The Atlantic Monthly recently published a list of The Top 100 most influential Americans. Arguably, many on that list would also make it into a list called “The Top 100 Most Influential People” as well. Indeed, the modern world is defined and shaped by many on that Atlantic Monthly list. It is remarkable how much the world of today (both good and bad) owes to those who were, and are, Americans. In every broad area of human endeavor—science, technology, politics, economics, law, medicine, education, literature, architecture—Americans have made seminal contributions.
My personal sub-list of people from that list whom I particularly admire would include Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison, James Madison, Mark Twain, Thomas Paine, Andrew Carnegie, Walt Whitman, the Wright Brothers, Alexander Graham Bell, John Adams, Albert Einstein (naturalized American), Ralph Waldo Emerson, Jonas Salk, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Robert Oppenheimer (the father of the deadly toy), William James, Henry David Thoreau, James Watson (the discoverer of the double-helix), Frank Lloyd Wright, Thurgood Marshall, and Enrico Fermi.
How many Americans have ever lived? I would estimate that less than a billion Americans have every existed. After all, the nation is just a couple of hundred years old. How did such a small population – relative to the larger global population of humans – ever get to have such a disproportionate influence on the world by producing such a large number of amazing individuals? What is the secret of their success?
I believe that the answer is summed up in one word: FREEDOM. The Americans have enjoyed freedom and upon that fertile ground have grown up mighty oaks. The lesson is simple and striking: if a population enjoys freedom, it naturally produces phenomenally successful, amazingly creative individuals. The freedom to think, the freedom to speak, the freedom to write, the freedom to investigate the natural world, the freedom to act and create, and a large number of other freedoms — these form the environment which allows the human mind and spirit to flourish. America has truly been the home of the free. The country after all was founded on the fundamental urge to be politically and economically free.
I believe any collection of humans can produce the sort of super humans that America has done in its brief history if – and that is a big IF – the collection enjoys freedom.
Americans have created and lived in the land which Rabindranath Tagore prayed for when he wrote “Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high, Where knowledge is free. . .”
India too, I am sure, will produce fearless minds when India becomes free. The challenge is making India free. Will it be in my lifetime?