In today’s Washington Post, Stephen Carter reviews The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide and Define a Nation, by Stephen Prothero. The book offers a list of works that the author suggests form an American lexicon or scripture (Prothero is a religious studies scholar) – works that are commonly discussed and debated as part of what it means to be American.
Where things come to the usual terrain of this blog is when Carter notes in his review that science and technology are absent from Prothero’s list.
“Including the Challenger speech [President Reagan's remarks at the memorial service for the lost Challenger astronauts] would have remedied the principal omission in a book otherwise admirable in breadth and ambition: the almost entire failure to discuss science and technology. Yet it is technological advance and the American belief in the future that have done as much to set us apart from the world as anything else.”
Carter suggests that similar science and technology-themed entries could include President Kennedy’s speech where he commits to a moon landing and return within a decade. In Carter’s other suggestion – Henry Clay’s program for ‘internal improvements’ that shaped the 19th century landscape (and foreshadowed future national infrastructure projects like rural electrification and the interstate highway system) I think Prothero might disagree given the spiritual purpose (in the sense of a civic religion) he puts on the project. Put another way, the plan for internal improvements matters, but is it a topic of debate and discussion? No.
While I don’t think Prothero’s book is devoid of science and technology (Eisenhower’s caution against the military-industrial complex is included, and certainly targets a means of managing technology), Carter is correct. How Americans see science and technology, and its uses, has been a part of the national character, and has been something debated and discussed at many points during its history.
So, what might be included? Resist the urge to think of the influential documents for science and technology and think of those works that play a role in how Americans define American science and technology. I think Reagan’s Challenger speech is worth considering. I can think of many documents where science and technology influence American government and political figures. But when are they part of the common cultural conversation in a way that’s specifically American?
Porthero has avoided visual media, to focus on words, and that might give another explanation for why there is little science and technology in this book. He has also resisted popular culture, which can certainly be a useful shorthand. No Buck Rogers, no Star Trek, no The Right Stuff. He’s looking for cultural works that are civic, or widely known. The only songs he includes are anthems – official and otherwise.
To some extent, it may be that the works, the documents, that help define Americans’ common conception of science and technology are not in words, but in deeds. While Science, The Endless Frontier and the thinking within represent a cultural touchstone in U.S. science and technology policy, what Americans discuss on these topics are more the dams, buildings and devices than the words of Morse, Edison, Ford, Pauling, Vannevar Bush, J. Craig Venter, Gates, Sagan, Jobs, Zuckerber and whatever other American scientific and engineering people have dominated national thinking.
But I could be wrong. What do you think?