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The Daily Need

‘Our Sputnik moment’: Then and now

The March 24, 1958 cover of Life magazine. Photo: Getty

In the introduction to tonight’s special hour on education, a show we’re calling “Ahead of the Class,” Jon Meacham briefly quotes from a Life magazine photo essay from 1958 on the state of American education.

The schools are in terrible shape, what has long been an ignored national problem, Sputnik has made a recognized crisis.

The essay was in the first part of a five-part “urgent” series called “The Crisis in U.S. Education” and thanks to the magic (or nightmare, if you’re a publisher) of Google Books, all of the photo essays, not to mention the magazines in their entirety, are available online.

The first issue of the series (March 24, 1958) includes an introductory essay quoted in tonight’s broadcast and also an amazing photo essay comparing an America teenager to his counterpart in Russia. It’s striking how their discussion of the U.S. falling behind is nearly identical to the one that we’re having today – just substitute China for Russia.

The series’ second issue (March 31, 1958) tackled the subject of teachers:

U.S. teachers are too few and too hard pressed to do a nation-size job. Among the many problems of the public schools the weakness in teaching is one of the most crucial. Teachers hold in their hands the malleable minds of the nation’s children. But despite the immense importance of what they do – or should do – they are wretchedly overworked, underpaid and disregarded. And a discouraging number of them are incompetents.

The third issue (April 7, 1958) looked at the issue of exceptional students being “wasted”:

Across the U.S. today brilliant youngsters are growing up in an isolation almost as profound as Barry Wichmann’s. These children should be getting the best education that the nation can provide. But because of ignorance, prejudice, and a paralyzing inflexibility in the whole public school system, tragically little is being done to help them.

The fourth issue (April 14, 1958) examined new ideas that were being tried out in math and science:

In the new atmosphere of urgency, scientifically minded youngsters all over the U.S. in school and out, have suddenly become the objects of fond and anxious national attention … All over the country, science and math courses are being reassessed tightened up. A wholly new way of teaching math and physics is being worked out and used.

And finally, the last installment (April 21, 1958) focused on parents’ role in educating children:

What is more profoundly needed are parents who share the tasks of education, creating a climate for learning at home and a respect for learning in their children. Most parents just plain neglect this job, through lack of time, lack of interest or lack of confidence.

As we point out in the introduction to tonight’s show, these are all issues that we are still grappling with more than 50 years later. And while the ads in these magazines feel very out of date, the topic and themes are prescient.

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