Opinion
International Commentary

The Sputnik Effect

By Gerald W. Bracey — October 02, 2007 6 min read

On the evening of Oct. 4, 1957, at a party at the Soviet Embassy in Washington, Russian and American scientists celebrated what was considered to be “the greatest scientific research program ever undertaken,” the International Geophysical Year. As part of the IGY, both the Soviet Union and the United States were expected to orbit space vehicles. Everyone anticipated that the United States would do it first, and its Vanguard program called for orbital liftoff in November 1957. At about 6 p.m., word came that a Soviet R-7 rocket had pushed a satellite, Sputnik, into orbit.

According to journalist Paul Dickson, the author of Sputnik: The Shock of the Century, “The scientists and engineers assembled at the embassy party were thrilled. Cheers rang out. Within minutes, one of the most impenetrable buildings in Washington was putting out the welcome mat to reporters. …Vodka flowed.”

President Eisenhower was pleased. He wanted a system of spy satellites to monitor Soviet military activity and forewarn of a surprise attack. But overflights of a sovereign nation were forbidden, and no precedent existed that declared deep space to be international. Sputnik established that precedent. “We were certain,” Eisenhower wrote later, “that we could get a great deal more information of all kinds out of the free use of space than they could.”

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Not everyone was happy. Comparisons to Pearl Harbor abounded. “Soon they’ll be dropping bombs on us the way schoolboys drop rocks from freeway overpasses,” said the Senate majority leader, Lyndon B. Johnson. As Tom Wolfe put it later in The Right Stuff, “Control of the very heavens was at stake.”

Nazi Germany’s rocket genius Wernher von Braun, now the lead scientist of America’s Army Ballistic Missile Agency, was furious. At the time of Sputnik’s launch, the U.S. secretary of defense-designate, Neil McElroy, was touring von Braun’s operation in Huntsville, Ala. Von Braun, usually cool and politically savvy, lost it: “We knew they were going to do it!” he yelled at McElroy. “Vanguard will never make it. We have the hardware on the shelf. For God’s sake, turn us loose and let us do something!”

Von Braun did have the hardware on the shelf. On Sept. 20, 1956, more than a year before Sputnik, his group had launched a four-stage Jupiter-C rocket from Cape Canaveral, Fla. The first three stages attained a speed of 13,000 miles an hour, a height of 862 miles, and a distance down range of 3,550 miles. The fourth stage could have easily slipped a satellite into orbit. But the fourth stage was filled with sand.

As the means to establish deep space as open, the Jupiter-C carried extra baggage: It was developed from, and looked a lot like, von Braun’s infamous V-2, the supersonic, explosives-carrying rocket that had terrified England in the late stages of World War II. The Jupiter-C, part of the U.S. Army’s intercontinental-ballistic-missile program, was obviously first and foremost a weapon. Vanguard’s smaller rockets and smaller payloads would be seen as instruments of research, and hence had the green light to orbit first. But the Vanguard program would not see success until the spring of 1958, and its post-Sputnik failures generated headlines like “Dudnik,” “Flopnik,” and “Kaputnik.”

How could a technologically backward country like Russia beat the acknowledged world leader into space? Did they have spies? Maybe. Some speculated that our hyper-materialism had left us more interested in developing color television and the princess phone than space-conquering vehicles. Such theories quickly disappeared in favor of another: The Russians beat us into space because they had better schools.

In late 1956, U.S. News & World Report had run an interview with historian Arthur Bestor, the author of Educational Wastelands: The Retreat From Learning in Our Public Schools, under the headline, “We Are Less Educated Now Than 50 Years Ago.” Shortly after Sputnik, the magazine brought him back to explain “What Went Wrong With U.S. Schools.” Mostly, he surmised, the fault rested with the misguided spinoff from progressive education known as “life-adjustment education.” “In the light of Sputnik,” said Bestor, “ ‘life-adjustment education’ turns out to have been perilously close to ‘death adjustment’ for our nation and our children.” Life-adjustment education wastes time on trivialities. “That’s why the first satellite bears the label, ‘Made in Russia.’ ”

The schools never recovered from Sputnik. Sputnik wounded their reputation and, as the scab formed, something else always came along to reopen the lesion.

This was absurd. Life-adjustment education was invented in 1945. A 9th grader in 1945 would have been, at most, two years out of engineering school in 1957, hardly of an age to lead rocket development. Von Braun, a unique prodigy involved in rocketry since he was 17, was 45 years old.

Still, pictorial proof of Russian student supremacy arrived in March 1958, in the form of a five-part series in Life magazine. The cover of the first installment read “Crisis in Education,” in red letters on a black background. In photographs, a stern-faced Alexei Kutzkov looked at the reader from Moscow, while easy-smiling Stephen Lapekas gazed out from Chicago. Inside photos showed Alexei doing complicated experiments in physics and chemistry and reading aloud from Sister Carrie. Under pictures of teachers, the text informed the reader that they taught Alexei material considered too complicated for American high schools, organic chemistry and the mathematical theory of inequalities.

Stephen, by contrast, retreated from a geometry problem on the blackboard and the caption advised, “Stephen amused the class with wisecracks about his ineptitude.” Seated at a typewriter in typing class, Stephen tells us, “I type about one word a minute.”

Where out-of-school pictures show Alexei in front of a bust of the Russian composer Mikhail Glinka at a concert and reading from a Russian-English phrase book on the subway en route to a science museum, Stephen is seen walking his girlfriend to school and dancing in rehearsal for the school musical.

The schools never recovered from Sputnik. Sputnik wounded their reputation and, as the scab formed, something else always came along to reopen the lesion: In the 1960s, schools were blamed for the urban riots (but were not credited for putting a man on the moon). In the 1970s, they were seen as “grim and joyless,” Charles Silberman’s characterization in Crisis in the Classroom. In the 1980s, A Nation at Risk blamed them for allowing the Germans, the South Koreans, and the Japanese to race ahead of us competitively (yet did not credit them for the longest sustained economic expansion in the nation’s history).

And today? “Tough Choices or Tough Times,” the report of the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, warns of oncoming economic disaster. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce report “Leaders and Laggards”? Ditto. And the philanthropists Eli Broad and Bill Gates have ponied up $60 million to “wake up the American people” to the dangerous state of U.S. schooling. (Broad is 73 years old. Has he been asleep all this time?)

So far, the billionaire hedge-fund investors have been taking the heat for today’s subprime-mortgage debacle. But if that catastrophe ripples through the economy and produces a true recession, don’t be surprised to see it being laid at the feet of Horace Mann and John Dewey.

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