The Russian Word for Know-How


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October 16, 1957, Vol. II, No. 51

The Lively Arts

By Gilbert Seldes

What is the Russian word for “know-how”?

I am not among those who are ready to junk the whole American system of free enterprise because the Soviet Union launched the first satellite. But I am ready to junk 95 per cent of what we’ve been told about the natural-born innate superiority of the American executive (in business or production) who responds to the only incentive that will ever get things done — which is profit.

The intellectual has beaten the executive. The abstract thinker has beaten the know-nothing man of know-how. It is a situation in which the artist-scientist-philosopher, the butt of sarcasm for generations, can rejoice.

The most damning thing they used to say about F.D.R. was that he never met a payroll in his life. And he had people like Robert E. Sherwood hanging around and helping him write his speeches. Wouldn’t it have been a good idea to have someone of the grace and intelligence of Robert Sherwood compose a message of congratulation ot the launchers of Sputnik?

The men who met payrolls all their lives have been outdistanced.

The amazing thing about the reception of the news of Sputnik (which seems to mean “fellow-traveller”) is that over 90 per cent of the comment on it has been intelligent — even among politicians. The remaining 10 per cent has been official. Nearly everyone has seen in it an end to boasting, a beginning of a revaluation.

There was something more. For a week the newspaper headlines were not about Little Rock or Syria or murder. They were, for the first time in years, about something that could interest the human mind and excite the human heart. There was a kind of freshness, a new excitement in the world.

I suspect that when the excitement has worn off, we will begin to agitate for more and better-trained personnel — physicists and engineers, with only a bow to pure research. We’ll still let our young men with strong inclinations toward science be snatched away from college and university — where they can easily earn a hundred dollars a month — to go into industry, where they can earn $200 a week. College, we know, is a place full of abstract, and probably subversive, thinkers. The world needs men full of the gizzard of know-how.

From official statements I gather we could have done it any time, and I shudder to think of the pinnacle on which know-how would be standing if we had. I also gather that some bottle-necks developed.

It seems to me that there’s a glorious opportunity for trade. We’ll export bottle-necks to the Soviet Union. And they’ll send us the Russian word for know-how.

It will probably be unpronounceable. But as our word is now obsolete, we’ll have to learn.

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