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A Wright Brothers Anecdote
A Wright Brothers Anecdote

A Wright Brothers Anecdote

…and Its Lessons for Education.

The very good Landmark Books series contains a book about the Wright Brothers entitled The Wright Brothers: Pioneers of American Aviation by Quentin Reynolds, published by Random House, New York, (c) 1950, renewed in 1978. Highly recommended. Buy it and read it all. You can purchase the book at Abebooks.com, at other sites on the Internet, or maybe even at a local bookstore. The book starts out with Mrs. Susan Wright taking her three children, Wilbur (aged 11), Orville (aged 7), and Katherine (aged 4), on a summer picnic to the banks of a river in the midst of the woods of Dayton, Ohio. While out, the boys go fishing. Then, on pp. 2 – 4:
The fish weren’t biting very well. Suddenly a big bird swooped down, stuck his long bill into the river, came out with a tiny fish, and then swooped right up into the sky again. “What makes a bird fly, Mother?” Wilbur asked. “Their wings, Will,” she said. “You notice they move their wings and that makes them go faster.” “But Mother,” Will said, not quite satisfied, “that bird that just swooped down didn’t even move his wings. He swooped down, grabbed a fish, and then went right up again. He never moved his wings at all.”
“The wind doesn’t just blow toward you or away from you,” she said. “It blows up and down too. When a current of air blows up, it takes the bird up. His wings support him in the air.” “If we had wings, then we could fly too, couldn’t we, Mother?” Wilbur asked “But God didn’t give us wings.” She laughed. “Maybe we could make wings,” Wilbur insisted. “Maybe,” his mother said thoughtfully. “But I don’t know. No one ever did make wings that would allow a boy to fly.” “I will someday,” Wilbur said, and Orville nodded and said, “I will too.” “Well, when you’re a little older maybe you can try,” their mother said. That was another thing about Susan Wright. Most other mothers would have thought that this was foolish talk. Most other mothers would have said, “Oh, don’t be silly, who ever heard of such nonsense!” But not Susan Wright. She knew that even an eleven-year-old boy can have ideas of his own, and just because they happened to come from an eleven-year-old head — well, that didn’t make them foolish. She never treated her children as if they were babies, and perhaps that’s why they liked to go fishing with her or on picnics with her. And that’s why they kept asking her questions. She always gave them sensible answers.
This is a lesson for us all. Susan Wright respected the thinking of her children — she respected ideas, she respected reason, she respected questions, and she respected the real world. A biography by the Wright-House.com adds some good insight into the Wright’s upbringing:
The Wright house provided an excellent setting for the children’s intellectual and creative development. Orville wrote of his childhood: “We were lucky enough to grow up in an environment where there was always much encouragement to children to pursue intellectual interests; to investigate whatever aroused curiosity.” … In 1878, when Orville and Wilbur were ages 7 and 11, their father brought them a toy “helicopter.” It was based on an invention by French aeronautical pioneer Alphonse Penaud. Made of cork, bamboo, and paper, with a rubber band to twirl its twin blades, it was a little bigger than an adult’s hand. They later said this sparked their interest in flight. During the next few years, Wilbur and Orville tried to build these themselves, but the bigger they made them the less well they flew. Somewhat discouraged, the brothers turned to kites.
This information — the anecdote from the Landmark Book and the biographical excerpt from the Internet — also point to another important conclusion: “hands-on” science or education is worthless unless it supports and drives conceptual thinking, unless it is put in a cognitive, theoretical context. Doing “hands on” stuff for the sake of being “hands on” is about as valuable and proper as putting someone to work by digging a hole in the ground and then filling it back in, or as putting up a window and breaking it so you have to make a new one and the window owner has to buy a new one…then declaring you are creating more wealth thereby. “Hands on” stuff should be done for a theoretical purpose: to illustrate an idea, to answer a question, to drive inductive thinking, to tell you which way reality says to go in research/thinking. “Hands on” stuff is good only to aid in (cognitive, theoretical) “system building.” And Susan Wright’s direction and motivation of her childrens’ education (she was college educated) points to a recommendation: I strongly recommend that you seek out experts in a field, whether to take care of your own education or that of your children, or to assist you with ongoing advice and direction in the home education that you do. But make sure the experts are objective and first-hand in their knowledge of a subject — paper credentials don’t cut it…as they didn’t cut it to invent an airplane that turned. It took the Wright Brothers to invent such a plane and the theory behind it; everyone else was stuck blindly believing authority figures’ bad data and bad theory, and thinking it was the application that was wrong, not the theory. They didn’t try to grasp the theory first-hand, nor did they question it even when it did not play out in practice. People can do all the study they want and have all the degrees in the world, but no one can do what Galileo, Newton, or the Wright Brothers did, except for an objective, original, first-hand thinker. I’m not saying don’t homeschool!! I’m not saying don’t help your own children!! I understand the desire to homeschool or study on your own — I learned more on my own than I did in school. I support it and love it. All learning should be first-hand. Having someone show you a map does not mean that you don’t have to drive, see the country, and make decisions yourself. Just do it like Susan Wright in raising her children and the Wright Brothers in their work on the airplane: first-handed, rational, and with a respect for ideas, questions, and reality. Note: It looks like there might be some newer additions to the Landmark Books series; I can’t and won’t vouch for them, as I have not read them. I have read about a dozen of the books of the series which came out in the 50s. I like most of them and they seem honest to me (I’d have to do more research and to consult with some objective historians to know for sure, of course); they do not seem to distort the truth or tell outright lies like some modern works do.

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