HR13247: The National Defense Education Act of 1958

Dwight David Eisenhower

by J. Tortorici

In the ongoing experience of a civil society, we need debate. Our Constitution celebrates collective will and decision-making as we argue to our highest, and lowest, personal principles. Throughout our partisan history, there are occasional moments of bi-partisan brilliance. Here is one lesson for modern times.

In the post-World War II environment, the industrial and engineering might of a victorious free world was firing on all cylinders, and warm. Fear and dogma then brought us a Cold War. The subsequent arms and space race was only symptomatic of a greater conflict. The coming age would belong to the nerds, and my nerds had to be better than yours. The educational high ground, the future, needed to be won.

Advances in the matrix of man and machine were moving at an exponential pace. The shallow depth of institutional mathematicians and scientists in the United States was being soaked up by emerging private sector technology. Uh oh! Not only were defense issues in immediate peril, there was no fuel in the tank, no pool of university level instructors. No farm team. The ultimate goals of this cultural shift could not be achieved overnight. A plan was needed to spread the seeds of an educational revolution. Enter Republican President Dwight Eisenhower, and liberal Alabama politics. You read that correctly.

Representative Carl Elliott and Senator Lister Hill were both Democrats from Alabama. “Dixie-crats” was the fraternal moniker and their segregationist beliefs were entrenched. Both men were signatories to the infamous “Southern Manifesto.” The document condemned the Supreme Court’s 9-0 decision in Brown vs Board of Education ordering school desegregation. Yet, they championed relief from the plight of rural post-war Alabama.

Senator Hill distinguished himself with legislation for assistance in constructing facilities for the mentally ill, increased support for medical research at the nation’s medical schools and other research institutions. He sponsored the Rural Telephone Act, the Rural Housing Act, and the Vocational Education Act. Congressman Elliott wrote the Library Services Act, which brought mobile libraries (bookmobiles) and continuing library service to millions of rural Americans. They served their community in spite of what history now labels the American apartheid.

Eisenhower was justifiably rattled by dramatic Soviet scientific achievements, particularly in nuclear technology and the development of the Sputnik orbiter. The United States needed a profound response. In reality, the scientific community’s pressure for science and math education started long before Sputnik. The academic community was being overshadowed by the weaponized doctrine of Curtis LeMay, bomb them into the stone-age. Not only was this an institutional dog-fight, it was a developmental crossroads. Congressman Elliott and Senator Hill were hell-bent on achieving federal education aid in any form, for whatever reason, in service to their agenda of raising the quality of life for their constituents. Here was an opportunity.

An extraordinary, multi-layered, cooperative vision broke the log-jam of opposition to federal aid in elementary and secondary education. Designed to overcome a perceived national failure to produce enough qualified scientists, engineers, and mathematicians to compete with the Communist bloc, the effort resulted in the National Defense Education Act of 1958 (NDEA). HR13247.

The alliance President Eisenhower forged with these esteemed gentlemen from Alabama moved the NDEA through Congress quickly. The legislation provided aid to education in the United States at all levels, public and private. NDEA was instituted primarily to stimulate the advancement of education in science, mathematics, and modern foreign languages, but also provided aid in other areas, including technical education, geography, English as a second language, counseling and guidance, school libraries and librarianship, and educational media centers. The act provided institutions of higher education with 90% of capital funds for low-interest loans to students. NDEA also gave federal support for improvement and change in elementary and secondary education. The act contained altruistic statutory prohibitions of federal direction, supervision, or control over the curriculum, program of instruction, administration, or personnel of any educational institution. Sibling initiatives DARPA and NASA were legislative partners.

President Eisenhower felt it was essential to strengthen the American education system. In the end, it was also implemented to meet the basics of an elevated national security. This act was an attempt to raise the literacy of our nation so that Americans could comprehend the increasing technology of the day, much as fifty years earlier, public education was instituted to meet the needs of the industrial revolution. Eisenhower believed that a plan such as this would help society as a whole and suffice its needs.

The National Defense Education Act and stimulated $877,000,000. When quoted on the bill Dwight D. Eisenhower said, “This act, which is an emergency undertaking to be terminated after four years, will, in that time, do much to strengthen or American system of education so that it can meet the broad and increasing demands imposed upon it by considerations of basic national security.” The bill revolved around student loans and fellowships. Primarily, these loans were reserved for prospective college teachers. Also the states received funding students and equipment in the science, math, and foreign language fields. In return, the states were obligated to deposit more than $400,000,000 over the course of the program. These loans ranged from $1,000 to $5,000. This borrowed money was to be repaid after the student had graduated. The parameters included a ten year pay period with a 3% interest rate!

This was a bill that, from the beginning, was believed to be insufficient. President Eisenhower proclaimed, “Much remains to be done to bring American education to levels consistent with the needs of our society.” The New York Times wrote, “…it would not do all that was necessary in a scientific world.” With this lingering over the legislation, another thought also arose, it was absolutely necessary. America was now competing with other countries to pioneer innovation as a world super-power. Inaction would have been a national disaster.

Insufficient? In little more than a decade, we walked on the moon. In my lifetime, we advanced from Explorer 1 to a photographic survey of our solar system… and beyond. The vision of 1958 has come to pass. Once more we are faced with an existential threat to our national security… and the (computer) nerds are at center stage. The United States requires a fresh vision, a progressive plan for educating a new generation of Americans to meet the scientific and security demands of a global society. It will take effective governance to achieve anything meaningful and we are fortunate to have examples of our own success.

The recent special election in Alabama matters. It marks the beginning of a return to the balance and sanity needed to move forward. We need to keep the momentum alive and demand foresight from our leaders.

The future is at hand… we have only to reach for it.



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