How the National Defense Education Enlisted Children to Fight the Cold War
October 4, 1957. Radio transmitters began picking up a high-pitched sound from space. The Soviet Union had just launched the world’s first artificial satellite. Even though Sputnik did nothing but beep, many Americans feared that our cold-war enemy would soon be dropping bombs and spying on us from space. Congress declared that America had fallen behind in the space race because the nation’s children were weak in math and science. Without verifying this assertion, they passed the National Defense Education Act of 1958. As chief rocket engineer Wernher von Braun put it, the new soldier would carry a slide rule instead of a gun.
The $9 billion legislation (more than $75 trillion today) gave money to schools for the development of courses and facilities that would prepare students to go to college to study math, science, and engineering. Within the year, schools had remodeled labs and revamped curriculum.
The drive for military and technological superiority eventually paid off. But the focus on preparing students to college to study math, science and engineering widened the gap between rich and poor and denigrated the importance of the arts and humanities and anyone who studied them. Schools also shortchanged average students to begin what would become the erosion of what was once America’s great middle class.
Even as Americans won the space race by walking on the moon, the vision of the American education system had grown so narrow that officials were unprepared to meet the challenges of the cultural revolution of the sixties.
A Short History of Modern Education Reform
1958: National Defense Education Act
1960s: Mini Classes and Modular Scheduling
1970s: The Open Classroom
1980s: Back to the Basics
1983: A Nation at Risk
1990s: Testing Culminates in the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001
“The only winner in the War of 1812 was Tchaikovsky.” —Solomon Short