Our Views: Humanities helped Orville and Wilbur Wright soar _lowres

David McCullough's 'The Wright Brothers'

These are tough times for Louisiana’s public universities, as years of budget cuts — and the prospect of even more reductions — force higher education officials to think more deeply about what kind of programs are important on their campuses and which ones they might reasonably do without.

In that climate of austerity, where do the humanities, which include subjects like literature and history, fit in?

Even in good times for higher education, humanities programs have struggled to get respect. College tuition rises by the year, and the 2008 recession underscored the urgency of being prepared for a competitive job market once a graduate starts looking for work. With that in mind, courses in Shakespeare or music or Western civilization can seem to many like an indulgence, far removed from the technical demands of a 21st-century economy.

But “The Wright Brothers,” David McCullough’s new biography of history’s most famous duo of inventors, offers a timely reminder that the humanities and the technical sciences aren’t an either/or proposition. A truly educated person needs both.

About the Wrights, we already know the basics. In 1903, brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright, two Ohio bicycle mechanics, conducted the first flight of a heavier-than-air machine with a pilot aboard, ushering in the age of airplanes. Neither had a college degree, but they had done much to educate themselves, McCullough tells readers. And much of that education for these two tinkerers involved extensive readings in poetry, fiction and history, all gleaned from the home library of their cleric father.

On the shelves of the Wrights’ home, writes McCullough, “could be found the works of Dickens, Washington Irving, Hawthorne, Mark Twain, a complete set of the works of Sir Walter Scott, the poems of Virgil, Plutarch’s ‘Lives,’ Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost,’ Boswell’s ‘Life of Johnson,’ Gibbons’ ‘Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,’ and Thucydides. There were books on natural history, American history, a six-volume history of France, travel, ‘The Instructive Speller,’ Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species,’ plus two full sets of encyclopedias. Everyone in the house read all the time.”

Reading widely in history and fiction helped the Wrights cultivate the imagination that fueled their creativity. Reading also helped Wilbur, especially, develop the language skills he used to attract support for the Wrights’ ideas. “He was an exceptional public speaker and lucid writer,” McCullough notes of Wilbur Wright. “In his professional correspondence, the innumerable proposals and reports he wrote, and in private correspondence no less, his vocabulary and use of language were of the highest order. ...”

The humanities helped the Wright brothers achieve greatness as technical geniuses. The next generation of innovators needs the humanities, too. That’s something higher education officials should keep in mind as they evaluate priorities on Louisiana’s campuses.