It seems like there have been calls to “fix” our education system in the US for decades. The Apollo program’s Saturn V engines were largely built by young engineers and scientists. Their educations were influenced by the Sputnik-inspired National Defense Education Act of 1958, which despite its codified McCarthyism was probably a good thing. Those kids of my parents’ generation were probably also directly inspired by Sputnik, and the Amazing Stories of Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov. Even my Seventh Day Adventist dad wanted to study physics in college, until he encountered the associated math.
If it takes a Sputnik moment to “fix” education, we may be out of luck this time around.
This burst of attention to (and funding for) science and mathematics education was, like the entire Apollo program, the product of a nationalist fear that we were “falling behind” the Soviets. Despite Thomas Friedman’s ongoing attempts to frame China’s production and adoption of clean energy technologies and as a modern Sputnik Moment, I doubt it’s in the cards. Not without some pretty dramatic focusing moment, and not without exiling the fossil fuel industries from US politics. It’s also just not the same kind of story as your newly atomic ideological arch nemesis lobbing rocks over your territorial boundaries, well out of reach. We will not be terrified by China’s solar panels, nor even, it seems, by their monopoly on the production of rare earths.