American Portraits

It is a Fact Man Can’t Fly: The Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk and Diligence

In this lesson, students will learn from the example of the Wright brothers about how they can act diligently.

Founding Principles

Individual Responsibility image

Individual Responsibility

Individuals must take care of themselves and their families and be vigilant to preserve their liberty.


In the late summer of 1896 in Dayton, Ohio, twenty-five-year-old Orville Wright lay prostrate on his bed recovering from deadly typhoid fever. His brother, Wilbur Wright, was reading accounts out loud of a German glider enthusiast named Otto Lilienthal who had crashed and was killed while flying. The two started reading several books about bird flight and even discussing the possibility of powered human flight….

Narrative PDF

Compelling Question

How can diligence help you to achieve your goals?

Virtue Defined

Diligence is intrinsic energy for completing good work.

Lesson Overview

In this lesson, students will learn from the example of the Wright brothers about how they can act diligently.


  • Students will evaluate the Wright brothers’ diligent actions.
  • Students will understand ways in which they can act diligently.
  • Students will apply their knowledge of diligence to their own lives.


The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were a time of great innovation and invention in America. Some of the most famous inventors were Thomas Alva Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, and Henry Ford, who all helped modernize American industry and life. They also sparked revolutions in communication, business, industry, and travel.

Wilbur and Orville Wright of Dayton, Ohio, were two mechanically-inclined individuals who enjoyed tinkering and owned a printing press and a bicycle shop. Inspired by the belief that humans could fly, they diligently pursued the invention of powered human flight. They were not the only ones. French-born Octave Chanute built a bi-plane glider and had discussions about powered flight with the Wright brothers. The head of the Smithsonian Institution, Samuel Pierpoint Langley, received a $50,000 grant from the War Department, but his airplanes flopped into the water when they were launched from barges on the Potomac River.

Due to intensive study and a persevering attitude, the Wright Brothers solved the problems and were the first humans to fly an airplane.


  • Tinkering
  • Bi-plane
  • Prostrate
  • Typhoid
  • Zeppelins
  • Naysayers
  • Pessimistically
  • Zeal
  • Voraciously
  • Exhilarated

Introduce Text

Have students read the background and narrative, keeping the Compelling Question in mind as they read. Then have them answer the remaining questions below.

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Walk-In-The-Shoes Questions
As you read, imagine you are the protagonist.

  • What challenges are you facing?
  • What fears or concerns might you have?
  • What may prevent you from acting in the way you ought?

Observation Questions

  • Who were Orville and Wilbur Wright?
  • What was the Wright brothers’ purpose? Why was it significant?
  • Why did the Wright brothers work so diligently to become the first people to fly?

Discussion Questions
Discuss the following questions with your students.

  • What is the historical context of the narrative?
  • What historical circumstances presented a challenge to the protagonist?
  • How and why did the individual exhibit a moral and/or civic virtue in facing and overcoming the challenge?
  • How did the exercise of the virtue benefit civil society?
  • How might exercise of the virtue benefit the protagonist?
  • What might the exercise of the virtue cost the protagonist?
  • Would you react the same under similar circumstances? Why or why not?
  • How can you act similarly in your own life? What obstacles must you overcome in order to do so?

Additional Resources

  • Bilstein, Roger E. Flight in America: From the Wrights to the Astronauts. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984.
  • Crouch, Tom D. The Bishop’s Boys: A Life of Wilbur and Orville Wright. New York: W.W. Norton, 19989.
  • McCullough, David. The Wright Brothers. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2015.
  • Tobin, James. To Conquer the Air: The Wright Brothers and the Great Race for Flight. New York: Free Press, 2003.

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