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Presidential Issues: American Exceptionalism

American Exceptionalism

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Does America still have what it takes?

April 1, 2014

By Charles Murray

Some years ago, I conducted an ambitious research project to document and explain patterns of human accomplishment across time and cultures. My research took me from 800 BCE, when Homo sapiens’ first great surviving works of thought appeared, to 1950, my cut-off date for assessing lasting influence. I assembled world-wide inventories of achievements in physics, biology, chemistry, geology, astronomy, mathematics, medicine, and technology, plus separate inventories of Western, Chinese, and Indian philosophy; Western, Chinese, and Japanese art; Western, Arabic, Chinese, Indian, and Japanese literature; and Western music. These inventories were analyzed using quantitative techniques alongside standard qualitative historical analysis. The result was Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences (2003).

My study confirmed important patterns. Foremost among them is that human achievement has clustered at particular times and places, including Periclean Athens, Renaissance Florence, Sung China, and Western Europe of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. But why? What was special about those times and places? In the book’s final chapters, I laid out my best understanding of the environment within which great accomplishment occurs.

In what follows, I want to conduct an inquiry into the ways in which the environment of achievement in early 21st-century America corresponds or fails to correspond to the patterns of the past. As against pivotal moments in the story of human accomplishment, does today’s America, for instance, look more like Britain blooming at the end of the 18th century or like France fading at the end of the 19th century? If the latter, are there idiosyncratic features of the American situation that can override what seem to be longer-run tendencies?

To guide the discussion, I’ll provide a running synopsis, in language drawn from Human Accomplishment, of the core conditions that prevailed during the glorious periods of past achievement. I’ll focus in particular on science and technology, since these are the fields that preoccupy our contemporary debates over the present course and future prospects of American innovation...

Read the full article at the American Enterprise Institute: Does America still have what it takes?

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