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Response on Ayers Petition

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Editor's note: Due to their timeliness, the following posts by Deborah Meier and Diane Ravitch on William Ayers appear today rather than on a usual publishing day for Bridging Differences.

Dear Diane,

You are right on almost all points. I forgive people more easily—it's a fault of mine that many friends complain about. For example, having been a passionate anti-Communist all my life, I find it possible to be friends with many ex-Communists who have not properly repented their pasts—although I do give them a little trouble now and then.

I ignored the first round of statements in defense of Ayers for precisely this reason. In my own conversations with Bill it's clear to me that in fact he has fundamentally changed his mind, and acknowledges it. Why he publicly made the claim that he hasn't repented I haven't figured. He insists it's a misreading of his views. But I, like you, am not at all sure. And since I had considerable distaste for far less violent 60s leftist actions, I was not about to let that pass.

But one doesn't get to rewrite such public statements and I think I allowed myself to overlook the sentence you picked out, which lumps us all together.

I was, of course, less interested in defending Ayers than Obama. And more outraged at the misuse of Ayers to smear Obama.

However, there is no question in my mind that the framework from which Ayers views the world, and education now, is one I appreciate and support—with differences, of course. I think he is a little less wary of using schools for ideological purposes. Like me, however, he sees that there is no escaping all ideology. Democracy rests on an ideology, and the current attack on "social justice" teaching is a case in point. Of course democracy stems from the desire to create a more just world! What else?

But the line between proper and improper use of schools to teach values is a tough issue. There are clear no-no's, extremes, and lots of less clear ones. Should we tell kids our political, religious, and social values? Are "values" ideology-free? In my sense of these words—they can't be.

Anyway, having held off, I found the offensive use of his relationship to Obama so irritating that I felt I needed to sign something; so I signed the one that had the most names and included people I admired. But I have qualms about the wording. Of course I also know a lot about their relationship—which was very cursory. Ayers comes from one of the most respectable and "in" families in Chicago. A real "waspy" Midwesterner in background. And he lives in Hyde Park, as does Obama. So it would be amazing if they didn't cross paths, have common friends and acquaintances, and get chosen for common boards. The people who controlled the Annenberg money were all prestigious Daley-connected socially respectable leaders of Chicago's philanthropic and "bi-partisan" crowd. Obama was a man with a future. It was they, not Ayers, who coaxed Obama into joining the education reform network. Ayers hardly played any significant role in it. And Ayers got a quite small chunk of the funds for the Small Schools workshop (which did terrific work from my perspective).

One thinks of the terrorist organizations that have really influenced American culture and politics, and the Weathermen (all 50 of them?) were hardly the worst. The Ku Klux Klan is not something out of our far distant past, and many politicians have ties with former Klan members. They were truly a powerful terrorist organization—responsible for the death of thousands, and for perniciously frightening 10 times as many more, and of using their secretive power to influence the politics of America. Should we continue to castigate all those who denounce such Klan activities but maintained relationships with former Klansmen?

You mention King's pacifism; but remember he truly was one, and few of those who attack Ayers are. He was as much against the Vietnam War as Ayers was. But his tool was nonviolent protest. It's still one of those difficult issues for me, since I know I am not a pacifist yet deeply sympathize with it. But as one who doesn't condemn all violence, where do I draw the line? At taking innocent lives? Modern warfare is all about taking innocent lives—not "purposely," but knowingly. McCain did not have illusions when he dropped bombs that no innocents would be killed.

Life has many moral complexities. But I think Ayers does good work and that his adolescent fling with violence should be condemned—the sect had after all an impact in the death of several innocent people. Ayers was indeed fortunate to have escaped the worst punishment, as several of his co-thinkers did not.

Thanks, Diane, for giving me a chance to explore this.

Deb

4 Comments

Please see my comment below on the intentions of Weathermen/Weather Underground bombings. - TL

I'm one teacher who's pretty weary of having people like Ayers held up as a leader. I'm quite forgiving of people's youthful mistakes, if they acknowledge that they were mistakes and ask to be forgiven. Otherwise, they are attacking the standard of goodness. Personal mistakes are easily overlooked. Attacks on the standards are not.

In my own conversations with Bill it's clear to me that in fact he has fundamentally changed his mind, and acknowledges it. Why he publicly made the claim that he hasn't repented I haven't figured. He insists it's a misreading of his views.

So the various things he says don't add up, but it's clear to you what he really thinks, except for what you haven't figured. I don't know that I would go public with my support, based on such thinking.

You go on exploring things while clarifying little:

Like me, however, he sees that there is no escaping all ideology. Democracy rests on an ideology, and the current attack on "social justice" teaching is a case in point. Of course democracy stems from the desire to create a more just world! What else?

Should we tell kids our political, religious, and social values? Are "values" ideology-free? In my sense of these words—they can't be.

Just so. There are few or no values that haven't been politicized, so there are few or no values that can be taught in public schools that are not controversial. So educators step away.

But kids need moral clarity. Unfortunately, schools shy away from teaching kids that anything is good or bad, accept for things that are so often repeated in liberal echo chambers that most educators think all intelligent people accept them.

Meanwhile, the most widespread and serious education failure I see in the schools on a regular basis is the moral chaos lots of kids from poor neighborhoods live in. But no one's going to teach them much of use.

Talking about the moral complexity of life won't do it, and condoms, I think, aren't doing the trick.

I have never supported any actions of the Weather Underground, nor any actions destructive of property, nor especially any actions that killed people. That has never stopped the radical right wing from calling me "bomber," "murderer," and more recently "terrorist."

I haven't signed the petition for Dr. Ayers. I would be happy to sign a petition that condemns Sarah Palin's over the top criticism of Ayers, the strained efforts to link Barack Obama to Ayers and the Weather Underground, and the general war on education and educators by many (if not most) of those same people.

I stop short of saying that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. But we need to be careful here: The enemies of Bill Ayers are generally no friends to education, teachers or teaching. They would just as soon hang many public school teachers with Ayers as they would like to hang Ayers alone.

Moral clarity? Let's start with the First Amendment. It's under assault. It's the foundation of our freedoms. There are probably better allies, but Ayers is for it, and the Republican Party is formally nervous about it, careful only to avoid outright condemnation of it. The First Amendment also is the basis of freedom of association -- we may associate with those we choose. Ironically, the First Amendment also protects those who wrongly claim associations where none exist.

It's an odd world when one must stand with Bill Ayers in order to stand with George Washington and Alexander Hamilton. I hope Washington and Hamilton won't take any missiles aimed at Ayers instead -- but I won't stand away from defense of the First Amendment, or public education, to please people who condemn education with their right hand and hope we won't notice because they condemn Ayers with their left hand at the same time.

Very few of Ayers' critics really care about Ayers. They do care about defeating Obama, or they care about hammering away at the foundations of public education. They complain about Ayers only because they see such complaints as a tool to get at Obama and public education. They were silent during the searches for bombers of abortion clinics, most of them. It's not really terrorism they despise; they despise any action in favor of public education, and they won't hesitate to falsely cry "terrorist!" if they think it will promote their cause.

Got a petition against such tactics?

Tim Lacey--are you miu??? I couldn't find what the link was to your views otherwise.

But indeed, miu, we share a concern about how easy it is to think that our views are so obviously right that they aren't controversial. I'm not certain what you think the answer to this dilemma is. I'm not sure myself, which was what I was trying to explain and explore. By the way, are you under the impression that there's more moral "clarity" among the rich? Ayers had that advantage, but didn't alas use it well. But it's also an advantage that gave him more opportunities to come to some greater clarity, which I think he has come to. I wish all those who make mistakes far less serious than his had the same opportunity to explore their histories and lives and relive them under better circumstances.

Ed. It is an odd world. And an interesting one. And, as miu above notes, "moral clarity" is hard to come by in our lives, much as we try. But kids need opportunities to explore ideas, including those that involve moral dilemmas as well as those they beieve involve moral certainties. It's not easy to figure out where they can get such practice.

deb


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