Commentary: Sixty years ago, two momentous things happened on October 4, 1957. Both events continue to have effects that ripple into today and beyond. On that October day, the Soviet Union launched the world’s first artificial satellite called Sputnik. Also on that day a television show called Leave It to Beaver debuted which dramatized the adventures of a typical but fictional 1950s American family, the Cleavers. And these two very different events actually connect to each other.
The Sputnik satellite was no bigger than a basketball. But its impact is almost beyond measure. The launch of Sputnik shocked the American psyche and the belief in America’s Exceptionalism. America was rudely reminded about what people in other nations are capable of and this made us question many things. This also bothered us greatly. It also demonstrated how events we do not see coming will come our way and change us forever during an era when things seemed more orderly and predictable. We won’t know the what, when, or why of these life changing events. But they will come. This was a warning. And that also bothered us a great deal.
1957 was a year of concern about possible nuclear war and America’s standing as the world’s leading power. Today, America once again has the very same concerns.
The Sputnik event shook American complacency. It led to a big commitment to science and technology which has proven to be both a blessing and curse. Technology has greatly helped our society in many ways. But it has also created human problems such as addictions to tech and family separation as well as having our lives completely surrounded and dominated by it. It has also directly contributed to a loss of basic social skills among many today, particularly the young.
The Cleaver family portrayed a tranquil America where fathers still had good American jobs that supported an entire family. This was a time when mother stayed at home and felt fulfilled tending to the family while acting as an equal partner with her husband. This was a time when children went to school without metal detectors at the door or smartphones surgically attached to their hands. Teachers kept order in classrooms and were not concerned with being sued or modern inventions like student microaggressions.
The Cleavers weren’t a real family. Things weren’t as neat and orderly in the America of the 1950s as portrayed. But the Cleavers did show many aspects of life that were real back then, and certainly the way many Americans wanted things to be. The Cleaver show remains a time capsule of a way of American life that was about to disappear. The Sputnik event represents momentous intruders that would change America fundamentally and alter how we live. It gave us an uneasiness about the future that has taken hold today.
What is the biggest connection between Sputnik and the Cleavers? Both of these events go to the heart of how we Americans view ourselves. We could look back upon who we were or we could look ahead to where we are headed. Science and technology would soon dominate everything, and the innocent and prosperous lives of the Cleavers were about to disappear. The Malt Shop was going away and social media and aerial cameras were taking over.
What is a big lesson of the Cleavers and Sputnik? The only way we will truly succeed in a turbulent future is to retain the love and strength portrayed by the Cleaver family as we plunge into the changing, uncertain, and challenging times ahead that the Sputnik event rudely announced. Our future depends on how much of the Cleavers we will retain in our own lives as we’re pulled deeper into an inescapable future of science and technology in a world that seeks to diminish our humanity and attach us to ever fancier nuts and bolts.
It turns out that the mischievous Eddie Haskell wasn’t the worst influence on Cleaver sons Wally and the Beaver as their parents may have feared. Cleaver parents Ward and June should have been looked up at the skies over Mayfield in 1957 at a small bright object that would end their tranquil lives, and ours, forever.