The First Line of Defense: Higher Education in Wartime and the Development of National Defense Education, 1939-1959
Ponte, Dana Adrienne
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This study posits that the National Defense Education Act of 1958 (NDEA) represented the culmination of nearly a century-long process through which education was linked to national defense in periods of wartime, and later retained a strategic utility for defense purposes in times of peace. That a defense rationale for federal support of public higher education achieved a staying power that outlasted moments of temporary strategic necessity is due in large part to the efforts of individuals in the education and policymaking communities who were able to envision and promote a lasting, expansive definition of education for national defense – one that would effectively marshal federal funding for decades to come. In the latter half of the 20th century, it was precisely this definition that provided the rationale for further federal forays into public education in the United States, accumulating into a level of involvement that now feels commonplace. Despite its present predominance, however, this relationship was by no means a foregone conclusion in the early decades of the 20th century. The United States has historically been defined by its constitutional separation of federal and state powers, notably made manifest in a traditional emphasis on state control over public education. Each crossing of this boundary is driven by a conceptual shift that makes such transcendence possible. When the relationship of higher education to the federal government is viewed in this context, a question naturally arises – that of how the federal government has come to be involved in higher education, and under what rationales. A longstanding tradition of large-scale federal education legislation arising in wartime, and accompanying surges of federal investment in higher education, suggests that concerns of national defense provide a compelling rationale for federal involvement in public education at all levels, despite historical and even Constitutional considerations that urge a state, rather than a federal, approach. The process by which education, and particularly higher education, was paired with national defense, on a conceptual and on the level of federal policy in the two decades prior to the passage of the NDEA is the focus of this study. As a window onto this process, this study has implications for our historical understanding of the experience of the higher education enterprise in wartime, and of the evolving relationship between the federal government and the nation’s colleges and universities in the interests of national defense and security.
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