Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Cold War Mentality of "A Nation at Risk"

Steven Cromack

“Our nation is at risk,” declared a 1983 report released by the National Commission on Excellence in Education.   The fallout from this simple, short report was astounding.  Its lucid words indicted the American education system and sparked national panic.  Schools across the country scrambled to assess their own standards, revised them, and implemented standardized tests.  Twenty-nine years later, as far as the state of American education is concerned, not all hope is lost.  This document was a product of Cold War mentality.  The Commission examined America’s schools under a microscope of fear. Was the United States losing the Cold War?  Only through education—advancement in math, science, and literacy—could the Land of the Free defeat the Communist threat.  “A Nation at Risk,” its language, and its implications reflect Cold War dogma—in examining this document in the era of globalization, it is evident that the Commission’s Cold War mindset failed to recognize that in the midst of the conflict, America’s schools were not failing; instead, they were shaping the future competition in which the United States finds itself in 2012.

Many Americans believed, as did the Commission, that the United States was not the great giant of innovation it once was.  The Commission asserted, “Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world.”  Like most Americans, the members of the Commission believed that America was falling far behind the lurking Communists.  America’s greatness, in their eyes, was drowning in its own falling standards.  The Commission echoed national fears: “The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people.”  Furthermore, they captured the cynicism of the American public with the declaration, “What was unimaginable a generation ago has begun to occur—others are matching and surpassing our educational attainments.”  It seemed to the Commission, and many others, that America was losing the Cold War. 

The language used in the subsequent paragraphs continued to examine the American educational system through the Cold War lens.  “We have squandered the gains in achievement made in the wake of the Sputnik challenge,” the Commission avowed, reaffirming the idea that America had fallen behind the Soviets.  The United States failed to maintain a competitive edge in science and industry.  Ultimately, the Commission argued that the underlying cause of this loss was the faltering education system.  Its members claimed, “We have dismantled essential support systems which helped make those gains possible.  We have, in effect, committed an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.”  Here, the Commission dropped the phrase that no politician during President Reagan’s first term dared use: “disarmament.”  Many fretted that disarmament would lead to defeat.  Dismantling armaments meant weakening the state.  In using disarmament as a metaphor for not stimulating education, the Commission highlighted its Cold War ideology.  It was a metaphor that reflected the period.
With ending of the Cold War came a new way to view the increasingly globalizing world.  The economic boom of the 1990s, albeit an illusion of boom, led to a rise in per capita income.  How was it possible that this boom came on the heels as a “functionally illiterate” generation entered the workforce?  In his book Catching Up or Leading the Way, Yong Zhao asked the question: If America is indeed a nation at risk, and if education is always on the decline, how does the United States maintain its competitiveness?   The Global Competitive Index rates nations on the level of prosperity brought to their citizens.  In 2007, the United States ranked number one of 131 countries (41).  Furthermore, the years between 1993 and 2003 saw a 40 percent increase in college graduation.  That decade also saw a 1 percent increase in the number of graduates who hold science and engineering jobs (42).

In 2011, David von Drehle published an article in Time Magazine titled, “Don’t Bet against the United States.”  Like Zhao, Drehle examined the concept of a “Nation at Risk” in the era of globalization and saw what the Commission could not see with their Cold War mentality.  He argued that throughout the Cold War self doubt drove the United States: from Nixon declaring that America was worse off since Eisenhower left office, to the “crisis of confidence” exuded by Carter.  It was easy to blame schools.   But, Drehle asserts, “fallen trees don’t prove the forest is dying” (35).  Yes, reform is necessary, but America is not on the decline, it just needs to refocus itself in the world it has created.  Drehle concluded, “When more people in more countries are free to rise, to invent, to communicate, to dissent, it’s not the doom of U.S. leadership.  It is the triumph of the American way.”

This Cold War mindset meant that the Commission could not view America’s education and uncertainty as one of its greatest strengths.  The American education system is nowhere near perfect.  The United States must now refocus upon its education system in order to maintain a competitive edge, and drive the competition that the future holds. 


Unknown said...

Nice Article! Thanks for sharing with us.
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Unknown said...

The Report is coming up on 30 years. Thank you for taking the time to delve skillfully into this topic. It's up for discussion in a course I'm taking this semester; so, continues to be relevant and of interest.