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Boomer Bytes #4: – Getting Educated

Editor’s Note: Below is Steve Canipe’s fourth column in his series called Boomer Bytes. The column, as the title suggests, will focus on a variety of topics that may be of interest to baby boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964. But Canipe also hopes to start a conversation with younger generations, too. Check out an introduction and Canipe’s (first self-titled) column here.

  • See second column – Are We Really Old? – here
  • See third column – Cars and More Cars – here

Getting Educated

By Steve Canipe

How has education changed for us in the years since we started to school?  The oldest of us began 1st grade in 1952 and the youngest of us started in 1970.  That is a really long span of time and some major changes were happening during this time. But regardless of when we started changes were happening quickly.

Those of us in the first wave of “boomerness” grew up with the specter of nuclear annihilation from the then Soviet Union.  For those of us old enough to remember, who can forget the “beep” “beep” of the Soviet Sputnik satellite of 1957 going over our heads?  The push toward better science education had started shortly after Sputnik with endorsement from President Eisenhower.  The expansive program was dubbed National Defense Education Act (NDEA).  This expenditure was considered important because the improvement was deemed a part of the national defense…to thwart and counter Soviet space efforts. Why were our scientists/engineers not as good as theirs?


After President Kennedy was elected and took office, he recognized the issue as one of American education not pushing mathematics and science.  He made the profound announcement in May 1961 that “…this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before the decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.”

 Growing out of this effort and fueled by the NDEA, we got the Mercury program being pushed along with it the massive investment in improving science and mathematics education in schools. 

The NDEA morphed over time and by 1964 when the youngest of the boomers were being born, no longer was the focus just on science, mathematics, engineering, and technology.  By 1968when the oldest of the boomers were graduating high school, the total amount of money spent had exceeded $3 billion.  In today’s dollars this would be more than $20 billion. Dollars poured into public schools across the country. My own bachelor’s education at Appalachian and my master’s degree at Michigan State were paid for wholly or in part by NDEA monies.

So maybe we boomers have been pampered with good grants for our education.  Are we continuing to be what are termed “life-long” learners?  Some of us have continued in formal education and received advanced degrees, like my doctorate from Duke University.  Others of us have taken college-level courses but only in an interest mode.  For example, taking courses in “Ancient Civilizations” just because we wanted to know more about the subject.  Others of us have used the extensive community college system to explore essentially avocational areas that interested us like photography, welding, and culinary arts.  In some cases, these avocational courses became vocational for some of us and we have developed second and even third careers.

With the advent of high quality online college courses, we can now pursue all levels of education from high school to the PhD.  In addition to private institutions, like where I now work at Walden University, there are opportunities in state-supported programs like Carolina Online and also for the MOOC (massive open online course) programs.  Some of the courses are free and some cost; some carry college credits and others do not.  There are a number of options for today’s learner.

Our teachers have influenced us for good or ill.  Some of the individuals we had were supremely prepared and others less so.  Some of them were good examples of the hateful, and mostly untrue adage – “if you cannot do anything else you can always teach.”

Personally I was pretty blessed with good people; maybe not always the most informed but they were always caring and wanted their students to do the best. We can probably all name one or two that were particular standouts for us – those who went the extra mile and offered the extra helping hand. 

Good teachers did not stop at 3 PM.  Some of them stayed after school for athletics, drama, music, etc.; they invested a part of themselves in us for little or no extra money.  Maybe this is why when I think of outstanding teachers I’ve had, I they were living the quote by historian Henry Adams (1838-1918) “A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.” I want them to know that they have affected me as I hope, in turn, I’ve affected my students.

I have been remiss in letting some of them know how much their tutelage has meant to me and I regret the fact that some of them have now passed away without my telling them how what they taught had a profound impact on me. A resolution I would suggest is that we should attempt to find and tell them how much they meant and mean to me both personally and professionally.

As we continue to learn and change, I am reminded of a quote by the late Dr. J. Frank Randall, biology professor at Appalachian.  “As long as you live you change.  When you no longer change, you are no longer alive.” Dr. Randall was talking about living things other than humans in that lecture but it is certainly apropos as we consider our education.

We were always an inquisitive group, we boomers.  We challenged society, our parents, and each other.  In some ways, perhaps we were like the group of children called the “terrible twos” with our consistent asking “why?”

Edward Kennedy using an idea from George Bernard Shaw, when he eulogized the assassinated Robert Kennedy, made the statement “Some men see things as they are and say why? I dream things that never were and say why not?” Mostly the boomer generation had this idea mastered, at least in our youth – we wanted to know why not equality, why not freedom to love, why not freedom to “whatever”?

Did our education set us up for this challenge to authority?  Are we continuing to challenge the status quo?  Or have we become complacent and comfortable in our “old age”?  Tell me what you think either via email at boomerbytes@yahoo.com or post at the end of the column.