- National Defense Education Act
The National Defense Education Act (NDEA), signed into law on September 2, 1958, provided funding to United States education institutions at all levels. The act authorized funding for four years, increasing funding per year: for example, funding increased on eight program titles from 183 million dollars in 1959 to 222 million in 1960. While motivated by the increase in the number of students attending college and a growing national sense that U.S. scientists were falling behind scientists in the Soviet Union, it was arguably catalyzed by early Soviet success in the Space Race, notably the launch of the first-ever satellite, Sputnik, the year before.
However, in the aftermath of McCarthyism, a mandate was inserted in the act that all beneficiaries must complete an affidavit disclaiming belief in the overthrow of the U.S. government. This requisite loyalty statement stirred concern and protest from the American Association of University Professors and over 153 institutions.
Cause and purpose
The NDEA was influenced by the Soviet launch of the satellite Sputnik on October 4, 1957. The launch shook the American belief that the United States was superior in math and science to all other countries. U.S. citizens feared that schools in the USSR were superior to American schools, and Congress reacted by adding the act to take US schools up to speed.
The year 1957 also coincided with an acute shortage of mathematicians in the US. The electronic computer created a demand for mathematicians as programmers and it also shortened the lead time between the development of a new mathematical theory and its practical application, thereby making their work more valuable. The United States could no longer rely on refugees from Europe to supply all of its needs (although this remained an important source), so it had to drastically increase the domestic supply. At the time, "mathematics" was interpreted as pure mathematics rather than applied mathematics. As a result, although the US had more and better pure mathematicians than any other country in the world, it still had a shortage of applied mathematicians. The problem in the 1950s and 1960s was that industry, including defense, was absorbing the mathematicians who should have been at high schools and universities training the next generation. At the university level, even more recently, there have been years when it was difficult to hire applied mathematicians and computer scientists because of the rate that industry was absorbing them.
Additionally, more high school graduates were beginning to attend college. In 1940 about one-half million Americans attended college, which was about 15 percent of their age group. By 1960, however, college enrollments had expanded to 3.6 million. By 1970, 7.5 million students were attending colleges in the U.S., or 40 percent of college-age youths.
The act, therefore, was designed to fulfill two purposes. First, it was designed to provide the country with specific defense oriented personnel. This included providing federal help to foreign language scholars, area studies centers, and engineering students. Second it provided financial assistance—primarily through the National Defense Student Loan program—for thousands of students who would be part of the growing numbers enrolling at colleges and universities in the 1960s.
Included in the NDEA—Title X, Section 1001 (f)--is a mandate that all beneficiaries of the act complete an affidavit disclaiming belief in the overthrow of the U.S. government. Some in higher education opposed the disclaimer affidavit, as it came to be called, because they said it attempted to control beliefs and as such violated academic freedom. Initially, a small number of institutions (Barnard College, Yale University, Princeton University) refused to accept funding under the student loan program established by the act because of the affidavit requirement. By 1962, when the act was repealed, the number of schools protesting the clause was 153.
After four years of seemingly ineffective protest, the disclaimer requirement was finally repealed. Repeal in Fall 1962 by President John F. Kennedy was spurred by an incident extraneous to universities' protests. Repeal followed the public disclosure of the case of an individual who had run into trouble with the House Un-American Activities Committee, then had been convicted of contempt of Congress, and then of all things, had received a National Science Foundation Fellowship. Under these circumstances, a case where the affidavit was proved ineffective emerged in 1961 and in spite of—rather than because of—protest prior to 1961, the disclaimer requirement was excised.
- Copy of the original National Defense Education Act (P.L. 85-864; 72 Stat. 1580), History of Federal Education Policy website
- Urban, Wayne J. More Than Science and Sputnik: The National Defense Education Act of 1958 (University of Alabama Press; 2010) 247 pages
- Schwegler, Stephan J. (1982). Academic Freedom and the Disclaimer Affidavit of the National Defense Education Act: The Response of Higher Education. Dissertation: Teacher's College, Columbia University.
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