We Americans take these institutions for granted. We assume that private enterprise generates what is so casually called “innovation” all by itself. It does not. The Web browser you are using to read this essay was invented at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The code that makes this page possible was invented at a publicly funded academic research center in Switzerland. That search engine you use many times a day, Google, was made possible by a grant from the National Science Foundation to support Stanford University. You didn’t get polio in your youth because of research done in the early 1950s at Case Western Reserve. California wine is better because of the University of California at Davis. Hollywood movies are better because of UCLA. And your milk was not spoiled this morning because of work done at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
These things did not just happen because someone saw a market opportunity and investors and inventors rushed off to meet it. That’s what happens in business-school textbooks. In the real world, we roll along, healthy and strong, in the richest nation in the world because some very wise people decided decades ago to invest in institutions that serve no obvious short-term purpose. The results of the work we do can take decades to matter—if at all. Most of what we do fails. Some succeeds. The system is terribly inefficient. And it’s supposed to be that way.
It’s nice to know that even as accomplished a person as Oprah Winfrey is still open to learning a thing or two. In her interview with actor Neil Patrick Harris and his fiancé David Burtka, which airs tonight, June 3, at 9 p.m. ET/PT on “Oprah’s Next Chapter,” the three of them have this exchange about the gay dads and their 18-month-old twins, Harper and Gideon:
Oprah: Have you all thought about what you are going to tell Harper and Gideon about having two daddies and not two mommies and the first time they come home and say, whoever their friend is, ‘They have a mommy; why don’t I?’
Neil: We’re going to tell them information. I want them to have information. And I think the way that they were brought into this world was very unique and weirdly scientific and the technology involved in it I think is remarkable. But it came because we really, really wanted kids. Like we really had thought it through, financially, emotionally, relationship wise, like we didn’t just accidentally get pregnant and decide that now we need to make this work. These kids come into our world with nothing but love…
Oprah: I just had an a-ha moment that almost made me tear up there just a little bit. You know what, I just realized what you were saying. I had an a-ha moment!
Oprah: Because, same-sex couples, in order to have a child, means you really really really gotta do a lot of work to make that happen.
David and Neil: Oh yeah.
Oprah: So if you are a same-sex couple that has a child it means that child is so loved and so wanted. You just saying that just went bing bing bing! I never thought of it that way before.