Sputnik, circling the globe, seemed a constant, twinkling reminder that Americans were falling behind in science, destined to lose the space race.
In Depression-era Alabama, a young man named Carl Elliott considered his options. He was the oldest of nine children on a poor tenant farm, and the valedictorian of his high school in the Northwest part of the state.
“There wasn’t much of a prayer that he could get a college education, but he was determined,” said Mary Jolley. Elliott died in 1999; Jolley worked closely with him for many years, and considered him a friend.
Jolley said he walked 100 miles along the railroad to the University of Alabama. He carried $2.38 in his pocket.
At the University, Elliott worked odd jobs to make ends meet, like shoveling coal for a campus boiler, and even squatted in a campus building at some point. Eventually he became president of the student body, and after graduating law school in 1936 worked in Jasper, Alabama.
In 1948, he ran for a seat in the House of Representatives and won. This is where Jolley, then in her early 20s, joined his staff.
“He went to Congress with the purpose of creating a scholarship for students in higher education,” she said. He wanted other students to have an easier time than he in pursuing an education. “That was his motivation.”
He accomplished a lot more than that with a bill he drafted called the National Defense Education Act, or NDEA. It ushered in a new era where the federal government started to play a more prominent role in science and education.
The beep-beep of Sputnik drives feds to act
After the war, with baby boomers overwhelming local schools, many people wanted the federal government to step into education. Back then, the feds weren’t very involved in it, instructionally or financially. But the education bills Elliott kept introducing stagnated. Resistance came from lawmakers who didn’t want the government to have a say in religious issues, like prayer in school or Catholic school curriculums.
The other big concern, especially in the South, was race. If the feds gave money to states for education, they could require Southern schools to integrate. Elliott didn’t support that, either, at the time.
But then something big happened.
In October, 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite.
It caught the American public completely off guard. Sputnik, circling the globe, seemed a constant, twinkling reminder that Americans were falling behind in science, destined to lose the space race. Magazine articles and news reports portrayed serious Russian students in stark contrast to America’s academically unchallenged youth. That same year President Eisenhower lamented the U.S.’s inferior science education and low number of science professionals.
“This trend is disturbing. Indeed, according to my scientific advisors this is for the American people the most critical problem of all. My scientific advisors place this problem above all other immediate tasks of producing missiles, of developing new techniques in the armed services. We need scientists,” Eisenhower said.
Some historians say the rhetoric of crisis in American science education was just that – that Eisenhower knew the U.S.’ defense capabilities and they were plenty advanced.
But Elliot and his co-conspirators didn’t waste the opportunity. Mary Jolley was with him when they learned about the launch.
“We were not in the office when it happened,” she said. “I think we were in South Dakota as I recall. We were holding hearings about education legislation. And at that point Mr. Elliott called and said, ‘Look, we better get back home quickly. This is our chance to do something.’”
Elliott and several other lawmakers, including Alabama’s Lister Hill, in the Senate, realized people’s fear of the Soviets was far greater than fear of their own government sticking its nose in education. They sat down and drafted the NDEA.
It passed with bi-partisan support less than a year after Sputnik’s launch.
The NDEA focused on science education specifically and that was fine with Elliott as long as students got money towards education.
The bill provided money for science labs in K-12 schools, loans for higher education, especially in the sciences and foreign language study, training for guidance counselors to identify gifted students for science tracks, and money to research educational media. Elliott’s biggest compromise was to write in loans, rather than scholarships, in the bill. Some lawmakers thought scholarships were too socialist.
That same year, NASA was born and money went to the National Science Foundation for research and to train science teachers.
Shirley Malcom was a middle schooler in a segregated black school in Birmingham when Sputnik launched. After NDEA passed, “one of the things that was really immediate that we saw in the change, was that we had real science being taught,” she said.
Empty school laboratories received supplies. Teachers seemed better equipped to tackle science subjects.
“There was a greater attention to science and mathematics everywhere, nationally, but even in my little school. We all built our own rockets, and started asking questions about being able to escape the gravitational pull of the earth and things like that,” Malcom said.
She went on to get a PhD in ecology and now works for the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She said two major things affected her youth: the struggle for civil rights, and Sputnik.
“I doubt very seriously that I would’ve ended up in science, had it not been for Sputnik, and had it not been for the national attention that something like an NDEA represented,” she said. She went on: “Without a crisis it seems like it’s very difficult to get us to move. It’s hard to get not only the public’s interest, but it’s very hard to get the legislative will and the bipartisan support that something like an NDEA was able to garner.”
Role of education and science in government
Elliott saw his legacy in the millions of students that had the opportunity to study. The bigger legacy, though, is the federal government’s deep, intricate role in education and in science. When the feds dipped their toes into education with the NDEA, they introduced more politics into it, too.
Perhaps that’s why the intonation of crisis has stayed in place when speaking about education legislation and science research and funding, even as administrations changed. By the 1970s, many people grew mistrustful of science and elites and new educational models that they thought undermined traditional and religious values. With the election of Ronald Reagan, the type of crisis just evolved, from political threat to economic threat from advanced nations, like Japan. “Rather than being swallowed up politically we’re going to be swallowed up economically,” Jonathan Zimmerman, professor of history and education at University of Pennsylvania, explained.
“Today, it’s the same kind of argument, I guess, that people make about STEM all the time, that we need more technically trained personnel, we need people to go into these fields,” said John Rudolph, professor of science education at the University of Wisconsin. STEM refers to science, technology, engineering, and math fields. He said by the numbers, there are actually too many high-level scientists. But calls for STEM education remain politically salient.
Zimmerman and Rudolph both see problems in this approach to science education, and education more broadly. Zimmerman said the goal of education, particularly primary education, was about making citizens.
“I think the more we think of schools as engines of economic prosperity and indeed as employment services, the more that civic language gets diminished. And I think that’s a great concern and should be to people who think about democracy,” Zimmerman said.
But that’s a harder sell, said Rudolph. “It doesn’t seem as instrumentally useful to the public, sort of this notion of being educated and this ability to understand and appreciate ideas and complex thoughts. And it just doesn’t have the same push or the same compulsion to provide funds for that.”