The Wright stuff

Thomas Sowell

12/10/2003 12:00:00 AM - Thomas Sowell

One of the greatest inventions of the 20th century -- indeed, one of the landmark inventions in the history of the human race -- was the work of a couple of young men who had never gone to college and were just a couple of bicycle mechanics in Dayton, Ohio.

That part of the United States is often referred to disdainfully as "flyover country" because it is part of America that the east coast and west coast elites fly over on their way to what they consider more important places. But they are able to fly over it only because of those mechanics in Dayton.

The Wright brothers' first airplane flight was only about 120 feet -- roughly the distance from home plate to the edge of the grass behind second base, and not as long as the wingspan of a 747. But it began one of the longest journeys ever taken by the human race, and it is not over yet, as we soar farther into space.

Man had dreamed of flying for centuries and others were hard at work on the project in various places around the world when the Wright brothers finally got their plane off the ground a hundred years ago, on December 17, 1903. It didn't matter how long or how short the flight was. What mattered was that they showed that it could be done.

Alas, Orville and Wilbur Wright are today pigeon-holed as "dead white males" whom we are supposed to ignore, if not deplore. Had either of them been a woman, or black or any of a number of other specially singled out groups, this hundredth anniversary of their flight would be a national holiday with an orgy of parades and speeches across the length and breadth of the country.

Recently, a reporter for a well-known magazine phoned me to check on some facts about famous people who talked late and whom I had mentioned in my book "The Einstein Syndrome." Her editor wanted to know why there was not more "diversity" among the people I cited. Almost all of them were men, for example, and white men at that.

The vast majority of people who talk late are boys and I had no control over that. In a predominantly white society, it should not be surprising that famous men who talked late were mostly white. No doubt in China most would be Chinese.

The reporter seemed somewhat relieved when I pointed out that the distinguished mathematician Julia Robinson and famed 19th century concert pianist Clara Schumann were among the people discussed in my book. Ramanujan, a self-taught mathematical genius from India, came to my attention right after the book went into print, but the reporter seemed happy to be able to add his name to the list of famous late-talkers.

This mania for "diversity" has spread far and wide. When I looked through my nieces' high school math book, I saw many pictures of noted mathematicians but -- judging by those pictures -- you would never dream that anything worth noting had ever been done in mathematics by any white males.

This petty-minded falsification of history is less disturbing than the indoctrination-minded "educators" who are twisting reality to fit their vision. Those who cannot tell the difference between education and brainwashing do not belong in our schools.

History is what happened, not what we wish had happened or what a theory says should have happened. One of the reasons for the great value of history is that it allows us to check our current beliefs against hard facts from around the world and across the centuries.

But history cannot be a reality check for today's fashionable visions when history is itself shaped by those visions. When that happens, we are sealing ourselves up in a closed world of assumptions.

There is no evidence that the Wright brothers intended the airplane to be flown, or ridden in, only by white people. Many of the great breakthroughs in science and technology were gifts to the whole human race. Those whose efforts created these breakthroughs were exalted because of their contributions to mankind, not to their particular tribe or sex.

In trying to cheapen those people as "dead white males" we only cheapen ourselves and do nothing to promote similar achievements by people of every description. When the Wright brothers rose off the ground, we all rose off the ground.