Some time ago when I was working in the government doing STEM education I went to a lot of events related to education policy. At almost every one of these you would hear someone say that we need another Sputnik moment. Even Obama would trot out this well worn line on occasion.
I always wonder what people want to say when they invoke a “Sputnik moment”? Likely it is to invoke a realization we are behind, an event that awakens us from complacency and catalyzes our country to once again attempt great things. The more I think about Sputnik moments, however, the less sense it makes when one is talking about education. To my thinking Sputnik was a lot of things, but more than anything else it was about fear. Educationally what exactly are we afraid of?
Are we afraid of someone overtaking us in education the way the Soviet Union overtook us in getting a satellite into orbit? This leads to questions of what exactly “overtaking” might mean. Is it scores on a test like PISA which are perennially dominated by Asian countries? Is it in terms of inequalities in our education where we do rather poorly compared to countries like Finland (who has an education system built around equality because they are of a size, wealth, and population where this is possible)?
There are real differences between the moment Sputnik went into orbit and now. In late 1957 the United States and our close allies had transitioned from WWII into the simmering proxy conflict with communism that was the cold war. Nuclear annihilation was on everyone’s mind; the phone book I grew up with had instructions for surviving a nuclear blast inside the front cover as late as the 1970’s. For many Sputnik represented these fears.
Comparing n sub-optimal education system to the gruesome horrors that Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the longer term health issues nuclear weapons testing created seems ludicrous since education poses no clear existential threat. But maybe this is precisely the point; the reason why those who seek to change education talk of Sputnik moments is that they want to give the impression of a threat without ever defining exactly what that threat is.
Threats today–climate change, lack of upward mobility–are more like the bogeyman: something one should be afraid but that is vague and mythical. Wikipedia’s definition of bogeyman captures it perfectly: “…a spirit parasite that feeds on the energy generated from people’s fears and worries day and night. This monster has no specific appearance, and conceptions about it can vary drastically from household to household within the same community…” Somehow we all fear, or have been made to fear, that if we don’t educate our youth better something horrible will happen. It is an open question whether this fear is baseless or legitimate. It is, however, a common ploy in politics to avoid complex and controversial issues by using suggestive, coded language such as drugs and crime to refer to race or highlighting small town American working values to frame fear of job loss to immigrants.
It is worth asking what exactly is the fear politicians and policy makers want to invoke by the words “Sputnik moment”? The obvious answer is that of falling economically behind. Fewer jobs, lower wages, less money to invest in infrastructure and health care. This is likely a reasonable fear but it is worth asking if failings of the education system is a cause of the decade long decline of real wages, or simply a red herring. Another fear may be xenophobia given that Asian countries dominate international measures of education. Those of my generation may remember the economic fear generated by Japan in the 1980’s before their decades long recession. Interestingly education isn’t about competition–that is neoliberal capitalism–it is about sharing. Yet a third fear may result from the pace of technological advance. How many Americans feel left behind by a technology that seems both relentless and unstoppable, and one that increasingly is used by…young people. Everyone is afraid of teenagers and blaming societal problems on youth goes back to at least 600 BC. If only we had some new form of education that could keep those young hellions in check!
Be wary of those who ask for a Sputnik moment, it is at best misleading and at worst disingenuous. The challenges we face in society are complex but inextricably linked to education; the challenges of education are themselves linked to disparities in access, economic policy, and other societal issues. There is not straight line path, every action circles back on itself. It is also worth recognizing that Sputnik wasn’t a moment, but a slow dawning realization that showed policy makers and industry leaders that it was necessary to rethink organizations and systems if complex goals were to be achieved. So when you hear “Sputnik moment” think of it not as a grand challenge, nor as a call to arms, or even as an overused historical reference. Rather think of it as an admission by policy makers that they may be the biggest part of the problem; that not only don’t we know what to do, but we can’t even define the problem.