It is interesting that our President chooses to rely so heavily on the "Sputnik moment" metaphor given that the average American is about as likely to be able to perform the miracle of loaves and fishes as to correctly identify and explain the significance of Sputnik. Hell, half of us can't find Ohio on a map of our own country. Why would we know about something that happened in 1957?

Accordingly very few people, even among the minority that know to what Sputnik refers, remember the American response. Project Vanguard in the Naval Research Lab (one of the many non-civilian precursors to NASA) was already working on building a rocket booster powerful and reliable enough to put a satellite into orbit. Sputnik took Americans by surprise; more importantly it rendered an entire nation butt-hurt to the point that all pretense of rational thought was abandoned. We let our emotions make decisions for us, attempting to launch a Vanguard booster well before it was ready in order to, I don't know, show the Commies that we were…second?

With a "plan" like that it is hard to see what could go wrong.

*sad trombone*

Amongst the lofty sounding Sputnik metaphors and soothing rhetoric the President mentioned repeatedly the need to better educate the American workforce. Earlier I talked at length about the dubiousness of this logic, but let us accept it at face value for just a moment. If what we really need is a highly educated, technologically skilled workforce, then the budget proposal we saw today does not make a lot of sense:

(One) component of his FY 2012 budget, which will be released tomorrow, will likely pile more debt upon students who decide to pursue graduate school, potentially making the dream of higher education even more unattainable for many Americans. The move, say administration officials, is needed to ensure that a popular financial aid award stays available at current levels…Host Candy Crowley questioned (OMB Director Jacob) Lew about whether this would make graduate school less accessible for many Americans:

CROWLEY: Here's the problem, I guess. If you are a graduate — let's take one of your examples. You're a graduate student; you are, right now, getting loans. You don't have to pay those loans or any interest on them until you graduate. But now you have to pay — or it accumulates, I'm assuming — you have to pay interest beginning on day one of grad school, and that makes it so that you can't go to grad school.

LEW: Well, let's just be clear. Interest will build up, but students won't have to pay until they graduate. So it will increase the burden for paying back the loans, but it will not reduce access to education. That's, I think, part of how you can responsibly have a plan that deals with the challenge of solving our fiscal crisis, getting out of the situation where the deficit is growing and growing, but also investing in the future.

Part of me wants to make a detailed, reasoned response to this nonsensical argument. A bigger part of me wants to walk up to Jacob Lew, press my palms to the corners of my mouth, and exhale forcefully to make really loud farting noises.

Ladies and gentlemen, we have found our Vanguard moment. If anything can motivate Americans to seek and acquire the skills we so badly need to compete with the Chinamen it is an extra $5-10k in debt saddled to each professional degree. The message, of course, is that you should go to graduate school anyway. Think of the extra debt as additional motivation to take whatever the lousy job market offers you when you finish – and a reminder not to get too uppity with Management in that job you won't be able to afford to lose.

POSTSCRIPT: On its third attempt Vanguard succeeded in putting a grapefruit-sized metal ball into orbit. But. But! It's still in orbit, unlike Sputnik. It is in fact the oldest man-made object in orbit at present. So, uh, suck on that, Ivan. What, didn't they translate The Tortoise and the Hare into Cyrillic?

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27 Responses to “THE VANGUARD MOMENT”

  1. Andrew R. Says:

    Well, most people shouldn't be going to grad school. I'm actually in favor of *anything* that disincentivizes some bright kid from surrendering 6-10 years of his 20s and 30s only to wind up adjuncting a 4/4 for the princely sum of $2,000 a course.

  2. Andrew R. Says:

    (Although given the gender composition of the humanities and social sciences, I should probably have written "her 20s and 30s.")

  3. jazzbumpa Says:

    Well, I can sure find Ohio on a map – my mom still lives there.

    And I have vague childish memories of Sputnik. It did kick off the space race, without which we would not have had the hand held calculator in the early 70's.

    You're right, I don't remember Vanguard. I do remember rockets blowing up.

    Obama's budget capitulates to the Rethugs, and Lipless McReptile (R, KY) still insulted him on the floor of the Senate.

    WASF, and it gets worse every god-damned day.

    Oh – and can can actually play sad trombone. This sure is the time for it.

  4. skyskier Says:

    Funny you mention Sputnik, I just happened to watch the movie "Far side of the Moon" last night. Besides being a beautifully made movie, one of the story line is about the main character, a grad student, writing a Phd thesis on the space race being an exercise in narcissism (but the movie is much more than that). Anyway, rent it, it's a cool movie.

  5. John Says:

    My parents grew up in an age where they were told that credit was the answer to everything.

    I grew up in an age that was cynical enough to recognize that credit/debt is just a way to owe some fucker more money than something's worth so that you can have it right now, as opposed to when you can afford it.

    And in this age where we as a society have seen first-hand what happens when credit finally comes due and an entire generation of people can't pay up, it completely dumbfounds me that corporations and even the government are still trying to sell this notion that debt and credit are the solutions to everything.

    Let's forget about the fact that you can't afford grad school. Let's put aside that it probably won't even do anything for you unless you truly want to be a university teacher or a research scientist. Let's forget all of that — just go ahead and do it now, the debt will handle everything! Forget the fact that it just hiked up massively, you don't have to pay *now*, you can pay *later*!

    When I finished my bachelor's, I lived with my parents for one year while putting nearly all of my salary into paying my modest student debt off immediately. My father consistently urged my to get my master's, and I explained to him time and time again why the master's wouldn't bring much additional benefit to me in my chosen field, and why I couldn't afford it.

    Two years later, I'm doing fairly well at my job, and lending *him* a small bit of financial aid. A feat which I'm able to accomplish because I'm not paying off several more years' worth of student debt.

    Higher education in this nation has become just another profit-driven industry. Students are urged to go into massive debt to continue their education not because it brings any true benefit to the majority of them (although there is substantial value in it for the professions I noted above), but because their debt will finance the banking elite of this nation quite well.

  6. Neal Deesit Says:

    I was about 10 when Sputnik went up. On the TV, pictures of a silver basketball with antennas, the sound of beeps recorded from space fade under Cronkite looking into the camera and explaining "the way it is" from behind his desk.. Some space related broadcast brought a television into my classroom for the first time. My parents bought me a Gilbert chemistry set, and suffered the smoke and smells from the basement.

    By 17 I was at a small sectarian college in an NIH-funded intense science program. Upside: full tuition, small science classes and labs, taught and run by actual professors, a generous budget for materials and supplies. We went through (CH3)2CO like it was H2O. Downside: virtually nothing but science and math. The Freshman English taught by an awful fraud was the only English I'd get. I transferred to a much better liberal arts school and wound up in philosophy. All paid for with summer earnings, weekends making pizzas, campus jobs shelving engineering books and cleaning up after germ-free rats. And for my last semester, a federally insured loan for $1,000. By the end of law school, I owed $6,000 at 3 point something per cent. Fixed.

    At the end of that ride today, the meter would read dozens of thousands, maybe north of 100, at market rates, adjusted quarterly. Jump on that hamster wheel, counselor!

  7. Jimcat Says:

    Let's not forget that Vanguard wasn't even the first successful American satellite. After all that research, development, and series of launch pad disasters, the Army said "screw this" and put together a working launch vehicle using proven technology in about three months, then lobbed Explorer I into space. There's a lesson there for those who believe that the American way is more of a brute-force approach of anything that works.

  8. Georgia Jeff Says:

    Wasn't the first American satellite called 'Echo'? My family used to lie on our backs in the grass on summer evenings and watch the Echo satellite traverse the night sky. I was maybe six or seven. I was full of awe and wonder, little aware of the implications that in less than two years I would be doing the 'duck and cover' as part of a a normal school drill. The Cuban Missile Crisis was coming soon to a neighborhood near you. And at night I would watch Dinah Shore sing the Chevy song on a black and white TV with a huge 12" screen. (Yes I'm still pissed at the 'blame whitey' posts.) I was blissfully ignorant of the shit storm I was about to grow up in, or the shit storm that had preceded. The irony of how most of our current domestic technological luxuries are fallout from military technological advances is a very thick irony. Very bitter sweet. Another fact lost on many of our government indoctrinated children.

    We certainly do need to find a way to make graduate-level degrees as accessible as possible to whoever has proven the mental capacity and the desire. I think a good argument is easy to make that it is a vital national security interest. But I also think that these components, education-technology-national defense, need to be in the context of a completely different U.S. foreign policy. (LIke maybe 180 degrees.) Maybe a less imperialistic approach to the world would make it more feasible to spend less on direct and active military quagmires, and fund some things that would actually make us smarter, safer, and more respected globally. And maybe less broke.

  9. Cokehead Says:

    Georgia Jeff: I only argue with "government indoctrinated" children. I graduated high school three years ago; didn't feel at all like I was indoctrinated.

    I'm not going for a graduate degree. Not because science doesn't interest me at all (holy balls, it does) – but the oft-heard "I'm bad a math" excuse fits here. Upper (stop laughing) math courses just didn't click for me. They had me at algebra, and somewhere between that and geometry I got lost and never was able to make my way back. I failed what was commonly referred to as "the easy math class" my senior year. It was basically rehashed algebra/geometry with a tiny, tiny bit of basic calculus.

    Numbers don't fucking work that way! And thus, I lost.


  10. Zach Says:

    I also don't like the Sputnik metaphor. I understand why Obama is doing it – it's an appeal to the baby boomers and a reminder of a time when things were a very well defined "us vs. them".

    The problem is there is no Sputnik moment. China and others are destroying us in the clean energy race, but there was no single event where this technological threat was personified as it was with Sputnik. If China were to announce tomorrow that they had discovered cold fusion, then that would be a sputnik moment.

    As it is, people can't see the writing on the wall. If we're going to have a hope of maintaining our status as innovators and inventors, we gotta kick the math and science into high gear and start a meaningful investment in massive scale clean energy programs.

  11. Hobbes Says:

    I transferred to a much better liberal arts school and wound up in philosophy. All paid for with summer earnings, weekends making pizzas, campus jobs shelving engineering books and cleaning up after germ-free rats.

    Unless you've got a full-time summer job, you're not paying rent, AND you're attending a public school in your own state, this is almost impossible now. My undergraduate was a public school in my own state and my parents helped with tuition, and I worked high-paying campus jobs (read: $12/hr) making websites for the biotech labs. Still left school with $5k in loans, lived like a monk to pay them off as fast as I could.

    And I think Ed means professional school, not graduate school in general. That is, MD/JD/MBA type school. Those folks are shelling out tons for the privilege of being here, while those of us in graduate school are for the most part getting paid to be here (admittedly not much).

  12. Da Moose Says:

    Sputnik? We launched a spam derivative into space? Why did we do that?

  13. HoosierPoli Says:

    I have somehow managed to set myself up such that I will probably get my Masters without a penny of debt to my name, but that is 95 percent my parents' doing. They basically paid my way through four years of undergraduate work. How many parents can manage that these days? It's absolutely a crime that politicians can say that "we want to guarantee equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome", when anyone with half a brain can grasp that a parent's outcome is a child's opportunity.

  14. Elder Futhark Says:

    Um, no. If you look at the declassified history of Sputnik, then you know that the Army program was well ahead of the Soviets. Former Nazi Werner von Braun's Jupiter C missiles could have launched a satellite into orbit a full year ahead of Sputnik. Eisenhower was aware of it all, but had to play dumb so that the Soviets would not know that we knew more than they thought we knew.

  15. Geds Says:

    Let's forget about the fact that you can't afford grad school. Let's put aside that it probably won't even do anything for you unless you truly want to be a university teacher or a research scientist. Let's forget all of that — just go ahead and do it now, the debt will handle everything! Forget the fact that it just hiked up massively, you don't have to pay *now*, you can pay *later*!

    I've got a friend who was always talking about all the money he'd make and all the awesome luxury stuff he wanted to own. He has fairly expensive, if unrefined, tastes and tended to be in the presence of people who had taste and means. He is firmly middle class and has more ambition than foresight.

    When he got done with college he had fairly middling grades. He went to law school, but it wasn't a particularly prestigious institution, so he wasn't getting those six-figure entry salaries he'd expected (and, I'm sure, the absolute glut of lawyers we have right now isn't helping). He bitched and moaned his way through law school, then told me that I should go because it was a good degree that would give me a lot of opportunity and I would be much better fit for law school than he was (which, I admit, is probably true). The law school thing never panned out for him. So now he's off getting an MBA.

    My buddy has student debt well in to six-figure territory. He's 29, constantly broke, still lives with his parents, and drives a 12 year-old Honda Civic with a passenger door that's entirely Bondo. And he's going to be screwed for pretty much the rest of his life because all he could see was the end result and had no idea that the path he was taking wouldn't get him there.

    I, meanwhile, did the first half of my college education at juco. I then got a degree from Western Illinois University, which I chose because it had the distinction of being the cheapest public school in my home state. I currently drive a mid-class 2010 Mazda 6 I bought last year with 0% financing and cash back, have a couple grand sitting in the bank, another ten grand or so out in investments and 401(k) funds, and a debt load that amounts to maybe half of my yearly income (my total credit card debt amounting to somewhere between 0 and $1000 at any given time. Usually much closer to the 0). I live on my own and once I build my new desktop gaming computer in about a month there will literally be nothing that I want that I don't have that will cost me more than a hundred bucks.

    I'm thinking that, all else being equal, my buddy would take my life now over his in a heartbeat. I've had to take on some debt, but what I've taken on has been minimal and I carefully calculated everything out to make sure I wasn't making any moves that would screw me over long term (and by "long term," I mean that I thought long and hard about those 60 months spent financing the Mazda).

    Of course, I learned about debt troubles the easy way. I spent the better part of a year unemployed back when I was still 21 and hadn't moved out of the house yet, but had been dumb enough to buy a used 1996 Chrysler Concorde and rack up $1500 or so in credit card debt. I hadn't saved a dime from my first real ($22k/yr in 2001. Woo!) job and I blew through my severance package because I was all, "Hey, paid vacation!" Seven or eight months in to that one the reality of the situation hit me like a sack of wet bricks.

    It sucked at the time, but I'm so glad that I had the difficulty I had at such low stakes. I might have decided to go to law school if I hadn't…

  16. Jen Says:

    What's really getting terrifying is that a lot of jobs out there have inflated requirements. I see lots of job postings requiring a masters for a job that pays 40-50K a year. Not that long ago, these same jobs required a bachelors. The degrees themselves are getting inflated and their value will be lost, if they haven't already. This isn't going to help anything.

  17. Paul W. Luscher Says:

    I keep thinking of the comment I read from some right-wing woman who said education is a privilege, not a right. No, sweetheart, it is a NECESSITY. (Hmmm, guess she is just part of the rising tide of ignorance–and proud of it, too–that is sweeping this country.)

    Y'know, my Dad grew up in Switzerland, where he received a university education. Free. And I don't see that Switzerland is doing too badly these days, as compared to us.

    Needless to say, my Dad thinks that the idea that a college education should leave the recipient shackled in debt for decades to come is pure insanity. But I guess he just don't understand that everything is America is supposed to be about making a buck off somebody….

  18. Mark Says:

    "If what we really need is a highly educated, technologically skilled workforce, then the budget proposal we saw today does not make a lot of sense…"

    You know what else doesn't make sense? Pushing people who are going to end up working service industry jobs (or almost anything requiring a business admin degree) into four-year universities and graduate programs only to have them accumulate tens of thousands of dollars of debt.

    I get the point of having a liberal arts education (to round out a specialization by providing outside skills and knowledge that may directly or indirectly benefit that specialization), but this could (and should!) be accomplished at the high school level. Lets quit kidding ourselves – a sizable portion of the people at universities today shouldn't have even graduated high school. The fact that two semesters of Freshman Composition is the norm should be evidence of that.

    I'm not saying that we should deny anyone post-secondary education – we should instead provide another path to formal education similar to what Japan, China, and most of Western Europe offer. Germany and China, in particular, begin preparing students at the secondary level for skilled-trades, white collar jobs, and university post-secondary tracks. This allows their students to get the education they need to enter the work force, while allowing the universities to operate at a smaller capacity and reduced costs. This is also why their programs of study are typically more intense – when I was at university in Georgia, we had several exchange students from Qinghua University in Beijing tell us that much of what they were studying for the semester/year they had already learned in high school.

    I would venture to say our "sputnik" moment came and went when we outsourced our economy to Asia. We just didn't see the need to take it seriously this time. For just once I would like to hear a President tell us HOW we can use this "highly educated, technologically skilled workforce" to improve standard of living and the economy of the United States.

  19. Patrick Says:

    Taking the state of our public education system as a microcosm, I really think we're screwed. I am usually a hard-bitten optimist, but it's hard to keep that optimism when you start unpacking all the propaganda and misguided sunny jingoism (Sputnik Moments and such).

    Setting aside all the conservative jeremiads against public education, let's think about what our economy is going to look like 10, 20, 30 years from now. Do you really need a Master's degree to manage your local Taco Bell, or if you're lucky enough, your local Taco Bueno? No. Do you even need a Bachelor's degree to work two or three part time jobs as a bartender/admin assistant/short order cook? No. It's jobs like those that are going to be the most plentiful in the next two to three decades, not jobs that actually require a college degree.

    So are colleges going to step up and declare the obsolescence of many of their degree programs and nobly fall on their swords? Hell no. They're stuck; many college degrees are increasingly irrelevant while at the same time public funding for higher education is being cut back in states all across America. The more you slash public funding, the more universities will hustle kids like needy prostitutes.

    Anyone got any ideas on how we get out of this situation?

  20. mothra Says:

    Well, look at the bright side–it just might cut down on all the liberal arts grads who decide that law school is the only place for them after they get their bachelor's degree–thus cutting down on all the attorneys who have overblown opinions of their intelligence and worth to society.

    *I work in the legal field. I know wereof I speak

  21. Andrew Says:

    You can't translate something into Cyrillic, as Cyrillic is an alphabet, not a language. Did you mean, perchance, Russian?

  22. James Hare Says:

    Check out the Wikipedia entry for the Vanguard rocket. The caption for the photo used here is hilarious.

  23. Pinkyleft Says:

    I remember reading about the Vanguard project recently. I was looking for something I thought was unrelated and found a number of articles detailing what a glorious mess the Vanguard project turned into.

    Turf wars and petty jealousies and military contractors just screwing up stuff so that they could be paid to do it all over again, and again… I saw it as a reason for smaller Pentagon budgets.

    I remember someone once saying that we don't get better weapons if we spend more money on the Department of Defense, we just get more expensive ones…

    And yes, 'an education' will become another 'perk' for the 'haves' who will rule this despotic country. Those that are unlucky enough to be born to a poor family will be forced to wallow in our theocratic and otherwise useless public educational centers basically 'learning' only what is needed to pass a test and get the center more money.

    Oh, how far we have fallen and OMG how far there is yet to fall…

  24. Jacob Davies Says:

    The thing about the "Sputnik moment" was that it threatened the ability to rain nuclear annihilation down on American cities and kill millions of people while the US could only retaliate with bombers that could very likely be shot down en route, and therefore (to the easily panicked) put the US at the mercy of crazy Soviet dictators. And after all, if they could make rockets that could drop nuclear bombs on Americans, what else could they do?

    But our "Sputnik moment" with regards to China is that they got really good at making consumer goods and now make enough money to give their kids a decent education, while we are so fucking stupid that we no longer think it's worth doing so, while being in absolutely no physical danger. How terrifying.

  25. Paul Camp Says:

    People keep missing what made the Sputnik moment a Sputnik moment. It didn't have anything at all to do with demonstrating the ability to put a beeping stainless steel basketball in low Earth orbit.

    It had absolutely everything to do with demonstrating the ability to drop a basketball size nuke on the top of our heads.

    There are certainly a wide variety of problems today, but outsourcing jobs to Bangalore just doesn't carry the same whiff of the end of civilization.

    And without that, it just isn't a Sputnik moment.

  26. Amr Says:

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