Lou Galambos, professor of economic history and one of the senior owls at Johns Hopkins University, raises the ghost of his grandfather Lazlo in his new book, "The Creative Society," an admiring survey of the American professional class — the lawyers, scientists, doctors, business managers, teachers and others who made considerable contributions to the nation's power, prosperity and health between 1890 and 2010.
It was the professional class that evolved throughout the 20th century to drive the U.S. economy and shape our society, Mr. Galambos writes, "and it's time we look at their contributions from the ground-up."
But the ground-up for this story was Ellis Island. It was Locust Point. It was any of the ports of entry for the immigrants who poured into the country during the time of Mr. Galambos' survey.
No surprise, then, that he pays tribute in his book to his immigrant forebears. Grandpa Lazlo came from Hungary and settled in Toledo, Ohio, where he became employed in the metalworking industry. Aunt Geraldine rose to "professional" status by attending a normal school and becoming a small-town teacher. Mr. Galambos' father, Lou, started out as a welder, then became a "mining engineer" by printing that title on a business card; in those days, Mr. Galambos notes with amusement, it was possible to "professionalize" oneself by doing that.
Education created new paths. Mr. Galambos went to college, receiving his bachelor's degree from Indiana University in 1955 and a master's degree and Ph.D from Yale by 1960.
Mr. Galambos included his family's story to illustrate a point about the evolution of the professional class — that it took three generations, sometimes four, for a member of an immigrant family to hit that status.
With advances in public education, the climb to professional status has become much faster, and I became immersed in this reality for a few hours on Sunday. I looked straight into the face of New America — 44 of the nation's brightest high school students assembled at the University of Maryland School of Medicine for a neuroscience competition, with many of their parents speaking foreign languages or English with thick accents.
It was the fifth Annual U.S. National Brain Bee, founded by Norbert Myslinski, a neuroscientist based at the medical school. The idea of the competition is to inspire teenagers to consider careers in brain science and in the research that could lead to better treatments or cures for hundreds of neurological disorders.
The students I met on Sunday were from all over the country, and the first three I encountered had been born outside the United States: Katherine Silva, from the Greater Hartford Academy of Math and Science in Connecticut, came from Mexico; Kevin Byun, a senior at Maclay High School in Tallahassee, Fla., was from South Korea; the family of Kathleen Carino, who's enrolled in the allied health and program at Eastern Technical High School in Baltimore County, came from the Philippines. I spoke with or observed kids named Radakrishnan, Wang, Ji and Parvathala. They all expressed interest in careers in science.
As I watched them being challenged to identify various parts of the brain in the cadaver lab at the medical school, it occurred to me that just about all of these boys and girls were headed for the nation's professional class — and with remarkable speed.
Some had come to the United States as children with their parents; some were born here to immigrant parents. That's a much faster transition to the professional class than Lou Galambos and many of the baby boom generation experienced, and it's a great thing for the country — assuming, of course, that all these future scientists stay here.
The Dream Act occurred to me as I was watching the National Brain Bee.
I'm not saying it was the case with any of the students in the competition — I don't know, and, frankly, I do not care — but, as we know, some children are brought to this country by parents who jump a fence. Their parents enroll them in our schools, and we educate them. The Dream Act was passed to allow those children to be eligible for the in-state tuition discounts at our colleges; the idea is to help them continue their education and to stay on the fast-track to become members of the professional class and contribute to the country. And what a great idea that is, now and always.
Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of the Midday show on WYPR-FM. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.