Waiting for the Next Sputnik Moment
by Rodolfo F. Acuña
From the beginning, there has been the illusion that America was exceptional; it was not like Europe — America was the land of opportunity. Generally, the right to read was limited to the exceptional that were taught to read by their parents or a minister or later in private schools.
Access to education was limited to a chosen few who deserved the right to read the bible. Africans, Indians and poor women were considered unfit to study it.
It was not until the 1840s that an organized system came about through the leadership of education reformers such as Horace Mann and Henry Barnard, who operated in Massachusetts and Connecticut respectively. They helped create statewide common-school systems accessible to everyone and financed by public funds. These reformers believed that all children had the right to learn. They argued that education would improve society and prevent crime and poverty.
These progressives met resistance. The landowners and many of the elite and the wannabes did not want to pay for educating other people’s children especially if undeserving.
The flame of universal accessibility flickered until it was almost suffocated by the arrival of waves of new immigrants. Industrialists did not want thinkers but human robots. Moreover, child labor was an important pool of labor.
Nevertheless, reformers took up the cause of compulsory school attendance for the children of the new immigrants. The concept of compulsory education dates back to Plato in western civilization, and it was common to most early civilizations including Mesoamerica.
The motives varied, ranging from humanitarian and communitarian, to those who wanted to evangelize and Americanize the new immigrants who they correctly surmised were not going away.
The battle for compulsory school attendance lasted into the 1920s; however, urban and rural employers avoided compliance. Child labor was an important source of cheap labor, and it cost too much to educate children with lower intelligence.
Even so, the myth that everyone in the United States had an equal opportunity persisted – it was part of the myth of American exceptionalism.
By the 1920s, African Americans lived in an apartheid society, and the immigrants contained in ethnic ghettoes. During the decade, Congress passed strict immigration laws based on a policy of National origins that gave preference to Northern Europeans and drastically limited immigration from eastern and southern Europe. Through this form of genetic engineering over time Nordic and Germanic types would overwhelm the swarthy newcomers. The Mexican was considered a temporary nuisance while Puerto Ricans were citizens and thus endured.
During the 1930s, organized labor fought back and gained concessions. However, for the most part minorities were cheated. More opportunities opened for them during World War II, but at a price; many Mexican Americans and the poor paid with their lives. Mexicans numbered about a million and a half, and some say that close to a third served in the armed forces.
The war also brought the realization that Americans were under educated, and that if America was to remain a world power, it had to have a better educated work force. The median years of school completed for Americans, 25 years old and over, had only risen from 8.1 to 8.6 years from 1910 to 1940. By the forties, a bare 24 percent of Americans had completed high school. Because of federal aid to education, by 1970 53 percent had a high school diploma (by 2012, 86 percent).
What brought about this transformation was the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, known as the GI Bill of Rights. It was controversial and many legislators objected that paying veterans to go to school lessened their incentive to look for work while others believed that only for the privileged deserved a higher education.
The GI Bill proved a boon to education, and in the end it subsidized corporate America, supplying an educated workforce. By 1947, veterans were 49 percent of college admissions, and when the WW II GI Bill ended on July 25, 1956, 7.8 million of 16 million World War II veterans had attended school or training program.
According to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, “More than half of the young adults of the 1940s and 1950s completed high school, and the median educational attainment of 25- to 29-years-olds rose to 12 years.” Then as now a high school diploma was the gateway to a higher education.
There is no denying that the GI Bill helped some Mexican Americans; however, the overwhelming number in 1960 did not meet college entrance requirements. In the Southwest where Mexican Americans were concentrated, the median years completed by whites was 11.2 in 1950, ten years later it was 12.1 years. For Mexican Americans, it was 5.4 in 1950 and 7.1 in 1960. In Texas the median for Mexican Americans was 3.5 and 4.8 years.
It must be noted that success in college depends on the family pocketbook, and the quality of K-12 schools. As a general rule Mexican American schools were markedly inferior to white schools. Moreover, the quality of the high school determined admittance to Tier 1 universities.
The next boon to higher education was the so-called Sputnik crisis of 1957. Educators had already been mobilized in 1955 by Russian detonation of the hydrogen bomb that shook feelings of American exceptionalism. In 1958 a reform minded Congress passed the National Defense Education Act, which increased funding for education at all levels. This included low-interest student loans to college students. It focused on scientific and technical education. The NDEA poured billions into the U.S. education system.
California got into the act and passed The California Master Plan for Higher Education of 1960, which was supposed to reform California public higher education, coordinating the University of California (UC), the California State College (CSC), and the California Community Colleges system (CCC). It was supposed to make higher education “available to all regardless of their economic means.”
To set the record straight educational reform for Mexican Americans did not take place in earnest until they took to the streets. In California and Texas as elsewhere the Sputnik moment came with school walkouts and campus turmoil of the late 1960. However, as in the case of the GI Bill and federal aid to education, the boom years of reform were over, and there were dark clouds in the horizon.
The ruling elite by the 1960s as in the case of the 1920s came back with renewed vigor.
Americans were getting older, more conservative electing mouthpieces such as California Governor Ronald Reagan, who launched a campaign to dismantle educational reform, privatizing the cost of higher education, increasing tuition, and lowering taxes for the elite. The public good was replaced with the corporate good.
By the 1980s, the stairway to the American middle-class heaven was dismantled, and the illusion of equality was dead for all but the dreamers.
Coasting light on this is a recent article in Mother Jones Magazine. From 2000-2012, Public spending on public education has dropped 30 percent even as enrollment at public colleges increased 34 percent. “[The] Consumer Price Index increased 33 percent; the median household income (adjusted for inflation) dropped 9 percent; the average four-year college tuition increased 44 percent…; [and] public college tuition increased 71 percent.”*
My reading of history tells me that American exceptionalism does not respond to reason; it does not respond to facts or appeals to the common good. So I am resigned to wait for the next Sputnik or for an implosion.
*Not a direct but configured quote.
Rodolfo Acuña, Ph.D., is an historian, professor emeritus, and one of various scholars of Chicano studies, which he teaches at California State University, Northridge. He is the author of Occupied America: A History of Chicanos. Dr. Acuña writes various opinions and essays on his Facebook page and allows sites to share his thoughts.
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