Sphere of Influence

Sputnik's lingering effects.


Was SPUTNIK, that beeping little beachball-sized sphere that so surprised the West in 1957, really "the shock of the century"? That might be a bit much, despite the subtitle hype of Paul Dickson's recent cultural history, Sputnik: The Shock of the Century (Walker & Co.). But a huge shock it surely was, and it's instructive, here in a quite different world—one still reverberating from the collapse of the World Trade Center towers—to recall both Sputnik's shock and Sputnik's consequences. They have something to teach us about the cultural reaction to catastrophe.

How big a deal was Sputnik? Pretty big. You remember how Orson Welles dies in the opening scene of Citizen Kane? How a snow globe drops from his hand as he sighs the famously confessional "Rosebud"? Well, when the last of the early baby boomers goes, it won't be surprising if he or she too sighs a revealing last recognition of childhood's end. Not "Beatles." Not "'Nam." Not "Dealey Plaza."

"Sputnik." It mobilized boomers' minds and imaginations for political ends.

When the Soviets launched the first man-made satellite in October 1957—ahead of America's planned Vanguard—it didn't actually do anything but fly and emit its beeping signals. It couldn't see or hear anything. It wasn't a military threat. But just being up there, circling over everybody's head all day long (and at certain times visible to the naked Western eye), was enough to have major consequences. The first such consequence was to lend credibility to the Soviets as more than a potential military or political threat. Sputnik gave them scientific credibility; it gave them a potential role in the future and thus made that future much more threatening (even assuming no nuclear exchanges) than it had seemed.

The other consequence had to do with the West's idea of itself. Sputnik turned the West into a community of guilt-ridden flagellants in much the way the Black Plague had affected medieval Europeans. What Sputnik demonstrated, supposedly, was that we were a soft, sinful, and stupid people. Dickson quotes a historian's jeremiad from 1962, charging that Americans "had been experiencing the world crisis from soft seats of comfort, debauched by [the] mass media…pandering for selfish profit to the lowest level of our easy appetites, fed full of toys and gewgaws, our power, our manpower softened in will and body in a climate of amusement."

We needed toughening in mind and spirit, such prophets raged. But what we needed most were more scientists. Rocket man (and ex-Nazi) Wernher von Braun called for a new kind of warrior, one armed with a slide rule. Enter the 1958 National Defense Education Act (NDEA), whose goal was to bring "American education to levels consistent with the needs of our society." Or, more plainly, to reshape American students to futures consistent with the national political agenda.

Sputnik found American education in a debate over ends. Many educators were calling for a return to memorization, drill, and "basics." The satellite redirected that debate; in its wake, American schooling was to be about thinking "creatively," especially about science. That meant hastily assembling courses about the "New Math," courses that teachers themselves often didn't understand. It meant taking the brightest students and tracking them through advanced classes, almost always science classes.

This was a civic revolution. Pre-war American schools don't deserve romanticizing; they turned out plenty of ill-educated graduates and served many minority and poor students very badly. But they had a hidden virtue: They made few decisions about their (middle-class male) students that had lifelong consequences. This was in marked contrast to most of the world's miserable schools, which limited students' lives almost from the beginning by deciding what kind of life to prepare them for. The American approach didn't guarantee anything, but it removed an impediment that hobbled everyone else. The NDEA, in contrast, was an experiment in creating citizens the state wanted.

It didn't last long enough to succeed or fail. The U.S. space program soon asserted itself; the Soviets are gone. School tracking systems were assailed as elitist; educators are again arguing over ends.

Not that Sputnik didn't leave its mark. Indirectly, the Internet is one. A permanent federal role in education is another. So is the template of federal rescue in the shadow of threat. And so are the fading memories of those one-time students who were made to trade their Slinkys for slide rules and who were taught, briefly, citizenship in set theory.