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Nation facing a Sputnik moment again

On Oct. 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik I, the first orbital technology in the world. With its launch American assumptions about technological superiority ended abruptly.

President Eisenhower’s White House political advisor, Clarence Randall called the Sputnik “a silly bauble.”

It was not.

The President, a military man, saw the launch for its missile technology, not its space implications, and feared the U.S. would be vulnerable to attack from the Soviets.

But most Americans saw Sputnik as a loss of confidence in the American spirit to lead the world.

Sen. William Fulbright of Arkansas said, “The real challenge we face involves the very roots of our society. It involves our educational system, the source of our knowledge and cultural values.”

Walter Lippmann, intellectual and political writer, had long urged Americans to consecrate themselves to a national purpose … to rescue education.

He wrote, “In really hard times the rules of the game are altered. … Those are the rare occasions when a national will emerges from the scattered, specialized or indifferent blocs of voters who ordinarily elect the politicians.”

But others had little reverence for education or pointy headed professors.

Charles E Wilson, Secretary of State under Eisenhower mocked basic scientific research as studying “what makes grass green and fried potatoes brown.”

Little has changed in politics in America today. We are a divided nation in many of the same ways we were preceding Sputnik. Our Republican friends believe American dominance comes from our military might, not our intellectual capital.

Their distrust of science remains an obstacle to protecting the planet. Republicans think that military power combined with cutting taxes is all the policy, foreign and domestic, the nation needs.

But the President calls for the nation to lead the 21st Century, not by the ideas of the last century, but by the needs of the new century.

President Obama calls for the renewal of education to re-affirm American competitiveness.

He calls on American compassion to save a failing health care system that is far from the standard in the world today. And he calls on new energy technology to prevent the nation from falling farther behind in the crucial arena of energy resourcing.

The president makes these calls because America does not lead in education with high school graduation and knowledge falling below other nations; we do not lead in health care, where among developed nations we have the most citizens lacking access to the best available care; and we have lost the lead in energy technology to nations not waiting to invest in new technology.

We are a great nation, the richest and most powerful on the planet. And we cannot, and should not, grant any edge to others to take any competitive lead in technology.

The current political division is another Sputnik moment, a division where Republicans argue to stay the course of military might and government minimalism.

The Democrats argue that government has a role in advancing our national goals in the 21st Century, a role that is far more than weapons development and tax cuts.

Just as Sputnik changed our direction to a more national focus upon education and science, so too must we make that shift again today.

Once again we are a people called upon to discover a national will to seize the new century with American will and creativity. And as with Sputnik, government can play a role in our united future.

It is not a political fight at all, it is a fight for our future as a great nation.

Jim Crawford is a contributing columnist for The Tribune and a former educator at Ohio University Southern.