In January, President Obama appointed the young superintendent of Chicago Public Schools, Arne Duncan, to be the next United States Secretary of Education. (Well, I’d call him young; we are very nearly the same age and I’d feel pretty youthful to be heading the US educational system.) Although never a teacher, Duncan is an experienced administrator and he embodies Barack Obama’s educational goals. What does his appointment mean for Geography education?
First off, Duncan would not likely have gotten much geography in college at Harvard. While he made it to be co-captain of the varsity basketball team, his Ivy League alma mater doesn’t even field a geography department. In fact, of all the Ivys, today only Dartmouth retains a geography program. This is a terrible situation for the country, since many of the emerging leaders who graduate from these august institutions are underexposed to the spatial perspective and tools.
However, Secretary Duncan does have a lot of hard-won experience about the importance of “space and place,” as geographers say. His senior thesis was based on research conducted in the Chicago inner-city Kenwood neighborhood. After college, he lived abroad and played ball in Australia. And, as past CEO of Chicago’s Public Schools, Duncan has an acute understanding of the import of where schools are placed, which communities they serve, and how geographic issues such as demographics, tax base, and racial distribution affect a school system.
Moreover, Mr. Duncan works for Mr. Obama, whose priority list reads
like a “who’s who” of geographic concerns. Just check out the
Administration’s new agenda at the White House Web site: energy,
environment, rural issues, Iraq, civil rights, technology, urban
policy, and more. Could you really tackle any of these issues without
geography? Good luck trying. And the President, whose own family is so
far-flung as to reach from Hawaii to Kenya, will need a supportive
populace that understands policies designed to address a host of
international issues. The key to a globally informed citizenry:
Lastly, I am convinced that Secretary Duncan has heard enough feedback
from teachers, parents, business leaders and administrators alike about
No Child Left Behind that he expects to work with Congress to
strengthen and improve the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. One
common complaint has been that the act is underfunded. Providing even
modest support for geography–the ONLY unfunded discipline required
under NCLB–would be a good start.
When Barack Obama announced Duncan as his appointee, he said, “In the
next few years, the decisions we make about how to educate our children
will shape our future for generations to come. They will determine not
just whether our children have the chance to fulfill their God-given
potential, or whether our workers have the chance to build a better
life for their families, but whether we, as a nation, will remain in
the twenty-first century, the kind of global economic leader that we
were in the twentieth.” That sounds like leading with geography to me.
Arne Duncan is smart. He is accomplished. He is experienced. He is
deeply trusted by the Changer-in-Chief. He leads with a commitment to
how education can help kids. He has seen every kind of geographical
diversity in Chicago. And the world is watching what he’ll do as
Secretary. I am optimistic that he will want to help put the world back
into a world-class education.
Chris for My Wonderful World
Photo of Arne Duncan courtesy Chicagoist.com