By 1955, Admiral Hyman Rickover had achieved the kind of fame only a Cold War can generate. The public knew him as the genius creator of Nautilus, the world’s first nuclear submarine and an unqualified triumph. He was building a reactor to generate electricity. Elected politicians fawned at this feet. He ruled over the American nuclear navy for the next two decades, with a power that resisted even presidential challenge.
If the preceding paragraph sounds less than fully respectful, that’s not my intent. He was a remarkable individual and a very talented engineer, and he plays a huge role in my book. But his talents couldn’t be expected to translate into every avenue of life, and there was one field that greatly interested him but in which he left little mark. The thing was, Rickover loved to mull and philosophise in non-naval, non-engineering fields, and education was one of them.
This November 1955 luncheon speech began:
For the last eight years my work has been in the field of nuclear power. In dealing with the problems involved in developing this new source of energy I have found them to be but one facet of a much larger problem — how to provide the trained men and women to maintain the momentum of our rapidly expanding technical civilization. You are all aware that our explosive population growth has placed a tremendous strain on the resources — human and material — of our educational institutions. There are just not enough good teachers and schoolrooms to give each child the opportunity to develop his capabilities to the fullest. I consider the present crisis in education as grave a problem as any that faces our country today. Unless it is dealt with promptly and effectively the machinery which sustains our level of material prosperity and political power will begin to slow down and we will be in danger of losing the cold war by default.
The speech goes on to lambast most of American education and to offer Rickover-style solutions. What I find interesting (but not germane to my book) is not his specific ideas, which would become intellectual currency after the “Sputnik crisis” two years later, but my distinct impression that nobody, but nobody, paid Rickover much heed on this subject. And I’m sure part of the reason is that outside his naval power base, he was roundly loathed. His fame secured audiences but those who counted, who often experienced his typically harsh ire, turned away.
Rickover, Hyman G. 1955. Engineering and scientific education: Luncheon speech, Nov. 22, 1955. Folder ‘Information & Publications 5: Speeches’, Box 26, Entry 67-B1, RG 326, NARA II, College Park, Maryland.