Monday morning I asked my husband, whom I've always thought of as a relatively cultured and informed person, the following question:
"Who is Robert N. Noyce?"
"Who?" he said.
"Robert N. Noyce."
"Spell it," he said. I don't know if he was buying time with that one or not, but it didn't work. I spelled it and he still didn't know who Robert Noyce was. Nor, truth to tell, did I until a moment before I asked the question.
Robert N. Noyce, according to the Page 1 item I had just read referring to his obituary, was "a physicist and engineer who helped transform the 20th century as a co-inventor of the semiconductor chip."
The obituary said that Noyce, 62, died Sunday in Austin, Tex., after a heart attack. It said: "Mr. Noyce's invention of the integrated circuit made it possible to store a wealth of electronic capabilities and whole libraries of data on a speck of material, paving the way for the marvels of the modern information age and giving rise to a computerized world.
"As a creator of California's Silicon Valley, he was at the forefront of one of the nation's great surges of industrial development. He played a pivotal role in putting the computer in the nation's homes and pockets, and in making possible enormous technological advances in science, medicine and everyday life.
"Despite the scope and influence of his achievements, despite his talents and capabilities and the huge financial rewards he reaped, he lived a life of relative obscurity, with his name all but unknown to the public."
That, I submit, is a shame. Noyce was the kind of person that American young people ought to know about and be able to look up to. He was a hugely successful inventor who had a direct impact on the way people live. He sang madrigals and flew seaplanes. He had one of the most marvelous qualities that young people can ever have: an early and keen curiosity about how things work. That is the essence of learning.
The concept of role models figures prominently in our national conversation these days. We are shocked and angered when the mayor of the nation's capital gets charged with possession of cocaine -- in part because he had a wonderful chance to be a role model for the young people and he blew it. We are aghast when four members of the local hockey team are accused of raping a 17-year-old. And, again, we wonder what kind of role models they are for boys.
One correspondent put it bluntly: "I try not to have my son see sports figures as role models," she wrote. "So many of them are people of poor moral value, and often feel they are above the law."
Professional sports leagues have cracked down on drug use among athletes, in part because they realize young people look up to them and are awed by the money they make. Athletes make fortunes by endorsing products because advertisers believe young people look up to them. Sports is big business and athletes, whose exploits are extolled daily on television and in print, have emerged as the preeminent group of heroes for America's young people.
Do we really want an entire generation of boys growing up unable to get from one end of a sentence to the other without saying, "Y'know?"
Do we want a generation of boys growing up believing that making a three-pointer is the hardest thing in life? That Michael Jordan, certainly the most powerful offensive player in basketball, is the ultimate role model this country can produce?
What about Robert N. Noyce?
We do not have a shortage of heroes or role models. What we have is a real dearth of enterprise -- and the media are as much to blame for this as anyone else. We write about sports figures and movie stars because it is easy. The leaders of industry who are well-known enough to be role models are flamboyant self-promoters such as Lee Iacocca and Ted Turner. Or Donald Trump -- who needs his own role model these days. They are easy to write about, in part because they are accessible and they have publicists. It is much easier to explain to readers what they do than it would be to explain what Noyce did.
But what about our scientists and our inventors? Or the builders who create jobs and housing without ravaging the environment? Or the people who are making fortunes developing alternate sources of fuel or new ways to dispose of waste? There are wonderful, creative minds laboring in obscurity, trying to find out how things work and trying to make things work better. There are men and women unlocking the secrets of the universe -- but they might as well be doing it in secret for the attention they are paid outside of their field.
There are a lot of role models for young people. But we need to do a much better job of letting them know who they are.