Again With the Sputnik

In general I think the Obama Administrations’ education polices have been on target both in aims and means, but this paragraph from last night’s State of The Union elides an awful lot:

Half a century ago, when the Soviets beat us into space with the launch of a satellite called Sputnik, we had no idea how we would beat them to the moon.  The science wasn’t even there yet.  NASA didn’t exist.  But after investing in better research and education, we didn’t just surpass the Soviets; we unleashed a wave of innovation that created new industries and millions of new jobs.

Just to be clear, it’s not like Sputnik was launched, and then we got serious as a nation about educating children in math and science, and then those newly well-educated students invented a bunch of cool new stuff that enabled us to put a man on the moon. That’s not what happened. Sputnik was launched in 1957. Apollo 11 landed on the moon in 1969, when most of the students benefitting from new federal math and science funding were still in school.

It’s also a little strange to cite the Sputnik moment as a past triumph to be repeated less than a week after NAEP announced the latest somewhat dismal national learning results in science—or nine paragraphs before saying, in the very same speech, that “the quality of our math and science education lags behind many other nations.” So the Sputnik moment was transformative but it also didn’t work?

Moreover, as Charles Homans recently wrote, the whole space-race narrative has gotten pretty seriously distorted over time:

Eisenhower was concerned about the military implications of the Soviet space program, and Sputnik had genuinely alarmed him. But going to the moon, a venture of dubious strategic value, was another matter; it seemed only marginally relevant to the United States’ influence in the world….

In the last pages of John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon, [author John Logsdon] offers a striking reassessment:

“Forty years later, I find these comments either remarkably optimistic or remarkably naïve, probably both. What was unique about going to the Moon is that it required no major technological innovations and no changes in human behavior, just mastery over nature using the scientific and technological knowledge available in 1961. There are very few, if any, other potential objectives for government action that have these characteristics … [T]he Apollo experience has little to teach us beyond its status as a lasting symbol of a great American achievement.”

A symbol, undoubtedly—but what exactly do we do with it? In a speech in November, Steven Chu, Obama’s forward-thinking energy secretary, invoked the space race in calling for the United States to embrace an ambitious clean energy research and development agenda. China’s rapid advances in manufacturing solar photovoltaics, advanced electric-car batteries, and the like, Chu said, should be a “Sputnik moment”: a frightening wake-up call mobilizing Americans to once again prove their mettle at the barricades of technological progress.

But the United States in 2010 feels like a nation that no longer responds to Sputnik moments. The American exceptionalism that Kennedy nurtured as a goad to accomplishment has become a cocoon. Kennedy once lamented that the Soviets’ primacy in space had left the “psychological feeling in the world that the United States has reached maturity, that maybe our high noon has passed … and that now we are going into the long, slow afternoon.” In retrospect, he had it backward. It is the moon landing, not Sputnik or Gagarin, that haunts us. It is the point from which we measure our descent.

As I’ve said before, it’s a bad idea to premise educational improvement on a heaven-sent machine or analogous events.

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