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The 1950s Education: Overview

The 1950s Education: Overview

The number-one issue involving education in the United States during the 1950s was school integration. For decades, qualified black Americans had been denied admission to whites-only colleges and public schools. Now, however, black undergraduates and graduate students began petitioning for equal admissions and equal rights.

Additionally, the "separate but equal" doctrine, as outlined by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Plessy v. Ferguson case of 1896, had long been the basis for segregating whites and blacks in public schools. "Separate but equal" meant that blacks and whites could attend separate schools and thereby receive equal opportunities for education. In reality, however, particularly in the South, the schools attended by white children were more modern and better equipped. In 1954, the Supreme Court, in its landmark Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas case, set aside Plessy v. Ferguson. The court ruled that "separate but equal" denied black students equal protection under the law. Many states remained determined to maintain segregated school systems, however, and some openly defied Brown v. Board of Education. These actions resulted in national headlines and, occasionally, in violence.

At the same time that educators celebrated the increasing numbers of adults who were extending their learning experiences beyond high school and college by enrolling in adult-education courses, backers of education lamented the decline in government funding for public schools. As more baby boomers reached school age, they found increasingly inadequate classrooms, teacher shortages, and decreasing school expenditures.

The content of the curriculum in public schools changed dramatically during the decade. At first, progressive-minded educators focused more on a student's emotional, physical, and mental development, at the expense of developing such basic skills as reading, writing, and mathematics. The 1957 launching by the Soviet Union of the Sputnik orbiting satellite was a sobering jolt to educators. The Sputnik launch was seen as proof that the United States was lagging behind the Soviets in the space race, and educators began refocusing on basic learning skills, especially in math and science.

During the decade, a debate arose that remains hotly contested in the early twenty-first century: Should taxpayer monies earmarked for education also support private and parochial (religion-affiliated) schools? Those who supported the idea of sharing tax revenue among public and nonpublic schools felt that parents who sent their children to private or parochial schools were being unfairly taxed. Their opponents argued that the constitutional concept of the separation of church and state prevented government funding of parochial schools.

At the same time, the "Red Scare" of the 1950s brought the private lives of educators under scrutiny. Politicians wanted to purge schools of anyone with alleged Communist Party ties. Public school teachers and college professors who refused to answer questions about their political beliefs or sign loyalty oaths were suspended or fired from their jobs. Those who condemned such actions argued that academic freedom and constitutional protections were being compromised.

Finally, during the decade, young people increasingly were spending their after-school hours in front of television sets. Educators saw great potential for TV as a learning tool. However, television was born as, and continues to be, a commercial medium. Viewers of all ages were attracted to TV primarily for diversion, so advertising dollars were more available for entertainment programming than for educational purposes.

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