Comparing responses to Sputnik and 9/11

Michael Halloran, professor of rhetoric and colleague at Renssealear,
offers a thoughful comparison of America's response to two shocking events.

Letter to editor:
Today's leaders can learn from how we responded to Sputnik

First published: Saturday, December 6, 2003

In October 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first man-made
satellite to orbit Earth, and in the view of many the prototype of the
Intercontinental Ballistic Missile.

No one died as a direct result of Sputnik, but in other important ways
the blow to the United States signaled by the incessant beeping of
Sputnik was comparable to that signaled by the incessantly repeated
images of jets crashing into the World Trade Center towers that filled
our TV screens in the weeks after Sept. 11, 2001.

In both cases, the economic, technological and military might that had
made us feel invulnerable was shown to be inadequate.

In both cases, we suddenly recognized an enemy capable of end-running
our defenses and threatening our existence.

In response to Sputnik, Congress declared an "educational emergency" and
passed the National Defense Education Act, providing federal assistance
to education and research in science, mathematics and the modern foreign
languages. The NDEA fueled a transformation of American education from
kindergarten through the university and created intellectual capital
that the United States and indeed the world continue to benefit from to
this day. A case might be made that the Cold War was ultimately won by
the decades of scientific and technological advances set in motion by
the National Defense Education Act.

So what has been the educational response to 9/11? Has any political or
educational leader had the vision to declare a new educational emergency
and propose a national response to it? Surely our intelligence failures
revealed by the event itself and our gross ignorance of Islamic cultures
that continues to be revealed are evidence of needs that ought to be
filled by a strengthened national educational and research infrastructure.

How often have we heard of the desperate need for fluent speakers of
Arabic, Urdu, Farsi and other relevant languages? How much of current
Arabic thought are we missing because books published in Arabic
countries are not being translated into English? (Hint: Go to the Web site, search under "books" for "translations from
Arabic," and note how few of the results are of recent vintage, and how
many of those that do come up are marked "out of print.")

The Puritan divines of Colonial New England used to preach about
"fetching good out of evil." In our own time, an enormously powerful
network of scientific research laboratories is a good that was fetched
out of the evil signaled by the launch of Sputnik. A similarly powerful
network of research and scholarship focused on such subjects as Middle
Eastern languages and cultures, techniques of intelligence gathering and
analysis, and the conduct of international diplomacy is a good we ought
to be trying to fetch out of the evil we experienced on 9/11. Where are
the political and educational leaders who will develop the plan?


Troy, New York

* * * * * * * * *
It's sad to realize that none of America's prominent political leaders have
explored the powerful comparison Halloran sketches here. Framing the
response to 9/11 as a "war" has rendered most politicians and much of
the U.S. populace brain dead when it comes to seeking creative reponses
to our present situation.

[In the interest of full disclosure, I confess that I was a beneficiary of
the National Defense Education Act which financed the first three
years of my education in graduate school. This scholarly work prepared
me to defend my country by resisting several unwise, unjust, costly,
socially calamitous wars. - Langdon]