President Obama called the push to revamp our math and science
education this generation's 'Sputnik moment.' But how many Americans
even know what Sputnik is? Studies show US students don't know their
own history. That's what the president should really be concerned
Calling America's present economic challenges "our generation's
Sputnik moment," President Obama used his State of the Union address
last month to call for more federal spending on math and science
One might have wondered, while listening to the president's
speech, just how many of his fellow Americans knew what Sputnik was -
and what it represented to the United States in the 1950s. Obama
gave a capsule account of the Soviet satellite, launched in 1957,
which shook America's confidence about its ability to compete in
space and the future world economy.
West loses edge to Asia in education: Top five OECD findings
But such analogies can fall flat in a nation full of historical
illiterates, and that is what the leader of the free world should be
most concerned about.
Each day's headlines seem to bring fresh evidence of how little
many Americans know about their country's past. One survey by the
nonprofit American Revolution Center found that many more Americans
knew that Michael Jackson sang the hit song "Beat It" than knew that
the Bill of Rights was part of the Constitution. More than one third
of the survey participants didn't know the century in which the
American Revolution took place.
Such findings suggest that the president should be worried not
only about support for math and science, but also about how his
country is advancing the study of the humanities.
Why humanities education matters
The humanities, which include history, art, literature, and
music, are a critical wellspring of America's creative capital, and
they are also an important source of wisdom for those who wish to
nourish and maintain a free society.
The Mississippi newspaperman and progressive crusader Hodding
Carter II said as much in addressing college students in 1955, and
his words ring with even greater urgency today. Sputnik hadn't yet
left the launch pad when Mr. Carter offered his remarks, but he was
already sensing a national preoccupation with science that
threatened to obscure the virtues of the liberal arts.
Carter's point wasn't to offer a false choice between science and
the humanities, but to remind his audience that an enlightened
democratic society needs both. Without a deep grounding in the
humanities and its insights into the individual spirit, said Carter,
the Founding Fathers could not have created the Bill of Rights. "Its
authors, though they may not have so described themselves, were in
the liberal arts tradition," he said.
As the age of Sputnik dawned, Carter continued to draw on
literature and history to confront some of the most vexing moral
issues of his time: racism, regional strife, and the implications of
violence in a country constitutionally committed to civil discourse. …