Arne Duncan: Good for Geography?

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

7 thoughts on “Arne Duncan: Good for Geography?

  1. Hello,
    I’m a father of two and a high school history and geography teacher. You may be interested to know that there are a fair number of educational games out there for the iPhone that do a good job of making it fun for students and people of all ages to improve their knowledge of world geography. My kids are too young to have their own iphones but I let them play with mine. I can recommend a game called Geotap which is for the iPhone (and allegedly also works on the iPod Touch). Great fun game that teaches you where cities and famous landmarks are. It’s good to know that there are some games being created nowadays that are not just about pure entertainment or blowing up things.

  2. Well written and inspiring article. Highlights the importance of education in any country. Education is the only weapon that can change the thinking of any society.

  3. Joseph, I agree with you one hundred percent. Geography deals with the preeminent issues of our time and must be understood by all who hope to make progress in the world. What we are dealing with is a disconnect between these important issues and the concept of geography. People do not understand that Geography IS these things, but hopefully that will change. Bravo to ESRI and to you as well Joseph. Thanks! – – Cameron for My Wonderful World

  4. Chris, I do hope you are right. With the issues before our country and world such as biodiversity loss, urban sprawl, energy, water, natural hazards, political instability, climate change, and more, it is the ideal time for people to engage in Geography as a serious, high-tech discipline, at all levels, in formal and in informal educational settings. Most people would say that the above issues are important, but most also, by and large, do not realize that these are some of the core issues dealt with in sound geography education. We need to connect what geography is to the key issues of our time so that people will DEMAND that it be funded, supported, and TAUGHT!
    –Joseph Kerski, ESRI, Geographer

  5. Read another perspective on Duncan’s Chicago legacy at

  6. Milton, thanks for the comment and the link to the Chicago school profile. Edutopia is such a helpful resource for school change agents. Here’s to Secretary Duncan making a WORLD of difference.

  7. I agree, Chris, Secretary Duncan does understand the importance of students acquiring a global perspective and how geography cuts across traditional subjects. At Edutopia, we profiled one Chicago HS, Walter Payton HS, that provides numerous opportunities for global learning, including the only Confucius Institute funded by the Chinese government at a high school. (Most are at universities.)

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