Arne Duncan is President Obama's secretary of education, and if, while he's on this show, a disaster befalls the president, the vice president, the speaker of the House and every other member of the Cabinet except Veterans Affairs and Homeland Security, he would be president.
We've invited Duncan to play a game called "Now, don't be fresh ... I just take dictation!" Three questions for the secretary of education about the education of secretaries.
PETER SAGAL, HOST:
And now, the game where smart people end up wondering why they spent all that time learning useful stuff. The game is called Not my Job. Arne Duncan is President Obama's Secretary of Education and if, while he's on this show, a disaster befalls the president, the vice president, the speaker of the house and every other member of the cabinet, except Veterans Affairs and Homeland Security, he would be president.
SAGAL: Arne Duncan, welcome.
PAULA POUNDSTONE: Wow.
ARNE DUNCAN: Hello. Thank you.
DUNCAN: We are officially the 16th family.
SAGAL: You are.
ROY BLOUNT JR: Who's after you?
DUNCAN: Not too many people. If I ever stand up and say everything's OK, everything is not OK.
SAGAL: I understand.
SAGAL: So you're from Chicago, native born, right?
SAGAL: And your mother was a teacher here in Chicago?
DUNCAN: My dad taught at the University of Chicago and my mother ran an inner city tutoring program, started in 1961. She raised my sister and brother as a part of her program. We've all gone into education and all have tried to follow in her footsteps. It was an amazing formative experience.
SAGAL: Wow, that's kind of amazing.
DUNCAN: It was.
SAGAL: So your mother was your after school teacher.
SAGAL: So you had detention with your mother your entire childhood.
DUNCAN: She ran a tight ship.
SAGAL: Really. Now you also grew up as a basketball player.
DUNCAN: I tried.
SAGAL: But you weren't good enough to get into a good school, so you went to Harvard.
DUNCAN: That is absolutely the truth.
SAGAL: Really? Did you actually try to get into like some decent basketball school?
DUNCAN: You know, if DePaul would have called or Notre Dame, I would have been there in a heartbeat.
SAGAL: Now here's the question. President Obama selected you to be Secretary of Education for his first term and now you're continuing in the second. Is it only because you can give him a game on the basketball court?
DUNCAN: I hope not but we do have some good fun together. That's our stress relief and it's a chance where he can just be normal and we can relax play and it's a real good camaraderie.
SAGAL: Right. Now, how long have you been playing basketball with President Obama?
DUNCAN: It actually goes back to when he was teaching as a professor at U of C and we used to play at the old Henry Crown Field House there.
SAGAL: And keeping in mind that hardly anyone listens to this show...
SAGAL: ...is he any good?
DUNCAN: He can play.
SAGAL: He can play.
DUNCAN: When we play, he's not out there to make a few baskets or break a sweat; he's out there to win.
JR: You think he would have gone further in life with that sort of...
POUNDSTONE: Do you think this, do you think that were there not a stipulation that you cant use drones on American citizens...
POUNDSTONE: ...that that urge to win would have interrupted said speak on the basketball court? That would be awful, wouldn't it, just to...
POUNDSTONE: You know, you're about to go up for that lay up and darn.
POUNDSTONE: Aw, man, that was a drone. That's not...
POUNDSTONE: That is not cool.
DUNCAN: I plead the fifth on that one. I'll stay out of that one.
SAGAL: All right.
SAGAL: Is it true that your mother played basketball with President Obama?
DUNCAN: It is true. And my mother played into her, I'm not even sure, late 50s, early 60s, and she was a tough cookie in lots of different ways.
SAGAL: So your mother is going up against the president of the United States.
DUNCAN: Well this was long before he was the president.
SAGAL: Yeah, yeah.
DUNCAN: But they had a battle. She's a tough cookie. And, you know, if she fouled him, he'd let her know. And, you know, it was a...
SAGAL: How did he let her know? Did he punch her?
SAGAL: Or did he say, oh, excuse me, you fouled me. He's competitive.
DUNCAN: They're both competitive. So they had some good rivalries.
JR: Did your mother ever play against Dennis Rodman?
FIROOZEH DUMAS: So you didn't go to your first choice of college. Is this job your first choice?
SAGAL: He'd rather have Commerce just so he can have a slightly closer chance...
DUMAS: Wouldn't we all?
DUNCAN: It's an amazing, amazing job. And honestly, going back, every day I think about my mother starting in a church basement in 1961 and working with a small group of kids on the south side of Chicago and having a chance to have those roots and then now trying to impact education across the country. I pinch myself some days. It's pretty amazing.
SAGAL: So, I mean you're dealing, though, as secretary of education with some pretty serious problems. Our educational system doesn't seem to be doing well. We always hear that our scores in math and science are falling behind other countries.
Have you ever thought of instead of trying to get the kids to do better in those things, come up with careers that the kids can do with the skills that we are teaching them? Like, for example, lying around.
POUNDSTONE: Oh, my gosh.
SAGAL: Texting, for example. My kids can text like nobody's business. So if we can...
POUNDSTONE: Oh, man, the world of competitive texting.
SAGAL: If we can build an economy on the skills...
DUNCAN: Based on that.
SAGAL: ...that we're actually teaching our children, it might...
DUNCAN: I can retire and go to the Bahamas...
SAGAL: Exactly, I'm just saying. I'm just saying. You have kids in public school.
DUNCAN: I do. We had parent-teacher conferences this morning.
SAGAL: OK. So...
SAGAL: So I'm a teacher...
POUNDSTONE: Oh my gosh.
SAGAL: ...and in walks the secretary of education, and the secretary of education says, "So, how is my child doing in your class?" And the teacher says to him or herself, the funding for the entire district is relying on my answer.
DUNCAN: No, no, far from it. It's actually, I go in, I'm Claire and Ryan's dad.
DUNCAN: You know, total separation of roles...
POUNDSTONE: No, there's not.
POUNDSTONE: There might be for you but there's not for the teacher. What, are you out of your mind?
DUNCAN: You sit in a chair much smaller this and squeeze in...
SAGAL: Yeah, yeah, those tight little chairs, yeah. And you're a big guy.
DUNCAN: And the power is all - you know, you're sitting there hoping your children are doing OK, so that, you know, the power is all there and you're trying to figure out...
DUNCAN: Absolutely. Absolutely.
SAGAL: You know...
POUNDSTONE: You're out of your mind.
SAGAL: I mean, they tell you your kid is failing geometry and you're like, whoa, nice federal funding you got here.
DUNCAN: It'd be a shame if something happened to that.
SAGAL: I'm sorry. I just want to ask you a couple more questions about playing basketball with the president. You still do, right?
DUNCAN: We do. We do.
SAGAL: You do. If you foul the president hard, do they kill you immediately or...
SAGAL: ...do they take you to Guantanamo? I mean do like the Secret Service guys every leap out and like...
DUNCAN: They don't.
SAGAL: It'd be really fun if they had like just one guy with like shades and suit and an earpiece standing under the basket just totally goal tending.
DUNCAN: Well I'm not giving up any state secrets, but there was one time when he got an elbow and got stitches in his mouth.
DUNCAN: And he went down, boom.
POUNDSTONE: Who did that? Who hit him?
DUNCAN: He never came back, so.
SAGAL: That man has not been seen since.
DUNCAN: No, he's a good friend. We still play.
SAGAL: Have you ever said to the president, when you say dunk over him, have you ever said, "Well, I'm the secretary of education and you've just been schooled?"
DUNCAN: I haven't but I will remember that line.
SAGAL: Secretary Duncan, we have asked you here to play a game that this time we're calling?
BILL KURTIS: Now don't be fresh, I just take dictation.
SAGAL: So you're the secretary of education, but what do you know about the education of secretaries?
SAGAL: We looked at how secretaries were taught to behave in the bad/good old days. Answer two questions correctly and you'll win our prize for one of our listeners. Plus, of course, we'll consider hiring you for our secretarial pool.
SAGAL: Bill, who is Secretary Arne Duncan playing for?
KURTIS: Josh Glitz, a high school English teacher from Dallas, Texas.
SAGAL: There you go.
SAGAL: Josh, the secretary is working for you. So you ready to do this?
DUNCAN: Got to take care of Josh.
SAGAL: I know. This is a little intimidating because, you know, secretaries of education usually don't take tests; you give them. If you don't do well on this test, we will cut your funding.
SAGAL: Here we go. Here is your first question. It comes from a 1946 pamphlet put out by the Remington Typewriter Company. And the pamphlet was called, Memo: How to be a Super Secretary.
SAGAL: And the pamphlet was written in the second person. It's telling the secretary things like: You are efficient and you are cheerful. It also says what? A: You are the receptacle of all of your boss' desires? B: You are a clam? Or C: You are an expensive piece of office equipment?
SAGAL: You are the receptacle of all your boss' desires? No.
SAGAL: Why, Secretary Duncan, I'm surprised.
SAGAL: It's you are a clam, and it meant you should never speak of what goes on inside the office outside the office.
DUNCAN: Got it.
SAGAL: Well you still have two more chances. In 1941, the New York Times said that among the many things a modern secretary was expected to do for her boss was which of these? A: be willing to cover up any of his crimes? B: hold his pencils admiringly? Or C: give her life for him if necessary?
SAGAL: Yes, it is B.
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SAGAL: Advice is to hold his pencils admiringly. We're not sure how you're supposed to do that.
SAGAL: Last question, if you get this, you win the game. In the early 1930s, one secretarial school helped its students get used to then newfangled technology by doing what? A: shocking them repeatedly with electricity so they wouldn't be scared of it anymore?
SAGAL: B: teaching them to make their own ballpoint pens? Or C: building a four-foot tall rotary dial phone for demonstration purposes?
DUNCAN: Let's go with C.
SAGAL: Yes, it is C.
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SAGAL: Students were invited up to use this crazy new dial, this rotary phone and listen to the funny sounds it made as it spun past.
SAGAL: And then the little ones they'd see in the office wouldn't scare them. They'd be like, oh, look at the little baby phone.
SAGAL: Bill, how did Secretary Duncan do on our show?
KURTIS: Two out of three, what a game.
KURTIS: He's got game.
SAGAL: Arne Duncan is an awesome basketball player and also the Secretary of Education of the United States. Mr. Secretary, thank you so much.
SAGAL: Thank you for the good work.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.