I remember that when I was real little — which is what we in the South say when we actually mean when I was “really young” — hearing about the Smithsonian Institute in Washington.
I don’t think I actually realized that the Smithsonian was many museums operating under one umbrella and housed in many buildings. All I knew was that they were supposed to have some really neat stuff there — like the Wright Brothers’ plane and the Hope diamond — and that I would purely love to visit such a place someday.
I finally made it to the Smithsonian in 1979. It was everything I’d hoped for and much more. I did, indeed, see the Wright Brothers’ plane — and Charles Lindberg’s Spirit of St. Louis, as well — not to mention a couple of space capsules and a Soviet missile that made cold chills run up and down my spine because Ronald Reagan had not yet won the Cold War at that time.
But as much as I enjoyed the Air and Space Museum, my favorite Smithsonian museum by far was, and is, the Museum of American History, which is just across the mall from the Air and Space. They call it America’s attic, and for good reason. It houses all kinds of treasure — and perhaps a little junk — from our nation’s past.
I have since been to Washington and the Smithsonian many times so I don’t remember what all was there on my first trip and what has been added, but I do remember that the original star-spangled banner was hanging on a wall directly across from the entrance, and I couldn’t believe how enormous it was.
I have seen Fonzi’s leather jacket and Archie Bunker’s chair and George Washington’s Revolutionary War uniform and all sorts of antique farming implements — including a hay baler and a John Deere tractor much newer than the ones my father-in-law still uses.
But every time I visit the museum, I think about the story my father used to tell me about the director of the Patent Office who issued his resignation to the president because “everything that could be invented has been invented.” This is an urban legend, of course, but still makes for a good story and emphasizes how incredibly creative the human race in general and Americans in particular have always been.
Just think about the things we have seen in our own lifetimes — or, even more remarkably, our children’s lifetimes.
My own attic is full of obsolete electronic devices, including a chimney-mount television antenna, a phonograph, several VCRs and a large enough amount of assorted computers, wireless phones and television sets to open a Conyers branch of the Smithsonian.
Now don’t hear something I didn’t say and spare me the moral indignity and outrage from the anti-American faction out there. I don’t need a long list of inventions from other countries. I know that Americans haven’t cornered the market on ingenuity. I’m just saying that we have done pretty well in our day and hope and pray that we will continue to take the initiative in finding ways to solve problems and cure disease and streamline labor and yada, yada, yada.
In order to do this, we will need a couple of things. One is motivation. Another is a citizenry that is well-educated, especially in the areas of critical thinking and problem solving.
Say what you will, but since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the primary motivation for inventors has been the ability to make a profit. The free market society has proven, time and time again, to be heads and shoulders above any other when it comes to creating a populace that is driven to create and produce. And, yes, I am afraid that the spread-the-wealth-and-let-the-government-be-in-control mentality that we seem to be embracing as a nation will not foster a climate in which the best and brightest among us are motivated to reach for the stars.
And I know for a fact that the standardized-test-score-driven culture that has taken over education over the past decade is not the best way to prepare students to think and reason and solve problems. We are helping them memorize facts and regurgitate information and take tests, and we are getting really, really good at that.
Again, don’t hear something I am not saying. I don’t fault local school systems for doing everything possible to teach kids to pass the standardized tests because that is how Big Brother is judging them.
But we are going to throw the baby out with the bath water if we don’t recognize and address the need to push our brightest students to exceed and excel. All people really aren’t created equal and we need to push each child to be the best that he or she can be — and then we need to get out of their way and let them shoot for the moon. Even if they miss, they might land on a star.
We need a wake-up call. We need a new direction. We need leaders who will say, “You know what, let’s let America be America,” and then get out of our way and let us be it.
I just hope and pray there is one out there and that we find that person before it is too late — and before our country’s greatness is just another exhibit in the Smithsonian Institute.
Darrell Huckaby is an author and teacher in Rockdale County. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.