On the New York Times op-ed page last week, Tom Friedman argued that Education Secretary Arne Duncan is his ideal pick for the next U.S. Secretary of State. His 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 because even by those standards, Duncan’s been a disappointment — particularly on the nexus of education and diplomacy. Quite a few folks in the foreign-language and international-education-policy arenas find Duncan to be a disappointment.
Some corners of the international education community are grumbling about a recent video Duncan taped to mark International Education Week earlier this month.
After mentioning this year’s theme of “International Education: Striving for a Healthier Future Worldwide,” Duncan begins with a sudden and odd segue by 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 are 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.
(Usually the complaint about cabinet secretaries is that they talk the talk but don’t walk the walk; with Duncan we’re still working on the “talk the talk” part.)
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.
“The department’s decisions to cut funding for foreign languages and international education are disappointing and puzzling, in light of the need for language and international expertise for national security and to compete in the global economy of the 21st century,” said William P. Rivers, the executive director of the Joint National Committee for Languages of the National Council for Language and International Studies.
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 he would be more focused on international-language education if Kobe Bryant had trash-talked at him in Italian.