President Donald Trump and his administration get a political boost when Americans aren’t taught to think critically or to have a deep understanding of civics, former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told a crowd at the National Press Club here.
“We have a president who says ‘don’t watch, don’t listen, don’t pay attention to what you see out there. Listen to me, I’m your source of truth.’ That’s a very, very, very scary thing,” Duncan said Thursday. “It’s one thing to disagree and disagree vehemently on policy. It’s a different thing to say the press are the enemy of the people. And the only way an authoritarian leader keeps his power is to have people who start to believe that, who are beholden to that idea. People who can think independently, people who are going to think critically are not going to embrace anybody, president or anybody, saying ‘I’m the source of truth.’ ”
Duncan, who was President Barack Obama’s longest-serving education secretary, argued that unlike his former boss, Trump hasn’t set any long-term goals for the country’s educational achievement, like leading the world in college graduation rates or pre-kindergarten enrollment.
“I would almost argue it’s intentional. It’s by design. They’re not committed to having the best educated citizenry in the world. And that’s a scary thing,” Duncan said. “We need to have a civically engaged democracy. And the only way I know how to do that is to have well-educated citizens. And I don’t think it’s in president Trump’s best interest to have a well-educated citizenry.”
On the 2016 campaign trail, Trump said he “love[s] the poorly educated.” And there was a big gap in results between college-educated and non-college educated voters in the 2016. College graduates backed Hillary Clinton, Trump’s Democratic opponent, by a 9-point margin (52 percent to 43 percent), while those without a college degree backed Trump 52 percent to 44 percent, according to the Pew Research Center.
Trump and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos have called for giving citizens more opportunities for on-the-job training, even though they haven’t put federal financial resources behind those efforts. And earlier this week, DeVos decried a lack of focus on civics education in schools. The Trump administration hasn’t funneled additional federal resources towards history or government classes.
Duncan was at the press club to showcase his new book, “How Schools Work: An Inside Account of Success and Failure From One of the Nation’s Longest-Serving Education Secretaries.” (We wrote about the book here.)
During his talk, he hit on some of the biggest themes in the book, including:
• The need to restrict firearms: “We value our guns more than we value our children,” Duncan said. “People just don’t die from gun violence in other nations,” he added, ticking off Australia, Canada, and Japan.
And he doesn’t think that beefing up school safety by making schools tougher targets is the way to solve the school shooting problem. “This quote unquote ‘hardening schools,’ that’s a cute soundbite,” Duncan said. But he doesn’t see any substance there. “This was manufactured by the NRA,” he said, referring to the National Rifle Association. “Hardening schools” won’t work on field trips, at recess, on buses, and more, Duncan said.
• Going beyond high school: Duncan said the country needs to move, at minimum, to a pre-K-14 system, instead of the kindergarten through senior year of high school model in most communities. “A high school diploma is necessary, it is critical, but it is insufficient,” he said. Students need some college credit or an industry certification, he said.
• School desegregation: Duncan said he sees this as an important issue, but he acknowledges he didn’t do enough on it as secretary. He gave props to his successor John B. King Jr. for making it a priority.
“That’s one [area] I would give myself relatively low marks for,” Duncan said of integrating schools. “We got less done than I would have liked. Schools are a reflection of their neighborhood, of their community. That’s the first huge hurdle that we are trying to work around. Americans choose to self-segregate. That’s a conscious choice that we make. ... Too many Americans aren’t comfortable living with people who don’t look like us.”
He suggested that district leaders place excellent schools in high-minority communities, because white families will follow. That’s something he tried to do in Chicago, he said.
Duncan, who is currently a managing partner at the Emerson Collective, which works on education, immigration, and other issues, was asked if he’d be interested in running for mayor of Chicago.
His answer? A hard no. “I love what I’m doing. I want to keep working in the community,” said Duncan, whose focus has been on curbing gun violence in his hometown. “There are like, 20 people who want to be mayor. No one’s jumping to do what I’m doing.”
Education Secretary Arne Duncan speaking at the White House in Washington in 2014.
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