The Risks of a "Sputnik moment"

Monday, August 13, 2012
Soviet Union’s launch of the first Sputnik satellite in 1957 stamp

A task force sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations wants curriculum standards to be treated as a matter of national security—with an emphasis on science, civics, foreign languages, technology, creativity, and problem solving in American schools. Its report urges the Defense Department to evaluate and review new national curriculum standards and seeks to inaugurate an annual Education Department audit of K–12 public education by Defense, the State Department, and intelligence agencies.

This proposal sounds like an ambitious rerun of the federal foray into K–12 education sparked by the 1957 launch of Sputnik. This launch of the first satellite to orbit the Earth was a coup for the Soviet Union, a Communist country and America’s principal international rival in the Cold War. The news brought about what historian and renowned textbook writer Thomas A. Bailey called “a psychological Pearl Harbor” for U.S. officials and the American public. Among other reactions, Sputnik led Congress to pass the 1958 National Defense Education Act, which funded programs in math, science, and foreign languages thought to be useful for the Cold War.

But such activity did not go unchallenged. Conservatives and libertarians who were strict constructionists complained that when the federal government used conditional grants-in-aid to promote physics and like subjects, federal authorities were determining the makeup and content of the curriculum. These conservatives and libertarians argued that the control of curriculum content was the most complete, most thoroughgoing sort of control of education, and hence the least desirable sort of control for the federal government to have.

Many conservatives and libertarians—then and now—doubt that the federal government should have such an extensive say in the K–12 curriculum in civilian schools in the name of providing for the “common defense.” They believe such a notion is overbroad and constitutionally dubious. If the federal government can sponsor K–12 curriculum in the name of providing for defense, these critics say, it can do anything in the name of defense, and we no longer have a federal government of limited powers. Moreover, such federally directed programs may provoke the kind of opposition that leads to their own undoing.


Thanks to concerns aroused by the Cold War and the Sputnik panic, many exemplary, federally funded K–12 curricula came into being in the early 1960s, especially in math and science but eventually in the social sciences as well. Although creating a new national curriculum and putting it in place was subsidized with federal money, the curriculum was said to be “voluntary”—rhetorical terminology still misleadingly used today by proponents of a national curriculum.

Critics in the 1960s charged that the federally sponsored reform was not voluntary but coercive, because adoption of these curricula led to eligibility for other federal grants and contracts. Districts sometimes adopted them, in historian Jon Schaffarzick’s words, “for fear of losing other federal support.” Requiring the adoption of a national curriculum to compete for grants was a strategy later used by the Clinton administration in the 1990s and the Obama administration today.

While this post-Sputnik national curriculum left a residue of influence in future state and local curricula, it is mostly remembered as an example of federal overreach and the cause of much local dissent. The “new math” curriculum (characterized by set theory, working with numbers in bases other than 10, and formalism) was satirized, for instance, for its complexity and difficulty by mathematician and singing comedian Tom Lehrer. Historian Diane Ravitch noted that for a while every textbook series (because of fashion and federal incentives) adhered to the new math, even as teachers “complained that it was too difficult to teach,” mathematicians “found it too abstract,” and parents found it too different from the math they were familiar with.

The federally funded social-studies curriculum that appeared in middle schools in the 1960s produced a hostile reaction in Congress, in part because the National Science Foundation’s efforts to create, support, and publicize it were seen as crowding out noncompliant private publishers and imposing a uniform curriculum across the country. Newspaper columnist James J. Kilpatrick wrote at the time that “once the notion is accepted” that government has legitimate authority “to commission and to subsidize” textbooks in history and social studies, America will have moved “a significant step down the road to 1984”—this at a time when the Orwellian date was still in the future.

The post-Sputnik national curriculum, before it fell back to Earth, is mostly remembered for its federal overreach and the local dissent it provoked.

When that social-studies curriculum was imposed in West Virginia, it provoked many people to rise in rebellion, in part because it taught cultural relativism. Course developer Jerome Bruner acknowledged that children were supposed to come to certain conclusions about social-studies topics through a process of manipulation by the curriculum materials and their teacher—an engineering of supposed “discovery” by the children in a “context of problem solving,” to use Bruner’s own jargon.


Over the next few years, these increasingly unpopular programs faded from the scene. As George Weber of the Council for Basic Education wrote afterward, considering that these innovative national math and social-studies curricula “not only didn’t deliver what was promised” but may well have “left us worse off than we were before,” the public naturally tended to think, “We’ve been conned.”

Soviet Union’s launch of the first Sputnik satellite in 1957 stamp
The Soviet Union’s launch of the first Sputnik satellite in 1957 was the proverbial shot heard round the world. U.S. political and educational leaders plunged into a science- and math-intensive curriculum designed to help American students catch up to and exceed their Soviet rivals. Ultimately, many of the curriculum innovations—particularly the mocked “new math”—fell by the wayside.

This attempt to erect a national curriculum in the name of national security probably contributed to the later skepticism about a federal role in curriculum. The experience of the 1950s and 1960s definitely led to the prohibition of such efforts in federal statutes—prohibitions that the Obama administration has violated in recent years by endorsing national curriculum standards and funding national tests, national curriculum frameworks, and related teaching materials and lesson plans.

What can we learn from what was tried in the name of national security several decades ago? What will be the outcome of the current efforts toward national curricula in English and math, supported by the Obama administration? What should we think about the latest effort to urge national curriculum standards in science, civics, foreign languages, technology, creativity, and problem solving?

One lesson is that a federally supported curriculum, once in place, is likely to be controversial. Federal education programs that look mighty and inevitable can collapse quickly and largely disappear in a few years. We can take note that even at the height of the Cold War, rhetoric about education and national security could not spin straw into gold.

We are living in the Obama era of federal overreach, and we have yet to see how influential these current efforts at federal direction of the K–12 curriculum might be. But history teaches that what looks like a federal educational juggernaut today could crumble tomorrow.