Several years ago I came across a speech given by one John Jay Hopkins, a prim industrial magnate who founded the General Dynamics corporation. At the time of his speech, Hopkins’ company was 3 years old, and even with the passage of six decades and the end of the Cold War, I find his rhetoric fits many of the same education problems described in Western society today. Whether the problem of an uneducated populace is constantly in flux, or if it is just a matter of framing (e.g. every generation thinks the next has gotten it wrong)– it seems that our culture has oftentimes perpetuated an odd obsession with the dressings of education, rather than the quality of that education in itself.

 

Excerpts from The Education Crisis of Our Atomic Age
By JOHN JAY HOPKINS, Chairman and President, General Dynamics Corporation, New York
Delivered before the Annual Thanksgiving Institute of the Oakland Public Schools,
Oakland, California | November 23, 1955;
printed in Vital Speeches of the Day, December 15, 1955

For the past 10 years, thoughtful Americans have become increasignly aware in a generalized way of the critical need for a reappraisal of our educational system. What had been previously a matter of academic debate among professional educators has now exploded into the daily press and the popular periodical literature.

Education, of course, has not escaped the heavy-handed professional opinion makers who thrive on controversy and who bring it all the force and passion of the untalented amateur with a mission. Yet despite the volumes of smoke in which such individuals have enveloped the subject of education, the fact remains that we are confronted with an exceedingly grave situation:

We do not have enough scientifically and technically educated persons to keep our nation a going concern.

Although the atomic age is only in its infancy, technical advances which have already occurred in electronic communications and supersonic transportation have, in social and economic terms, shrunken drastically our world and, indeed, even our solar system. Historic differences of nations and cultures are impinging ever more closely upon another, historic frictions are being intensified—hitherto isolated, non-industrialized nations are becoming aware of the material benefits and strength of technology and are asserting their claims to higher living standards. These are all direct results of successive industrial revolutions which have swept over the West and have produced two World Wars within one generation, [the transformation of global paradigms], as well as scores of major and minor social upheavals. World instability is perhaps more evident than ever before, and yet, within this infinitely complex international geometry, scientific and technical advances continue to build toward a critical mass.

Yet essentially, the responsibility for our national destiny does not lie with the military, or the government or with American industry. To paraphrase the Duke of Wellington’s famous remark, victory or defeat will be decided ultimately not on battlefields but on the campuses of our colleges and in our high schools. As technology bulks larger in human affairs, so the nation must look to its scientific and technical resources, not only for its security in a world fraught with danger, but also as the prime movers in developing a richer and fuller life for its people. These two considerations quite logically extend beyond national boundaries, for it may well be that upon the ability and imagination of the American engineering profession rests the hope of a peaceful and prosperous world. It seems quite likely that as our technology becomes more complex, more bound up in the lives of all people, the technical knowledge of the engineer may be such that they alone will be competent to make decisions of sweeping social and economic significance.

What is the present status of American education? How may we improve our educational system so that our youth will receive the best possible preparation for careers which will be individually rewarding and at the same time strengthen our resolve? And finally, how may we increase the quantity of vital scientific and technical personnel on whom so much will depend.

These are all difficult questions. They are not susceptible to the glib generalization or blueprint. And Americans, it seems to me, in their haste for immediate results, their abiding faith in the spectacular approach, may be too hasty in applying an obvious but basically superficial remedy. I refer to the widespread beleif that dollars and lots of them will solve any problem. 

Money, as everyone knows, is a most useful commodity, and money may well provide necessary facilities. But money spent indiscriminately will not raise the level of our educational processes, nor will it even add commensurately to the numbers of educated people. In every urban and rural area of the United States we may see evidence of an indiscriminate application of money. Billions of dollars have been spent on new primary and secondary schools which are the last word in modern architectural design, comfort and convenience. In college and community we see the same addiction to physical expansion, the fetish of beautiful facilities, the criterion of educational success. Of what use, I might ask, are splendid facilities— if the teachers are underpaid and inadequately trained? I suggest less emphasis on facilities and more emphasis on faculties.   

When a community or college has taxed itself to the limit for a multi-million dollar monument to its civic-mindedness, how much is left over to provide adequate salaries which will attract good teachers? In community after community throughout the nation we see such obvious examples of overspending on facilities and underspending on instruction. Of the two, I am sure you will agree, instruction is far more important than facilities.

Now what of the teachers themselves? It is a widely held opinion that the history of inadequate salaries in education has discouraged the most talented Americans from entering the teaching profession and that, as a result, educational standards have suffered over the years. This may be true, but again, and I am sure you will agree, income per se is not the sole answer. I contend that the American educational system, like other aspects of our society, is simply not prepared for the massive theoretical breakthrough into the [information] era. The revolution wrought some [95] years ago by John Dewey by which primary and secondary education was directed toward humanitarian, social goals, with the implication that Democracy was an ideal, not a working principle, and that education was mainly a preparation for adequate [careers and] living, must, in my opinion, be modified to conform with the new realities of the [Information] age.

In some respects the over-emphasis on educational method rather than content has had, I feel, some rather unfortunate results in public primary and secondary education. Such instruction is apt to become uninspired and unimaginative with a loss of interest and a consequent lack of attention on the part of the students. Even as engineers, scientists and businessmen must widen their range of knowledge to accept the challenge of the [information] age, so must the teachers in our public schools broaden and vitalize their instruction. It is their responsibility not only to know how to teach but what they are teaching, for only with a complete mastery of their subject may they communicate their superior knowledge in a lucid, stimulating manner.

I hold no brief for the college professor whose various degrees and complete knowledge in their field is not counterbalanced with good teaching techniques. All of us have been subjected at one time or another to tedious lectures from uninspired instructors who knew nothing about stimulating interest and cared less. They were indifferent to their students and their students were generally indifferent to their lectures. Such an instructor is perhaps more inadequate than their high school counterpart who uses the best techniques to teach from a prepared curriculum and knows little else about their subject matter.

Nothing industrialists and educators can do is more vital than the preservation and encouragement of the tireless curiosity of the gifted mind. Einstein has stated it simply, eloquently and memorably: “There is such a thing as a passionate desire to understand, just as there is a passionate desire for music. This passion is common with children, but it usually vanishes as they grow up. Without it, there would be no natural science and no mathematics.” It is the duty of the government and industry, and of our colleges, universities and high schools, to encourage the passion to understand among those gifted with it—and to provide the climate, the atmosphere, [the culture,] the facilities, and personnel that will nourish it and maintain it and permit it to be fruitful.

Genius, like fear and hatred is indifferent to nationality and it is no more common to a Democracy than to a Dictatorship! But if any culture is to survive, genius in the [child], whatever the field, must be nurtured and succeding generations must have the benefit of the knowledge and insights of those who have gone on before. The only way humankind has discovered to bring genius and fruition, and to pass along its gifts to those coming along after, is through teaching.

American education, it seems to me, has been tinkered with enough over the past [95] years without some basic re-examination of its essential theory or philosophy. In this educational crisis of our [information] age, it is the duty of all American educators to recognize their unique responsibility for national survival. In an atmosphere free from emotion, we must view the entire system objectively and establish an integrating process which will knit together the present raveled strands. Then, perhaps, the United States will possess educational sinews which will be sufficiently strong to protect our technical and scientific leadership, sufficiently flexible to accept the immense creative challenge of the [information] age and to survive the educational and industrial crisis that confronts us.