Of course the president says he loves the poorly educated: authoritarian regimes benefit when citizens lack education, writes Obamas education secretary

In late July, at a speech for veterans in Kansas City, Missouri, President Trump jabbed a finger at the back of the room, where members of the media were gathered, and cautioned his audience: Dont believe the crap you see from these people. Theyre fake news. He was upset, as he often is, because he felt he was being treated unfairly by the media. It was pretty standard red meat, the stuff were growing more and more used to from our commander-in-chief. The crowd loved it.

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But this time, he added something new: Remember, what youre seeing and what youre hearing is not whats happening. As many have pointed out, this was downright Orwellian. The final directive of Nineteen Eighty-Fours Big Brother was to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. This is exactly what President Trump wants: for Americans to be unable, and unwilling, to see or hear whats actually true. He wants us to be unable to think critically.

Im a former education secretary with no ambitions for political office. So what do Trumps authoritarian dreams have to do with education policy? In a word: everything.

Education is a complicated issue, but for a long time its enjoyed bipartisan support. Democrats and Republicans debate about strategies, methods or funding for education, but weve consistently agreed that educating Americans was a good thing. That was never complicated. When I served as secretary, there was broad bipartisan support for educational goals like higher academic standards, better high school graduation rates, and more meaningful teacher training programs.

We agreed on these goals because we were painfully aware that America, so long the global education leader, had fallen far behind our international peers. We were no longer top 10 in anything not academic ability, not college graduation rates, not access to high-quality pre-K. To take just this last example, the United States ranks 31st out of 35 industrialized countries for pre-K access. When many of our children enter kindergarten, theyre already one or two years behind, and many of them will never recover. What this says is that we literally do not care about the educational prospects of our youngest children, our babies.

Nelson Mandela once said: Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world. I couldnt agree more. Ive seen great schools, teachers, and principals save thousands of young lives by giving them chances they didnt know existed, and Ive seen countless other young lives virtually destroyed by an education system that has consistently lied to students and ultimately failed them. My tenure as education secretary was not perfect, but we were committed to aspirational goals and to students. This was true of so many others, including governors like John Kasich, Bill Haslam and Jack Markell. What we shared was the ultimate goal: to make America the world leader in education once more.

Arne Duncan with Barack Obama in 2008. Photograph: Jeff Haynes/Reuters

Today, no such goals exist. The Department of Education and Secretary Betsy DeVos dont talk about improving educational outcomes. The Trump administration has no position on increasing access to pre-K, or continuing the work of raising high school graduation rates, or of once again leading the world in college graduation rates. It doesnt talk about how to help teachers be better at their extremely difficult jobs, and its silent on the issue of increasing teacher pay. Some maintain this is due to incompetence, but the more I listen to the president, the more Im convinced that the administrations lack of educational goals is by design.

A healthy democracy requires an educated citizenry, while an authoritarian regime benefits from the lack of one. President Trump is on record as saying we should all listen to him he wants to be the final authority and arbiter of truth. But thats not how it was designed to work. We, the people, are the root and tree of American democracy. We have no king, and no individual not even a president can usurp that.

Upon winning the Nevada primary in February 2016, Trump observed: We won with the poorly educated. I love the poorly educated. I wasnt so amazed he said it, but I was amazed that he said nothing about educating people. Nothing. No goals, no aspirations, no unifying message. The quote succinctly reveals that this is right where he wants people to be: divided and preferably poorly educated.

Luckily, there are few if any current governors from either party who share this vision. From Massachusetts to Tennessee to Colorado to Ohio, governors are working hard to ensure that their citizens have the education they deserve. But as we saw in November 2016, political winds can shift quickly. Trump can win this fight and he knows it. Through sheer repetition, he can wear us down and breed complacency. We cant fall for this.

A lot of the noise surrounding the 2018 midterms concerns the balance of power in Congress, but its as important to pay attention to the governorships that will change hands this fall. Statehouses are where the lions share of education policy gets decided. Do we want more poorly educated Americans, or fewer? If fewer, then well have to fight. And this time, we wont just be fighting for education, or teachers, or a stronger middle class, or our children. Well be fighting and voting for truth, and for the very fabric of our democracy.

Arne Duncan is the managing partner at Emerson Collective, former secretary of education under Barack Obama, and the author of How Schools Work: An Inside Account of Failure and Success from One of the Nations Longest-Serving Secretaries of Education


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