On an October day nearly a half-century ago, Sputnik burst on the world. To the American people, the shock of seeing the Soviets seize the high ground of space was galvanizing. The Kremlin announced the launch on Friday, Oct. 4, 1957, as a triumph "of the new socialist society." All that weekend we absorbed a strange new vocabulary of "escape velocity," "guidance systems" and "earth orbits." That the Russians might beat us to the deployment of effective, nuclear-armed ICBMs was the subtext of our terror.
I was just 9, but that time still comes back to me with great force.
Monday morning, Oct. 7. Mrs. Davenport, my fourth-grade teacher at Fall Creek School in Ithaca, N.Y., planted her straight-backed chair in front of her desk and proceeded to lead a serious discussion, starting with a review of the news and the physics of rockets and satellites.
Then she delivered an urgent message. Our lives had changed overnight, she said. Sputnik meant that we would all have to buckle down, focus and apply ourselves assiduously to the study of math and science.
Mrs. Davenport reached that conclusion nearly a week ahead of the nation's leaders of higher education, who were soon to call for a response that featured massively stepped-up efforts in education and research.
The classroom I sat in that day had five rows of wooden desks, six desks in each row. That geometry -- and its accompanying lesson -- came back to me last month as I surveyed a much larger cadre of seated students in Beijing. I was there to explore partnerships in environmental education and research between Tsinghua University and the University of Vermont.
If China is to meet the environmental challenges of its rapid economic expansion, Tsinghua will play a key role as the nation's leading technological university. Already Tsinghua has two-thirds of the annual patent activity of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, on a campus as impressive in its libraries, classrooms and laboratories as the great research universities in the United States. And China is building 100 institutions to the same level.
On a tour of Tsinghua's main library, I came upon one of many crowded reading rooms, this one so long that the side walls seemed to converge in the distance, as in an art-school exercise in perspective. A center aisle divided two ranks of library tables receding down the long vista, eight seats at each table, almost every seat occupied by a student deep in study, at least 400 silently absorbed in books, writing in notebooks.
There lay the future: focused, determined, intense, inevitable.
Many informed observers know what that image of the Tsinghua reading room portends. But do the American people? From Fall Creek School to MIT, do our students understand that they must work at least as long, as hard and as smartly as their Chinese peers if we are to maintain a viable place in the economy of a Chinese century? Can they? Will they?
If only the image of that Tsinghua reading room could be our Sputnik. Can we respond as rapidly and as well as we did to that earlier challenge? How comforting it would be to know that we can. But unease and urgency, not comfort, are what we need most right now.
The writer is president of the University of Vermont.