Mention was made in an earlier class about the need for another “Sputnik Moment” – the need for a new push to improve the education of the next generation to meet a growing need; especially a need for scientists and engineers. As one who lived through the original Sputnik moment, I thought I would share some rambling remembrances of an era long gone.
First – don’t hold your breath waiting for a coherent, coordinated effort spear-headed by an all-knowing, well-planning authority. From the adjectives to the nouns, there wasn’t such a thing in 1957, and there certainly isn’t anything like that now. I think we are less able to mount a coordinated effort for anything now than we were then; for any number of reasons, but primarily because we don’t have a worthy adversary now as we did then. We miss the Russians. With no evil empire to fight, we’re reduced to fighting among ourselves. Live by the sword, die by the sword? Furthermore, we are not a nation that believes in central planning – at least not overtly. (Note: kindly ignore examples to the contrary, like “zoning” in highly regulated towns like B’burg. It’s central planning at it’s worst, but we love it because it “protects our property values,” and surely that’s worth sacrificing true freedom for) Sure, we kids were experimented on with new style text-books (used by the same old teachers), getting introduced to some course materials, like calculus, earlier, etc., but I don’t remember any real follow-through. So, I think that if there is going to be any change in the way teaching is done to really change education, it’s more likely to evolve in the trenches, a teacher at a time, then to come from above.
And the mention above of “follow-through” leads into my second thought. If we’re going to try to entice/encourage kids to go into science/engineering/math, what are we offering them as incentives? A better life getting paid well to do necessary work? If a kid wants to go into science because he’s intrigued with it (me), he doesn’t really care about the economic angle. If he doesn’t really care about science and is simply looking for some well paying profession, he will become another bored lawyer or bored doctor, as so many generations have done before. Getting “gooky stuff” on their paws (as Dogbert would say) for years in order to retire young and rich. Why dirty your hands with science or engineering? Working for a major corporation? As soon as they think you cut a penny off their top line, they’ll throw you out like an old rag! The follow-through for me? After years of busting my b in rigorous classes, the central powers that had declared the need for more of me’s decided I was nothing better than cannon fodder for their lastest escapade (at the time) – Vietnam. And, YES, I’M STILL BITTER!
I persevered, but not because of any central, wisely-conceived plan in response to Sputnik – the Sputnik Moment – but because of MY fascination with Sputnik itself, and the dawning of The Space Age. What a time it was!