What did our students learn during this holiday break between college semesters? Once finals were over, many probably went to see a movie or took a trip with their family. What did they discover about this rich nation that will give them so many chances to succeed in life?
If they saw The Wolf of Wall Street they learned that businesspeople love cocaine, have orgies on airplanes, and use of the f-word excessively. In fact, Scorsese’s new film now holds the record for the most the f-bombs dropped in any American film. If they saw Saving Mr. Banks they learned that Walt Disney was not just Chief Executive Officer but Chief Therapeutic Officer as well. Businesspeople, in the Hollywood imagination, are either sinister and greedy or something other than a businessperson – an eccentric, an inventor, or a therapist. If you own a business, serving customers isn’t what makes you good, and it may make you bad—like the corrupt businesspeople in The Wolf of Wall Street.
If these same students traveled across America, perhaps they drove through the Lincoln Tunnel, across the Washington Bridge, or on the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System. The people they saw our nation memorialize were invariably the politicians who spent the money generated by the entrepreneurs who built the cars the students drove or the restaurants in which they ate. Where, then, are the monuments to American entrepreneurs?
Students everywhere seem to be ignorant of American business. “Who was America’s first billionaire?” “Who was the founder of Wal-Mart?” “What phrase do the letters IBM represent?” We asked these and other questions on American business to hundreds of college students in 2005 and again in 2013. Both of our schools, Baylor University and Hillsdale College, are sympathetic to free market ideas. Yet the students’ ignorance of American business was astonishing.
Most students thought Bill Gates, not John D. Rockefeller, was our nation’s first billionaire. More students correctly identified Sacagawea, Lewis and Clark’s female Shoshone guide, than either Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen or Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak. More students knew the capitol of North Dakota (Bismarck) than the name of Walt Disney’s first full-length, animated feature film (Snow White and the Seven Dwarves). Far more students knew that EPA stood for “Environmental Protection Agency” than knew that IBM stood for “International Business Machines” or that AT&T stood for “American Telephone & Telegraph” Furthermore, the EPA recognition score increased almost 5% between 2005 and 2013.
Such ignorance should not surprise us. Students cannot advance beyond the teaching they receive. If they are taught in the textbooks that Rockefeller was a “robber baron”; if they see movies depicting businessmen unfavorably; and if they see adulation given and monuments erected not to entrepreneurs, but to politicians who spend the money the entrepreneurs earn, then this country is in trouble in future generations.
We need to teach and honor those men and women whose ideas and inventions made America prosper. They took the risks that created the jobs that brought millions of immigrants to America, and they provide many of the job offers our students will consider after they graduate. Certainly our politicians and reform leaders deserve recognition, but if they completely crowd out our major entrepreneurs, then we are telling students that the way to success is to spend other people’s money, not make some of your own. To some extent we teach that to college students already when we help millions of them go through school on federal Pell Grants, named after the Rhode Island senator.
Ignorance of our entrepreneurs is not bliss. John D. Rockefeller was so innovative that his Standard Oil Company refined about two-thirds of all oil sold in the whole world in 1890. Yet in Cleveland, the place where he established American dominance, we have no highway or stellar monument to the man; what we have instead is the NASA Glenn Research Center, named after the senator and astronaut. In Kentucky, you can travel to Lake Barkley, named after the Vice-President, on the Wendell Ford West Kentucky Parkway, named after the long-time Senator, but you can’t find any public monument along the way to Colonel Harlan Sanders, who founded Kentucky Fried Chicken.
If, during the 21st century, Americans become too fat and lethargic to produce the energy, ideas, and inventions to keep our economy strong, we will probably blame not ourselves for ignoring business history, but McDonald’s.
Blaine McCormick is a professor of business at Baylor University. Burton Folsom, Jr. is professor of history at Hillsdale College and co-author, with Anita Folsom, of FDR Goes to War (Simon & Schuster, 2011).