Established in 1982 at LaGuardia Community College/ CUNY with a mission to collect, preserve, and make available primary materials documenting the social and political history of New York City. We hold nearly 5,000 cubic feet of archival records and 3,200 reels of microfilm with almost 100,000 photographs and 2,000,000 documents available on our website.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Sputnik and the Role of Science, Math and Technology in American Education

Here's a link to our work on the history of science, 
technology, engineering and math in America
On October 4, 1957 the Soviet Union set a new trajectory for education in America.  Before the launch of Sputnik (the first satellite ever to achieve Earth orbit), American education had been a local matter, focused on community and citizenship.  After Sputnik, the security and future of democracy seemed to hinge instead on winning a global battle with communism for domination of the world. As Marion B. Folsom, Secretary of HEW put it in his speech to the AFL/CIO two months after the Sputnik launch, “Whether we like it or not…[o]ne of the fundamental facts of our times is that America is a leader among the forces of freedom against the forces of tyranny in a contest which extends around the world.  And education will play a crucial role in determining which system triumphs in the end.”

On this anniversary of the Sputnik launch, let’s take a look together at three documents from our collection to examine the historical shift in American education at the Sputnik moment, and perhaps also for how we might think about science, math and technology in American education today. 

(1) A November 11, 1957 press statement announcing therelease of “Education in the USSR,” a study completed by the Department of Health Education and Welfare (HEW) shortly after the Sputnik launch;

(2) “The Challenge in Education,” a speech by Marion B. Folsom, Secretary of HEW, to the AFL/CIO on December 5, 1957; and
(3) “Education and Industry,” a speech to the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce by John A. Perkins, Under-Secretary of HEW on October 10, 1957.

The Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) released “Education in the USSR” a month after the Sputnik launch.  They had been working on it for two years. 
The report told Americans that in the Soviet Republic, “more than half of the primary-secondary curriculum is made up of courses in the physical and natural sciences, mathematics through trigonometry, and mechanical drawing.”  High school graduates in Russia had taken 5 years of Physics, 4 years of Chemistry, 5 years of Biology, and 10 years of Math, while less than 1/3 of Americans had taken even one year of Chemistry.  At "Soviet semi-professional and higher educational institutions,” 70 percent of the degrees granted were in “scientific and technological fields.”  On October 6 that might have been interesting to a few policy wonks and interest groups.  Sputnik made it palpably frightening to the American public. Folsom’s solution sounds familiar even today: “We must teach more and better science in our schools and colleges.”
Bronx High School of Science moves into 
its new modern facility in 1959

The fear, and the link between education and global power rooted in the Sputnik moment remains potent today as well, despite the end of the Cold War.  Ever since Sputnik, America has worried about the security of its global leadership. The education system, particularly in science and math, became the focus of national fears of losing the competition for global dominance.  In the 1950s, Folsom put it this way: “It is clear that the enemies of freedom are increasingly using education as a means toward their proclaimed goal of world domination.”  Today, in the 21st century, we talk instead about losing economic competitiveness to Asian powers as the OECD ranks Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan as the leaders in Math and Science education, with the US at 28th.

Today’s debate over the role of the federal government in education stems from the Sputnik moment as well.  Sputnik crystalized education policy as a national issue.  States and localities, the traditional locus of educational policy and operation in America could not counter the USSR alone.  The Federal Government would have to take on a different and greater role, even as officials reiterated the primacy of local control.  Before Sputnik, the federal government had very little involvement in education, limiting its role to arms-length support for agricultural and mechanical schools.  Less than a year after Sputnik, Congress rushed through the National Defense Education Act to meet “the present emergency,” providing funding to support “education in science, mathematics, or modern foreign language” for both college-level students and primary and secondary schools.  The title of the Act both reveals Cold War fears and the constitutionally safe ground of national defense for what was then an unprecedented federal role in education. 

Even in the Sputnik moment however, Secretary Folsom recognized that science and math education was not solely about preserving America's global leadership.  Science and math education matters for an informed citizenry as well.  “No man or group of men lives alone on this earth,” said Folsom.  “Our society increasingly needs a grasp of the scientific and technological aspects of the world, but it ever will require an understanding of the great moral, philosophical, and historical concepts of mankind.”  

This anniversary of Sputnik invites us to reexamine the point of science, math and technology education in America.  Is it to win a global competition for military or economic mastery? Is it about creating an informed citizenry to ensure the future health of our democracy, perhaps even our world? And if it is about both, how do we prioritize?

You might also enjoy our website Inventing the Future, a look at the history of Science Technology, Engineering and Math in America.

And you can feel the excitement about the future of rockets and spaceflight sparked by Sputnik as you listen to the first 12 minutes of this 1957 WNYC radio show, featuring prominent science writer Willy Ley.


  1. I'm surprised no mention is made of the National Defense Education Act (1958).

    1. Thanks for your comment. As you point out, the National Defense Education Act of 1958 was an important consequence of the Sputnik launch. I discuss it a bit in the paragraph on the changing role of the federal government in education. You might also be interested in searching our Robert F. Wagner Collection on our website (http://www.laguardiawagnerarchive.lagcc.cuny.edu) for primary source documents related to the Act. The advanced search page will allow you to limit your search to 1958-59. I suggest a broad search term (e.g. education). Many of the items in the collection have been digitized and can be read online.