The Campaign Spot

Election-driven news and views . . . by Jim Geraghty.

Boy, Does Arne Duncan Like to Talk Sports.


On the New York Times op-ed page Wednesday, Tom Friedman argued that Education Secretary Arne Duncan is his ideal pick for the next U.S. Secretary of State. The argument boils down to the notion that Duncan is a good negotiator and the importance of promoting education in the world’s trouble spots.

Friedman’s tongue-not-really-in-cheek suggestion is particularly awful by the criteria he cites since quite a few folks in the foreign language and international education policy arena find Duncan to be a deep disappointment, or even worse.

Some corners of the international education community are grumbling about a recent video Duncan taped to mark International Education Week earlier this month.

The video can be seen here and a transcript can be read here.

After mentioning this year’s theme of “International Education: Striving for a Healthier Future Worldwide,” Duncan begins with a sudden and odd segue discussing Title IX, a federal statute designed to end sex discrimination in education; it is most often cited for its influence on women’s athletics. For four paragraphs, Duncan discusses First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” health initiative, how students involved with sports less likely to use drugs, get pregnant as teenagers or become obese, his professional sports career, and the Olympic Games … everything, it seems, except for actual international education programs.

The words “foreign” and “language”  do not appear in Duncan’s remarks, but the word “sports” appears five times. The only time Duncan uses the word “overseas” is in reference to his and his sister’s professional sports careers.

One of the ironies of Duncan babbling at length about Title IX is that he doesn’t say a word about his department’s Title VI grants, which are offered to U.S. universities to create international studies centers to promote the study of foreign languages, a program with its roots in the post-Sputnik drive to improve U.S. education. Earlier this month, the Education Department finally released its first-ever “international strategy” paper — six years after the Bush administration established a National Security Language Initiative — and quite a few foreign language educators believe their subject was relatively buried in that strategy paper, nudged between “international benchmarking and applying lessons learned from other countries” and “education diplomacy and engagement with other countries.”

This is separate from the Obama administration’s rare cooperation with a GOP Congress to eliminate the Foreign Language Assistance Program; now the money for foreign language education grants is lumped into the category for grants for high-risk or impoverished students, and must compete with those programs.

Perhaps every group of educators is destined to grumble about something, but it’s fascinating to see international education professionals feeling so snubbed and disregarded by an administration headed by a man who contended his childhood years overseas in Indonesia gave him unique insight into foreign affairs. And Arne Duncan, the longtime friend of Barack Obama who headed the Chicago Public Schools and played professional basketball, is the main target of that ire.

 “Maybe if Kobe Bryant had cursed at him in Italian, he would be more motivated to promote international language education,” quipped one exasperated foreign language educator.

Tags: Arne Duncan


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