"A child's learning is the funtion more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Monday, September 28, 2009

The Truth About Sputnik and Lies about American Schools

In 1957 when the Soviets launched their Sputnik I ahead of American efforts to orbit a satellite, educational traditionalists and anti-progressives like Prof. Arthur Bestor and Admiral Hyman Rickover ramped up their ongoing campaign of fear-mongering propaganda that was further exploited by a "ruthless media frenzy" aimed at demonizing American public schools as responsible for the U. S. losing the initial heat of the space race. I was almost 8 years old at the time, and I remember the Five O'Clock Hop (remember the bop, anyone?) being interrupted on TV with a news flash, urging citizens to go outside and see the tangible symbol of the Red Menace go beeping and blinking overhead. Americans were terrified, and education changed overnight, with math, science, and engineering majors replacing the humanities and the arts for millions of American students.

Tomorrow night PBS's NOVA will air Sputnik Declassified, which tells the story of how the U. S. could have beaten the Soviets into space, had it not been for military spy priorities that wanted the Soviets to, indeed, be first, thus establishing a precedent for our planned spy satellites that were very soon to map every Soviet ICBM launch site without fanfare or public pronouncement. So while the media frothed at the mouth and bop generation's back-to-basics chain gang school advocates whipped up new levels of frenzy and fear, Eisenhower's rocket men knew that they could have beaten the Soviets into space by a whole year. See the 7:46 clip here:

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Since Sputnik, the cons and the neo-cons have repeatedly used the same tactic to drive school reform further and further backwards. Reagan exploited fear of the Japanese economic engine, now sputtering, and Bush used fear of Chinese and Indian educational and technological gains. Meanwhile, the real advantages that Americans have always had, which include an understanding of living free and creative lives capable of solving problems and introducing innovation, is put at risk by antiquarian reforms that push us further and further behind the curve in solving real world problems that cannot wait for some future generation to deal with, once the dunces and Duncans in charge have been shown to be prostituted fools they are. For the climate problem, it is up to this generation. Period.

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