02/14/2011 03:17 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Sputnik, DARPA, and Rosa Parks Moments: Metaphors We Reform Education By

I won't lie. I shudder when I hear President Obama talk about the challenges we face in education as a "Sputnik moment." I'm not pleased that the new education technology agency he's proposing -- ARPA-ED -- deliberately echoes the name of DARPA. That's a matter of politics, of course -- my politics. And it's a matter of historical interpretation.

These metaphors point to a specific moment in history when we faced challenges in education and innovation, but one, it's worth noting, that was then framed in terms of competition with a foreign threat. And to echo George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, metaphors matter. The metaphors we use shape how we conceive of problems and by extension conceive of solutions.

A Quick History

Sputnik: The Soviet Union launched the first rocket into space, Sputnik 1, in 1957. The United States was shocked to have been beaten to such a historical scientific triumph by a country that we had assumed with technologically primitive. The successful Sputnik launch wasn't just a symbolic victory in the space race, of course. It suggested that our political enemy could launch other missiles, those designed for war not space exploration.

DARPA: The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is a Defense Department agency, founded in 1958 (in response to Sputnik), whose aim is to develop new technologies for the military. DARPA has been responsible for the funding of a number of key technologies, including of course ARPANET, the predecessor to the Internet.

Metaphors Matter

I support investment in education and ed-tech -- public and private investment, both of which, no doubt, were necessary in the development of space race technologies. But I can't help but wonder how the metaphors we use today to frame the discussion around what's needed to jumpstart American education will shape the goals we set and the ways in which we invest.

A "Sputnik" moment, I'd contend, is the realization that your geopolitical enemies are beating you to a specific scientific or technological goal. It posits a military threat. Addressing a "Sputnik" moment isn't simply about reigniting scientific inquiry for the sake of scientific achievement. It's not about knowledge for the sake of knowledge, learning for the sake of learning. It's about buttressing our defenses against Communist forces (the Soviet Union then, China now, I guess). Naming a new education agency whose aim is to support research into education technology after a military agency seems to confirm that the stakes are high enough here that education has become a national security issue.

A poor education weakens national security, true. But it weakens every aspect of our country -- business growth, family life, media literacy, personal fulfillment. Does wrapping our pitch for a stronger education system around questions of American exceptionalism and scientific advancement under the guise of national defense influence how we move forward?

What is this new space race? What is our new "first to the Moon" goal? Is it beating the Chinese at test scores?

Of course, it's not just the Obama Administration who's framing the discussion of education stimulus and reform with certain metaphors. In January, NPR asked if the jail sentence for Kelley Williams-Bolar, an Akron, Ohio woman who lied to get her children into a better school was education's "Rosa Parks moment."

Sputnik or Rosa Parks -- one invokes national security and one invokes social justice. And as we look to rethink and reform education, I'd argue that the metaphors we use -- to describe education's problems and to frame possible solutions -- matter.