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  • Scientists in the Classroom: The Cold War Reconstruction of American Science Education
  • Rebecca S. Lowen
John Rudolph , Scientists in the Classroom: The Cold War Reconstruction of American Science Education. New York: Palgrave, 2002. 262 pp.

John Rudolph's Scientists in the Classroom, a study of the federally sponsored reform of high school science education that began in the late 1950s, purports to show how the Cold War agenda affected millions of children throughout the United States. The title of the book is misleading, however. Although Rudolph discusses the scientists who created the new curriculum, he does not look at the classroom, its teachers, or its students. He provides little here about the pre-reform science curriculum beyond pointing out that it was part of the life-adjustment educational tradition, which wasintended to meet the personal needs of students and socialize the individual intothelarger group. Also, he does not discuss how the new curriculum was introduced into the classroom, if indeed it was, or how teachers or their students grappled with it.

The book is, in fact, a narrow study of the endeavor by a select group of prominent physicists and biologists, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), to create a science curriculum not so much to recruit more students to careers in science and engineering (the government's aim) as to bolster the place of their disciplines in relation to federal patrons and within American society. In a period when federal support for academic science was expanding, these scientists wanted to ensure that the [End Page 155] public (and members of the U.S. Congress) appreciated science as an endeavor for its own sake and supported funding for scientific research that did not necessarily promise technological breakthroughs or weapons of war. Rudolph suggests that the scientific community, deeply bruised by the zealous bullying of Red-baiters in the 1950s, also hoped to combat a perceived trend toward anti-intellectualism in American culture. Thus, the curriculum was designed to illustrate and celebrate the scientific method as it was actually practiced by scientists in the laboratory and thereby demonstrate the intrinsic value of analytical methods and rational thought.

Because the book never really explores pre-reform science education, it is difficult to make a comparative judgment about the alternative curriculum the scientists developed. But Rudolph does evaluate the scientists' effort on its own terms and finds it wanting in at least two respects. First, despite the appearance of bringing science education up to date, the curriculum, according to Rudolph, actually reflected the Cold War concerns of the militarized state. The scientific disciplines, in both their mode of practice and their content, were reshaped by the close post-World War II relationship that developed between scientists and their federal patrons. Thus, in the case of physics, a high school curriculum designed to emphasize quantum electronics and downplay classical mechanics was not merely an updating of the curriculum to reflect the current state of the field. The physicists' interests, according to Rudolph, had already been shaped by their proximity to a militarized federal government that was interested in developing and improving military-related technologies, for which knowledge of quantum electronics was an essential underpinning.

Second, Rudolph sees the scientists as technocratic and elitist in their approach. He notes that they did not seek input from local school boards, teachers, or educational professionals when designing their curriculum. Their decision that films, scripted by the scientists themselves, should be a major part of the curriculum was clearly an effort to reduce the significance of the role of the teacher in the classroom. This desire for social control and manipulation stemmed, in Rudolph's view, from the scientists' exposure to systems-engineering perspectives during World War II and from the involvement of a few of them, during the early Cold War, in a military-sponsored psychological and political warfare study known as Project Troy.

These observations—that the scientists' interests were shaped by the concerns of their patrons, even in subtle ways that many may have been unaware of, and that the scientists were elitist and technocratic—make sense. They are also nothing new. Historians of science have written extensively about these matters before...