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The Ayers Affair (II): The Education Angle

The Story Breaks

William Ayers, now a professor at the University Illinois - Chicago, was a founding member of the Weather Underground. To summarize and simplify solely for the purpose of starting this discussion (more detail to follow), the Weathermen bombed government buildings to protest America’s prosecution of the Vietnam War. In the wake of September 11, bombings are understandably a matter of great sensitivity to all Americans. Independent of this, the Weathermen are a “hot button” issue for most Americans old enough to have become engaged in domestic politics from the late 1960’s to the late 1970’s. When it was revealed in February 2008 that Ayers is/was an acquaintance/friend/colleague/ally of Democratic Presidential contender Barak Obama, the professor’s personal history created a campaign issue that is likely to remain into November.

Ayers is the catalyst for the controversy that bear his name, but not its subject. The publicity generated by Obama’s opponents is both a strategic move to cast doubt on the candidate through guilt by association and a legitimate occasion to inquire more deeply into the Senator’s views on important issues. But it also has broader implications for American politics, threatening to rip open political wounds from the Vietnam era that have barely healed, and putting a problematic domestic spin on an eternal American debate over the legitimate boundaries of protest and state power, in the context of our new global war on terrorism.

The Education Angle

The “Ayers Affair” has implications for public education policy and the politics of public education. It provides an opening to find out what the Senator really believes about the purposes of public education, giving broader meaning to our debate about “what students should know and be able to do.” It also gave ideological conservatives an opportunity to take advantage of the popular media’s interest in the sensational to reinvigorate the education front of our county's simmering "culture wars."

In March of 2008, soon after the initial Ayers-Obama story, the professor was elected Vice President for Curriculum of the American Education Research Association (AERA), a voluntary association consisting mostly of academics engaged in the subject. In the April 23 issue of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal, contributing editor Sol Stern brought the education angle to public attention. Among other things, Stern pointed out that Ayers was hardly trying to hide this past. In fact, the professor put members on notice about this past. “In the short biographical statement distributed to prospective voters beforehand, Ayers listed among his scholarly books Fugitive Days, an unapologetic memoir about his ten years in the Weather Underground.”

To those who work in or near the world of public education politics, policy, and research, Ayers' election was no more surprising than it will be if Randi Weingarten is elected to lead the American Federation of Teachers. And like the "American" in AFT, the word indicates only AERA's aspiration to represent the field. In reality it reflects only the group’s location.

The AERA is not an assembly representing the political demographics of America’s public education research community. That’s not to say everyone or even many in the group hold to the Weather Underground’s political philosophy, that you can’t find moderate or even conservative members, or that the younger membership may have greater political diversity than the older generation. It’s just to recognize that the center of AERA’s political balance lies closer to the Democrats’ core base than the Republicans', and has for many years. It’s one reason I never joined.

Stern never called Ayers a terrorist. What he did do was relate Ayers past' to his presnt role as a professor of education: "The more pressing issue is not the damage done by the Weather Underground 40 years ago, but the far greater harm inflicted on the nation’s schoolchildren by the political and educational movement in which Ayers plays a leading role today." In an earlier article, Stern discussed Ayers involvement in the Weathermen's bombing campaign, noting that the professor was never convicted but "has acknowledged committing crimes during his underground days—crimes that arguably amounted to treason."

On April 24, Fordham Foundation Vice President Michael Petrilli brought the Stern article to the attention of those who read Flypaper, a blog Fordham publishes as “opinions… explicitly those of the authors (that)… do not necessarily represent the views of the organization.” Petrilli’s teaser paragraph from the Stern article begins: “Instead of planting bombs in public buildings, Ayers now works to indoctrinate America’s future teachers in the revolutionary cause…” Peterill prefaced this quotation with his own writing “According to Sol Stern, it’s not his (literal) bomb-throwing past but his (figurative) bomb-throwing present” (parenthesis in the original).

On April 30, Petrilli noted and linked readers to Ayers guest post on my fellow edweek.org blogger eduwonkette’s site without any significant comment. The Ayers post was mostly on the issue of teaching social justice, and about as enlightening as Stern’s accusation of same.

On May 8, Petrilli’s colleague and Fordam Editor Liam Julian, posted a Flypaper comment on conservative columnist Bob Novak’s restatement of the Ayers-Obama relationship that same day. Referring to the public’s need for more information from the Senator, Julian wrote: “Obama supporters should hope any such explication is better than the one put forth by Stanley Fish, law professor and New York Times blogger, who justified his own association with Ayers by noting that people should not be held accountable for the actions of their acquaintances. That’s baloney.” Julian added, “And while the sins of Ayers’s past are disturbing, so are his present sins—i.e., the drivel that he continues to publish and proffer.”

I think any reader without a stake in this matter would be justified in drawing at least three conclusions from these items:

• That Stern, Petrilli and Julian consider Ayers to be a criminal.

• That they see a common source for Ayers’ bombing and education activities in his left wing political philosophy - and a shared danger.

• That they believe the maintenance of personal or professional relationships with Ayers reflects poorly on his friends and colleagues.

Readers would not be going too far on a limb to draw two more conclusions:

• First. that the three are asking readers to at least consider the possibility that people who maintain their personal or professional ties to the professor share the political beliefs that led Ayers to form the Weatherman and condone his bombing activities.

• Second, that if this is the case, those tied to Ayers have the potential to be no less dangerous than he was in the Weather Underground.

I’ll get to the other possible interpretations of the articles later. All I’m trying to point out is that intended or not, this a completely plausible interpretation and quite foreseeable to the writers.

Whatever the interpretation, it turns out to be a short leap from here to labeling Ayers a terrorist.

But first some more background....

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