The National Defense Education Act 50 Years Later

Posted on 3rd December 2008 by Ryan Somma in Enlightenment Warrior,science holidays

2008 marks the 50th anniversary of the National Defense Education act, a direct response to the Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellite into Earth orbit. The act employed one of the most brilliant strategic responses to an outside military threat ever devised: dramatically improve education for all Americans.

The act’s goal was to bring “American education to levels consistent with the needs of our society,” and contained ten titles designed to improve the nation’s schools. These included prohibiting federal control over curriculum, administration, or personnel; provide $295 million in low-interest loans to college students; $300 million in assistance for science, mathematics, and foreign-language instruction; and $18 million in research into how to use television and radio for educational purposes.

On January 12, 1961 Dwight D. Eisenhower, in his State of the Union address, called the act “a milestone in the history of American education.” Today, President-Elect Barack Obama’s website notes the importance of the act in improving national security, space programs, economic growth, and innovation for the second half of the 20th century.

The 109th Congress in February 2006 introduced the 21st Century National Defense Education Act, but never made it to committee, possibly due to the beuracratic burden some argued it would place on public schools. The 1958 act was also not without controversy, as when 20 colleges and universities refused to accept funds from it in protest of the act’s requirement for loan recipients to take a loyalty oath to the United States, which contradicted the first title.

Despite these controversies, it is the spirit of the act that deserves reflection as we face the threats of terrorism and economic hardship, the idea that all our problems are best fought with a well-informed, highly educated public:

The National Defense Education Act recognizes that education is a national unifying force, and it regards an educated citizenry as the country’s most precious resource. Its ten Titles are designed to motivate the discovery of intelligent and talented young men and women and stimulate them to devote themselves to the sciences, foreign languages, technology, and in general to those intellectual pursuits that will enrich personal life, strengthen resistance to totalitarianism, and enhance the quality of American leadership on the international scene. – Arthur S. Flemming

Google has a timeline of news stories about the act in books, newspapers, and academic journals.

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