved the current social studies standards it’s now apparent more work is needed with them to ensure the commonwealth’s students are fully educated.
Lawmakers should grant their request, recall the standards and require they be redone to ensure Kentucky’s up-and-coming inventors and entrepreneurs are stirred by the character and feats of those individuals whose stories are intricately woven into the rich historical texture of our nation’s greatness.