Our Amazing Response To Sputnik Made America Richer and Stronger. But Here’s Why It Would Be Almost Impossible To…

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June 4 2012 6:25 AM

Can America Ever Have Another “Sputnik Moment”?

Our amazing response to Sputnik made America richer and stronger. But here’s why it would be almost impossible to duplicate that today.

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The bill allotted $1 billion over the next four years (about $6.5 billion in today’s inflation-adjusted dollars) for 40,000 loans, 40,000 scholarships, and 1,500 graduate fellowships to students in math and science—and several billion more in matching funds to states for new high school courses; supplies; and teachers in math, science, and modern foreign-language instruction.

The law marked the first time (except for the GI Bill, which was by design an extraordinary case) that the federal government subsidized higher education. It passed at a time when the federal budget (which amounted to only $86.1 billion) consisted of very little besides the military ($51.8 billion, or 60 percent), old-age pensions ($8.7 billion, or 10 percent), and agriculture ($5.2 billion, or 6 percent).

Yet the margin of victory for the National Defense Education Act was enormous: 62-26 in the Senate, 212-85 in the House (with both parties voting in favor by solid majorities).


The bill passed so overwhelmingly for a few reasons:

First, it was presented not as a social program but as a national-security program. (The bill’s opening lines made this loud and clear: “the security of the Nation requires … The present emergency demands … The defense of this Nation depends upon …”) President Dwight Eisenhower knew what he was doing here. Two years earlier, he’d prodded Congress into funding the first stretches of the Interstate Highway System by calling it the National Defense Highway Act and selling it as vital for moving troops and tanks across the country in case of a foreign invasion.

Second, there was a consensus—a politically accepted consensus—on the problem and the remedy. On Oct. 15, 1957, 11 days after the Sputnik launch, President Eisenhower met with 14 of the most prominent weapons scientists—including I.I. Rabi, Hans Bethe, James Killian, Edward Land, and Jerome Wiesner—to discuss responses to the crisis. The scientists told him that the big problem wasn’t so much Sputnik but rather the shortage of future American scientists. There needed to be a big boost in American education, and only the federal government could provide that boost.

Three weeks later, on Nov. 6, Eisenhower met with the top officials of the Department of Housing, Education, and Welfare and told them to draft a bill to do just that. (The bill was written mainly by Eliot Richardson, then the assistant secretary of HEW, under the guidance of James Conant, the president of Harvard who was writing a book about the dreadful state of American high schools.)

Third, the bill was presented as part of a broader package of emergency spending measures. Starting in January 1958, Eisenhower held several meetings with congressional leaders on his plan to boost spending on defense, space (NASA was created that year, the first astronauts were selected the year after), and the National Defense Education Act. Even so, the education piece was so radical for its time that Congress pressed Eisenhower to add two clauses: an assurance that the feds would not control state teaching programs; and a requirement that recipients of fellowships sign a loyalty oath, promising not to engage in plots to overthrow the government. Courts would overturn this oath several years later.

So what lessons does the original “Sputnik Moment” hold for the prospect of improving science education today?

First, there has to be a threat that animates the American people. It can be just a perceived threat, but the perception has to be based on something tangible. Second, there should be consensus about how to deal with the threat. Third, this solution should be linked to proposals favored by those who might not be so keen if the solution were offered on its own.