Perhaps this month’s 9-11 twentieth anniversary made you also remember those other Defining Moments and recall exactly what you were doing at a time of shocking historical change. For my generation, it was President Kennedy's assassination; for my parents' generation, it was the bombing of Pearl Harbor; for my grandparents it was more the Great Crash of the stock market in 1929.
Does it seem odd that these defining moments, which we remember as personally as we do nationally, are all catastrophic—planes flying into skyscrapers, the assassination of a young president, the sudden sinking of our Pacific naval fleet? Are we ever asked to recall exactly what we were doing on the few joyous historical moments: the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of World War II, man’s first steps on the moon? Not really.
Maybe it’s because the happy ones are events, planned or at least foreshadowed a bit, but the horrible ones are both appalling and utterly unforeseen. We remember what we were doing the exact second we heard about them because the shock of the news seared them forever in our memories due to their freakishness.
And so it seems strange to me that I recall a much more subtle historical defining moment during my childhood, since it was neither joyous nor awful. Yet I remember exactly where I was when a special bulletin came over our car radio announcing that the Russians had launched Sputnik.
The date was October 4, 1957. My mother was driving me to a doctor's appointment after school at 34th and Meridian Street in Indianapolis when we heard the news. I'm not positive why this was such a vivid memory for me, but I do have a theory. I just might recall this day that the Russians launched their 184 pound aluminum alloy sphere (I’m an English professor and have to show off so cannot possibly call it just a “satellite”) because my education at school underwent an ominous and profound change shortly thereafter.
All of us seventy or older remember how impressed and downright jealous the U.S. became after the Russians not only did something scientific first but did something scientific that we could not seem to do at all. There was that riddle-joke popular at the time: "How do you make a Sputnik cocktail? You take two parts Russian vodka and mix with one part American sour grapes." And when we rushed production of our first satellite three months later, only to see it collapse and burn on the launching pad, our newspapers wittily dubbed it "Kaputnik" and "Stayputnik."
It was after that national humiliation that I noticed a distinct change in my classroom curricula. Suddenly, big money was being poured into science and math texts at school. Such textbooks were spewing from the presses in the late 1950s and early 1960s as America decided that its brightest young people should be educated to become rocket scientists, doctors, or engineers. English, history, and the other liberal arts were becoming quietly ignored. My science books changed every semester. They were so up-to-date that the last chapter invariably covered the intricacies of Sputnik.
My Adventures In Reading book, on the other hand, was so battered and out-of-date that not only did its author chronology end before F. Scott Fitzgerald, but Scott himself might have taken my actual textbook home with him when he was an eighth grader. In the slang of the day, it was cool to like science. When I un-coolly announced at a family Thanksgiving dinner that I was grateful for my English classes, my science-nerd older cousin remarked “Well, you’ll make somebody a good secretary some day, but English sure ain’t rocket science.” At that moment I knew my familial pick for our first manned one-way-only space shot.
It is now more than sixty years later. What has been the result of this scientific emphasis in the schools? Granted, the low SAT scores of recent years have been slightly less abysmal in math skills than in verbal ones. But when the Princeton-based Educational Testing Service published Adult Literacy in America we learned that 100 million Americans over the age of sixteen -- more than 50% of our population -- do not have the writing nor reading skills to pen an adequate business letter or even to read accurately an online Amtrak schedule. And we can hardly blame our immigrant population who at least have an initial excuse for being unfamiliar with our language. Only 25% of them were in that category.
I am certainly not suggesting that the scientific emphasis of the fifties has led to the widespread low literacy today. One major problem today in schools is the gradual disappearance of that special emphasis that was once assumed to be in the student's home, where mothers and fathers used to stress the value of all types of education to their children. But when reading and writing skills took a back seat to more technical training, then the whole vehicle of primary and secondary education began heading down the wrong road.
The English translation of "Sputnik" is the deceptively gentle phrase "Fellow Traveler." When that satellite lured the United States into becoming fellow travelers with the Russians in scientific technology, our literacy rate perhaps became a hidden casualty of the cold war. Of the three "R"s of basic education, only the third one has held much intellectual status in our schools since the 1950s. And let’s face it—if we think ‘Rithmatic should really start with an "R" then our literacy problems will be going ‘Round and 'Round with us for a long, long time.