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America’s Different Kind of “Sputnik Moment”

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Like many students, I listened intently to the president address the nation on Tuesday to announce a new “Sputnik Moment.” The buzzword surrounding the speech was competitiveness bringing the implied questions: How do we make America great again? Depending on your interpretation of events, the U.S. might already be the greatest nation on earth, but with a dilapidated infrastructure, an education system that is clearly not making the grade, and a compounding debt crisis it’s clear that policy wonks must unite to find solutions to these problems.

I wish I had the time to address each of the topics. Since most have been beaten to death by the twenty-four hour news cycle, the job seems a bit moot. Instead, a crucial element of the speech that concerns college student seems more appropriate. In order to foster a more competitive America it is necessary to get an adequate workforce that is up to the task. Engineering, scientific research, and vocational training were all lauded by the president as new career tracks to bring the U.S. into the 21

“Washington has been telling us to wait for decades, even as the problems have grown worse. Meanwhile, China is not waiting to revamp its economy. Germany is not waiting. India is not waiting. These nations — they’re not standing still. These nations aren’t playing for second place. They’re putting more emphasis on math and science. They’re rebuilding their infrastructure,” said President Obama with nationalistic zeal.

The emphasis on math and science to build an entrepreneurial spirit is great, but building a mass army of government subsidized mind molded zombies of engineers is not the best way to go. Don’t get me wrong, government investment can be a good investment. The interstate highway system, NASA, and military-industrial complex are all fantastic ways to create jobs, but it may not work to individual business investment.

Let me explain. Mark Zuckerberg did not create Facebook out of a government investment. Bill Gates did not invent Microsoft on a promise of making America great. Ray Croc did not form a tasty fast food chain because the government ordered him to. No, passion for an idea sparks American ingenuity. Taking an idea from the mere planning stages to a practical reality drives the true nature of American capitalism.

Another bothersome aspect derives from a notion of “science” being the way forward to a brighter tomorrow. Now, I am not knocking the scientific community. They certainly work hard and I appreciate all the accomplishments science has to offer. Nevertheless, civilization develop also comes from the humanities. Art, literature, philosophy, and economic theory all define a civilization. Theoretical knowledge forms a paradigm for one to explain ideas and foster critical thinking skills not found in a science lab.

David Brooks, conservative columnist for the New York Times explains the dynamic best, “Studying the humanities will give you a familiarity with the language of emotion. In an information economy, many people have the ability to produce a technical innovation: a new MP3 player. Very few people have the ability to create a great brand: the iPod. Branding involves the location and arousal of affection, and you can’t do it unless you are conversant in the language of romance.”

So it is important to have a strong investment in technological innovation, but it must also be coupled with an investment in humanities education. The point is that our generations “Sputnik Moment” might arise from passionate ideas and human processing of how we explain those ideas to form a new generation of ideas that other nations will want to bring to their shores and find a new reason for the U.S. to be the envy of the world. That’s the real “Sputnik moment.”

To read more opinions by John Stang check out his blog called the “Independent Internationalist.”  Also listen to his radio show on WRKE 100.3 FM, also online at wrke.org, about U.S. foreign policy and politics on Tuesdays from 1-3 pm est.