Mar 11, 2014
The New Sputnik
Posted on May 10, 2011
By Juan Cole
The anxiety did not stop with concern that Americans were not very good at mathematics and science. Rather, Washington suddenly realized that the United States needed a cadre of academics and officials who knew the languages and cultures of the societies over which capitalism and communism were competing. Congress therefore passed the National Defense Education Act (NDEA), providing funds to universities for the study of world areas such as China, India and Eastern Europe. The language of the act later became Title VI in the Department of Education, which supports nearly 120 National Resource Centers at universities across America, studying everything from Afghanistan to Brazil.
In contrast to the strenuous efforts of 1958 to expand Americans’ horizons, the House of Representatives in 2011 is full of politicians who actively despise science and higher education, hate environmentalism, deny global climate change and are in the back pocket of Big Oil. They have delivered themselves of a budget that increases funding for the Department of War, implies long-term and deeper cuts in taxes for the super-wealthy, and devours the seed corn of America’s K-12 and higher education programs. America has already fallen behind Macao and Latvia in math and science skills and ranks only ninth globally in the percentage of its youths who are college graduates. (It used to be first.) Instead of increasing funding for Title VI and the area studies centers (the descendants of 1958’s NDEA), governmental agents of the proudly monolingual tea party in their wisdom have cut that program by half.
The U.S. won the space race that was kicked off in earnest by Sputnik. Now, this Congress, full of climate change contrarians, hasn’t even gotten up off the couch or laced up its sneakers in reaction to China’s solar challenge. It would be as though the 1958 House not only ignored Sputnik, but also denied that the Earth is round or could be orbited. Since Congress has halved the federal money for Chinese studies centers, American young people won’t have the opportunity to study Mandarin in the same numbers, and won’t even be able to understand the scientific papers of Chinese scientists or get jobs in the mailrooms of the burgeoning Chinese solar corporations. The original Tea Party kicked off the independence of the United States from a hegemonic power. This one seems intent on delivering us into the hands of a new one.
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