The Clare Spark Blog

October 5, 2009

Arne Duncan’s statism, part one

U.S. Secretary of Education
U.S. Secretary of Education

Meet Arne Duncan, U.S. Secretary of Education, as depicted by Ed. (The Magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Fall 2009, Vol. LIII, No.1). Is it my imagination, or is there a white crucifix shown on the upper-right hand section of the page facing the text of  John McQuaid, “Will Obama’s Choice Change Education in America?” Here is a quote that suggests I am correct: “…Arne Duncan is a bona fide idealist. He talks not just about putting kids first, raising test scores, and the relationship of education to economic opportunity–the standard rhetoric of his predecessors–but also about education as a tool for social justice, not a phrase heard very often in Washington policy circles or even among his fellow technocrats in the Obama administration. He believes that government has an obligation to right the wrongs of poverty–or at least, to do everything possible to mitigate the damage it does to individuals. ‘In so many places we’re  not giving every child a chance, we’re not giving children the chance they need to be successful,’ he says. “And where we don’t, I really believe we are part of the problem. We perpetuate poverty. We perpetuate social failure.’ ”

Opponents of “the nanny state” will enjoy the next sentences: “Chicago investment banker and philanthropist John W. Rogers Jr. met Duncan playing on South Side basketball courts as a teenager and later gave him his first job running an educational mentoring program. ‘I think he sees this as the fulfillment of his mom’s legacy and his own,’ Rogers says. ‘It’s the opportunity to take his mom’s values and his values and share them with the entire country.'” [Mom, we learned in the second paragraph, ran “The Sue Duncan Center…attended by kids from elementary to high school, nearly all of them African Americans struggling with the grind of urban poverty–crime, drugs, gangs, absent parents.” Her children worked there from childhood on. “The gulf between their own comfortable circumstances–their father was a professor of psychology at the university–and those of their contemporaries on the South Side bothered the Duncan kids. It became a kind of puzzle, a mental nut they all tried to crack as they grew older. Why did such glaring inequities exist in Chicago, in America? Who or what was to blame?….Arne contained “a huge amount of anger…at the local public schools….”]

The author then proceeds to describe the obstacles to Duncan’s idealistic plans to rescue inner city schools: “The job of secretary is hostage to the basic structure of the U.S. educational system, with its system of  local control and the sway that powerful interest groups hold over national education policy.” What did he just say? How can “powerful interest groups” (unnamed!) hold “sway” if the locals control the “system?” And what is “national education policy”? And would not Duncan know, as he was CEO of Chicago Public Schools from 2001-2008, with an outstanding record of achievement, according to the website of the Department of Education?

It should be noted at once that Sec. Duncan has never been a classroom teacher, nor does he hold any advanced degree. His educational credential consists of a B.A. from Harvard in sociology, where he graduated magna cum laude. Since his father was a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, I thought I should find out what kind of psychology he was teaching. This is from the short biography produced by the U. of Chicago upon his death: ““Starkey was one of the pioneers in the field of nonverbal communication, though he preferred to think of his research as studying face-to-face interaction,” said David McNeill, Professor Emeritus in Psychology at the University of Chicago. “He looked at gesture, gaze and other aspects of interaction as an integrated whole and through time.” Readers of this website should recognize the buzz words of organic conservatism: “Interaction” was the focus of the new cultural history as introduced to the American Historical Association in 1939, abolishing the potentially fragmenting practice of “scientific history” that entailed following the evidence wherever it might lead. There were no more free standing individuals, but rather the “individual-in-society.” As for “integrated whole…through time,” that is a functionalist term. “The whole” (whatever that is) runs like a well-calibrated machine. There are no internal conflicts, and if any exist, they were introduced by the beetle-browed and mustachioed outside agitator. [On the sea change from scientific history to cultural history see my article, )

Duncan, fils, is no outsider, though he portrayed as one by the author of the article we have been reading together: “Like Obama, he’s an outsider who has never quite wholly belonged to any of the worlds he moved through, nor to any particular interest group or camp, yet who could be comfortable anywhere : basketball courts, the streets, political meetings, and policy salons.” I.e., Duncan, like his basketball pal Obama, is the neutral mediator who will negotiate conflicts between those who want national standards in public education and those who fight for local control. Such public interest progressives inherit the ambitions of (British) Christian Socialists or Fabians and (U.S.) proponents of the Social Gospel. All were anticapitalists with a strong antisemitic subtext: they would substitute a Christianized capitalism for the Jewishly exploitative variety. Would Charles Sumner (see next blog) have agreed with them? I don’t think so. For more on Sumner the modernizer see my blog “Margoth and Robert E. Lee: Rival Visions of National Unity.”

[In the next installment, I will report on his policy innovations and more on the discourse of Ed.]


  1. […] Links to Arne Duncan blogs Filed under: Uncategorized — clarespark @ 3:41 pm […]

    Pingback by Links to Arne Duncan blogs « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — September 22, 2010 @ 3:43 pm | Reply

  2. Here’s the real story on Arne Duncan:

    and its related story:

    Comment by Anita Fernandez — January 1, 2010 @ 12:41 am | Reply

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