Obama's Rathole Moment

President Obama got matters exactly backward when he addressed education last week before a joint session of Congress.

George Orwell once said that he who controls the present controls the past, and he who controls the past controls the future.  This is perhaps what President Obama had in mind in his Tuesday, January 25 State of the Union address.  The speech used the phrase "Sputnik moment" ("This is our generation's Sputnik moment") when calling for the long-stalled reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.  Now, it is worldwide economic competition, not Communist nukes, that has sounded the wake-up call.  Yes, the president admitted, budgetary cutbacks might be necessary, but certainly not in education.  Obama also announced an initiative to train 100,000 new teachers in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math, or STEM subjects.  Reaction across the partisan divide seemed positive.

If there were a Nobel Prize for historical misstatement, this "Sputnik moment" speech would be the odds-on-favorite.  Obama also grossly overstated his signature "Race to the Top" initiative's "success" when all it did was reward states for their own plans.

What was the original "Sputnik moment?  In 1957, the U.S. and the USSR battled for world superiority, creating an atmosphere where confrontations could easily escalate into a nuclear WWIII.  Secretary of State John Forster Dulles openly practiced "brinkmanship" -- go to the edge of war but stop just short, a risky business prone to accidents or miscalculations.  What offered a modicum of security was that though the Soviet possessed H-bombs, their delivery capacity was limited by WWII-grade heavy bombers that could be intercepted over Canada.  And we possessed superior numbers of nuclear weapons and sophisticated jet-age B-52s and B-47s to deliver them.

On Oct 4, 1957, it suddenly appeared possible that the Russians possessed operational intercontinental rockets that could, it was believed (though mistakenly), deliver a nuclear warhead to the U.S. and without being intercepted.  Critically, the U.S. had nothing like it to retaliate -- the commies had a gun with atomic bullets to our head, and we were defenseless.  This differs a bit from foreign rivals safe in their Asian homelands launching an all-out, unstoppable barrage on U.S. consumers with flat-screen TVs, iPhones, and $1.99 Wal-Mart flip-flops.

Mind concentrated, Washington responded.  Military and civilian notables including the irascible Admiral Hyman Rickover quickly assembled world-renowned scientists (not professional educators) to fix American education.  Panicky newspapers and magazines condemned America's inability to match Russian brainpower.  A Gallup Poll reported that 70% of Americans believed that their high school students must work harder.  The contemporary news media also relentlessly condemned the equality fetish and lampooned school fun while polls echoed the public's new-found infatuation with tough standards.  Remember, this was a time when everybody, but especially school kids, practiced "see the flash, take cover" air-raid drills.

The National Defense Education Act (NDEA) of 1958 allocated money to states for testing programs to identify the intellectually talented and encourage them to attend college and study science and mathematics.  Student loan programs targeting smart kids were established in some 1,200 colleges, and $33 million was spent on new equipment.  Of the utmost importance, solid math and science education were suddenly appreciated as nationally vital, not a pastime for a few eggheads.  A famous book deriving from this project -- The Process of Education -- repeatedly called for enlisting the "best minds," "eminent men," or the "best people" so as to restore the glories of American science.  Alas, this blatant (and sexist) elitism was not to last.  As the U.S. caught up with Soviet rocketry and urban unrest came to the fore, the NEDA, the great federal instrument to protect America from Russian missiles, soon expanded to cover business administration and nursing.

Make no mistake: everything in Obama's "Sputnik moment" is about uplifting the bottom.  And to exacerbate the sham, everything has failed, and repeatedly so, over many decades -- untold billions down the rathole.  The Elementary and Secondary Education Act is also about lifting the bottom (see here).  Yes, Obama did speak about hiring more teachers and more support for the tech-flavored STEM, but rhetoric aside, these policies similarly target the struggling "disadvantaged" students.  The tip-off is the penchant for "soft" remedial strategies -- cooperative learning, peer tutoring, parental outreach, the need for more women and minorities in science, etc., etc.  These initiatives are absolutely indistinguishable from the scores of (failed) anti-poverty programs.

It is almost as if Obama believes that in some dysfunctional inner-city school, there are kids with poor English skills about to drop out, but if we just rescue them and get them to return to the classroom and study algebra, America's future will be saved.  Yes, a bunch of middle-aged, nerdy white males got us to the moon, but it will take an entire village of ethnically, racially diverse and gender-balanced people, many of whom were the first in their family to finish high school, let alone attend college, to get us to Mars -- a Spaceship Rainbow.

I suspect that the "Sputnik moment" was plucked from the air by a young speechwriter oblivious to history.  But the deeper problem is that the Obama administration cannot imagine government trying to help high-IQ kids instead of yet again throwing millions at the bottom.  Admiral Rickover must be rolling over in his grave.  For Obama's radical egalitarians, "education" is not about brains; rather, it is now about equality, fairness in dispensing government handouts with demographic proportionality so the graduating seniors at MIT "look like America."  Everybody can be a rocket scientist.  Brains, in the egalitarian cosmology, reflect only "privilege."

Obama's speech, not the languishing legislation, should be a Sputnik moment for the American public.  He just cannot see the obvious, and this is truly frightening.  How can anyone seriously believe, let alone speak this nonsense on national TV, that yet one more futile effort to energize the disadvantaged will restore America's scientific power?  That many, including members of Congress, actually swallow this preposterous fantasy gives a whole new and updated meaning to "a Sputnik moment."  We had the moment, but we scarcely noticed.  Almost makes Russian nukes look harmless.     

Robert Weissberg is professor of political science-emeritus, University of Illinois-Urbana.  His latest book is Bad Students Not Bad Schools.