Cold War Conflict Prompted Education Arms Race

In 1958, Harvard commenced its most ambitious capital campaign—raising $82.5 million—in an attempt to stay abreast of the Soviet Union

While the Cold War is often associated with a nuclear arms race or space race, Harvard in the postwar years found itself in the midst of another critical contest. Fifty years ago, Harvard and other American universities competed against schools in other countries to reach a perpetually rising bar in the battle for superior education.

“There was certainly a pressure to do more,” said Christopher S. Jencks ’58, currently a professor of social policy at the Kennedy School, who wrote numerous articles on education for The Crimson as an undergraduate and went on to publish work in the field of higher education. “We didn’t want to be behind in anything, least of all behind the Soviets.”

The Cold War climate facilitated academic competition among countries, due to the USSR’s Oct. 1957 release of the first man-made satellite, Sputnik, into space. But changes in the landscape of higher education suggested more than just a race against Russia, and the 1957-1958 academic year saw discussion of a range of reforms that reflected shifting ideas about what education should look like and what its role should be.


When the class of 1958 was in its junior year, the College launched the “Program for Harvard College”—called the College’s “most ambitious fund-raising campaign ever.” The campaign collected $82.5 million in the name of education reform, but this concentrated drive was more than just financial.

Extensive discussion—and questioning—of the tutorial system, the current curriculum, and the Ph.D. program brought up the possibility of fundamental changes to the face of education at Harvard.

High-profile figures such as former University President James B. Conant ’14 were publicly vocal in their support for education reform. Conant received a grant from the Carnegie Foundation in 1957 to study American public high schools through “searching examination, city by city and town by town” over two years to see whether gifted children were adequately pushed to strive for higher education.

Harvard economics professor John Kenneth Galbraith and Dean of the Faculty McGeorge Bundy went on national television in November, along with two-time Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson, to issue a bipartisan request that “more of the national product be devoted to education.”

Administrators also shed light on what they perceived to be the defects of the grading system at the time. Paul H. Buck, former dean of the Faculty, told The Crimson that a “police-type exam given in great detail” can ruin “brilliant students,” and director of freshman scholarships Wallace MacDonald ’44 added: “Too few students realize that God is not grading their bluebooks.”


But professors and administrators were not the only people at Harvard focused on improving education. The student body too revealed a pointed emphasis on perfecting their own education.

In Nov. 1957, the student council released a 22-page report on the tutorial system at Harvard, calling for the creation of an interdepartmental faculty committee to provide “coherent overall direction” for the tutorial program, as well as a “substantial increase in Tutorial fund.” In an unconditional criticism of the system, the report asserted that “student opinion seems unanimous on its inadequacy.”

Earlier that semester, The Crimson published a 14-page education supplement of its own addressing pertinent issues facing the nation and the University at the time, from the lecture system to grading.

Philip M. Boffey ’58, now an editorial writer for The New York Times, wrote a critique of the lecture system at Harvard, which he called “by no means perfect,” for the front page of the supplement.

And then-Crimson President Adam Clymer ’58, the recently-retired chair of The Crimson’s graduate board who would also go on to write for the Times, called the success of General Education at the time “qualified,” pointing especially to weakness in the sciences.

When the “Program for Harvard College” announced that it aimed to provide for “quantitative needs,” students criticized that “quantity comes easier than quality in education.”

Suggesting the underlying competition with the USSR, an anonymous Hungarian student was oft-quoted in articles at the time, claiming that the Soviet education system was not better than America’s. He cited a “lack of freedom,” the necessity of keeping to “the party line,” and “the selection of university students according to social class” as flaws.


The discussions of how to improve education at Harvard in 1958 were not limited in their relevance. Indeed, some issues from 50 years ago continue to resonate today.

Jencks, in his Crimson article “Molding a Man through ‘Liberal’ Education,” wrote that “college requirements are usually irrelevant in ‘re-forming’ students”—a criticism that can still be heard in his current skepticism toward the Core curriculum that Harvard currently administers.

“I think it seems like a good idea to change to Gen Ed,” he said. “I was never really enamored with the theory behind the Core.”

But he said that only time would tell whether something will actually bring change.

“When you spend a lot of your life studying education, you get very skeptical about announcements,” he said.

In addition to its 1957 fall education supplement, The Crimson also published its 10th annual Commencement education supplement in the spring of 1958—revealing the prolonged interest in the issue.

“Our search for the source of America’s educational woes never flags,” the editors wrote. “This year we turn back to the secondary schools where are sown the problems that universities like Harvard later fall heir to, through no fault of their own. We will not stop there you may be sure. Tomorrow, kindergarten; the next day, the womb.”

—Staff writer Vidya B. Viswanathan can be reached at