The American Education System Revolutionizes after the Launch of Sputnik

The ‘Cold War’ (a phrase coined by the writer George Orwell author of ‘Animal Farm’) is a state of tension, conflict and mistrust which developed between the United States of America  (USA) and the United Soviet Socialist Russia (USSR).  Tensions developed soon after the end of the WWII, although the two protagonists stood side-by-side to defeat Adolf Hitler only a few short months before.

The ‘Cold War’ began in earnest in 1945 and lasted a total of forty four years.  In the intervening years the Berlin Wall was built and stood as a symbol of communist oppression, until it was dramatically torn down in 1989 by its citizens, egged on by a speech made by Ronald Reagan two years earlier.  Two years later the gates were open and East and West Germany became one nation.

The atmosphere of mistrust and hostility was further intensified when the Russians launched their satellite ‘Sputnik’. Apart from being regarded internationally as a monumental scientific achievement, this event impacted heavily on the psyche of the American people and served as the wake-up call, which forced the American government into rethinking the way in which they educated their children and catapulted them into making some revolutionary changes.

Before World War two, the majority of children throughout the United States, especially those who lived in rural areas were taught using the traditional methods of rote memory and factual teacher-centered instruction. Classes often took place in one-roomed class rooms housing grades 1 to 8.  This method of teaching continued to be used for some time after the war ended, until gradual changes began to take effect.

In 1944 the veterans were returning home in their thousands and the baby boomers were in full swing.  The GI Bill was launched by the government making post-secondary education freely available on a scale never seen before in the US and as a result over 8 million returning soldiers took advantage of the opportunity by attending veterans colleges across the United States.

The launch of the Russian satellite ‘Sputnik’ in 1947 sparked a series of heated governmental debates surrounding the level of federal government funding of education, particularly in the areas of mathematics and science, which in 1958 stimulated the first comprehensive federal education legislation known as the National Defense Education Act (NDEA).  As a result millions of dollars were pumped into reforming the American educational system.

The Act was a direct response to the Russian launch of “Sputnik’ and was designed to ensure that America was able to compete with the USSR, primarily in the areas of Mathematics and science.  Other areas adjudged to be important was the learning of foreign languages, starting with those attending elementary and secondary schools.     

The launch of ‘Sputnik’ made Americans very nervous, especially in the light of the devastating results of the nuclear bomb when it was dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima.  Certain schools were selected to conduct air raid drills known as the ‘Duck and Cover’ drills and they even went to the extent of distributing ‘dog tags’, similar to those worn by US soldiers.

The tags were distributed so that in the event of an air raid the children’s bodies could be easily identified. Further, as an indication of the seriousness with which the government took the possibility of an attack, the medium of film, using a combination of animation and live actors was commissioned as an additional tool with which to teach the children how to behave during an air raid.  This saw the birth of Bert, the pith helmet wearing turtle who became a firm favorite with the American children. The film was seen by tens of millions of Americans in movie theatres, schools and on the television.  A University study was also commissioned during this period to give advice on how to achieve ‘emotion management’.

The educational policies developed during the cold war has definitely shaped the American educational system, although it can safely be said that the American educational system in recent times have become a political football and is currently in poor shape, mainly due to reduced government funding.