Abstract

In this essay, we examine the complete published speeches of Arne Duncan from his seven years (2009–2015) as Barack Obama’s secretary of education, to understand how his language both defined problems and promoted solutions for our nation’s schools. By looking at Duncan’s rhetoric through close readings and computer-aided textual analyses, we find that his discourse contained paradoxes, particularly through a notion of schooling as a means of achieving both social justice and economic growth, by framing education as both a private and public good, and through assertions about the need for government both to centralize authority over schooling and promote a global educational marketplace. In essence, Duncan used a both/and approach to these purposes, adding to our understandings of the character and functions of educational rhetoric and showing how critical it is for scholars to recognize that such tensions exist in language about what education policy should do. Ultimately, we conclude that Duncan’s rhetoric obscures historic tensions in the purpose of education and highlights the way that policy rhetoric may saddle public education with responsibilities beyond its capacities.

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