For one thing, the men’s basketball team filled three rows up front with their sizable frames.
Most conspicuous, though, was an image on the large overhead screen showing Duncan, who co-captained the men’s basketball team, stretching his arms to guard Tommy Amaker, now head coach for that team, but in 1984, a point guard for Duke playing a road game against the Crimson. (In a telephone interview, former Harvard coach Frank McLaughlin noted that Duncan’s wingspan contributed to his effectiveness.)
On Tuesday evening, Duncan repeatedly extended his arms in much the same way, this time to gesture as he contended with a different challenge: how to make sense of the biggest issues facing American education and democracy. The conversation was moderated by David Gergen, professor of public service at the Kennedy School and an adviser to four U.S. presidents, whom Duncan said was one of two confidants he sought out for guidance while serving in the Obama administration from 2009 to 2015. (The other was former Secretary of State Colin Powell, LL.D. ’93.)
Duncan discussed the nation’s relatively poor performance in international test-score rankings, gun violence in schools, school choice, and the importance of making education a salient issue for voters. Much of the conversation echoed an argument made in his new book, How Schools Work: An Inside Account of Failure and Success from One of the Nation’s Longest-Serving Secretaries of Education (Simon & Schuster). “Education runs on lies,” Duncan writes, in a provocative opening line. He argues that many schools and government offices perpetuate the fallacy that U.S. students are receiving a strong education. “Compared to students in other countries, far too few of our kids actually are prepared.”
Duncan reserved his most pointed criticism for President Donald Trump. “I would argue,” he said, that “this administration does not want a well-educated citizenry [and] does not want people who can think independently.”
“That’s a pretty stunning charge,” responded Gergen, noting that the country’s history of withholding educational opportunities in order to subjugate women and minorities stretches back long before Trump.
Duncan elaborated: “When you have authoritarian tendencies, when you say, ‘The press is the enemy of the people,’ when you say, ‘What you’re watching and seeing isn’t real, let me tell you the truth,’ you don’t want people who can think critically, you don’t want people who can think for themselves. It’s, for me, again, way beyond education and education policy. It scares me for our country, and it scares me for our democracy.”
He found optimism in the activism of the students who survived the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Pointing out that the Parkland students are partnering with peers across the country, he said, “I think those kids are going to help lead the country where we as adults have failed to take them.”
Duncan also spoke optimistically about the potential impact of the students in the audience, including the basketball players. When asked during a pre-event sit-down with reporters about the team’s transformation since Amaker’s hiring in 2007, Duncan lauded the coach for recruiting talented players (under Amaker, the Crimson has won its only conference titles—six of them), bolstering inclusion (he was Harvard’s lone black head coach when hired), and attracting players from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds.
“I went to a high school where kids went to Harvard every single year,” Duncan said. “I bet…there are kids on the team now where the thought of going to Harvard three years ago would’ve been like you going to Mars….But they’re smart, they’re talented, they’ve worked hard, they’ve gotten good grades. And the truth is almost none of them will ever make a nickel playing basketball, but the chance to go to Harvard will change their lives forever.”
“For me,” he added, “it’s always a longer-term thing. It’s not just looking at the impact on their lives, but on their kids. There’s almost like a generational pivot, where in one generation, you can go from less opportunity but real talent and heart and desire and work ethic to opening up a different world for your own family, and my hope is [that they] can go back and help others do the same thing.”