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Education as Politics More than Policy: The Ayers Affair

May 16, 2008 5 min read

In my May 15 “Letter From” I suggested that k-12 education is better understood as a political arena than a forum for the analysis of public policy. Given this, I was upset and saddened, but not surprised, to read about the “Ayers Affair.”

Fordham Institute Vice President (and President Checker Finn’s presumed heir apparent) Mike Petrilli has called for the American Education Research Association’s board to unseat William Ayers, Vice President-Elect of Curriculum Studies on the grounds that he is a “former terrorist.”

Among other things Ayers is Distinguished Professor of Education and Senior University Scholar at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), and founder of both the Small Schools Workshop and the Center for Youth and Society. He is also a former and founding member of the Weather Underground, a radical group of mostly college students who split from the Students for a Democratic Society over the policy of nonviolent protests against the war in Southeast Asia. The Weathermen’s activities included breaking LSD guru Timothy Leary out of prison, the 1969 “Days of Rage” in Chicago, and bombings.

A few comments:
I’m a lawyer now involved in k-12 education with a long prior history in national security. I should probably also point out that I would not be considered left-of-center in my approach to education or national security. Edbizbuzz readers know I’m pro-market in public education. As for my national security leanings, they may not know that I was an “arms control” skeptic, served on President Reagan’s “Star Wars” panel and remain an advocate of ballistic missile defense. I probably would not be invited to reunion of even former SDS members, let alone the Weathermen.

Putting on my lawyer hat...

Ayers was a fugitive from justice, but all charges against him were dropped in light of prosecutorial misconduct. In the United States, people are innocent until proven guilty.

Putting on my national security hat...

To describe Ayers and the Weather Underground as terrorists is hyberbole. As a strategy of political struggle, terrorism refers to the deliberate indiscriminate use of force against innocents to strike fear in the general public.

While illegal and wrong, this does not describe the Weather Underground’s bombing campaign. They did not target open air markets and places of worship (Al Quaeda in Iraq), pubs (IRA), passenger aircraft (Black September), airport ticket counters (Abu Nidal) or buildings filled with thousands of average workers (Osama Bib Laden’s Al Quaeda). The Weathermen were (sentimental) Marxists and hoped to enlist the proletariat.

The Weathermen did intend to make a statement about the vulnerability of the government and to make those in power feel insecure. Consequently, their strategy for the use of force was aimed at the government. Bombings were confined to government buildings (e.g., the Capitol, the Pentagon, a police station).

At least as important, the Weathermen deliberately sought to avoid casualties – even of government workers - by providing authorities with sufficient warning to evacuate. As far as I know, the only people killed as a result of Weather Underground activities were three members who accidentally killed themselves manufacturing bombs in a Greenwich Village townhouse.

Putting on my k-12 hat...

Prof Ayers may have radical political views, but presumably members of AERA haven’t found them to be a bar to his role in an organization focused on research. He was elected by a democratic process. If some find AERA’s political tenor unsatisfactory, they might form a separate group. Our Constitution establishes a basic right called “freedom of association.”

As a citizen of this free society, I also have something to say.

Labeling someone who has never been found guilty of a violent crime - let alone terrorism, a “terrorist” is irresponsible. If it becomes socially acceptable for people in positions of responsibility who have the respect of a larger following to make such statements, I fear a return to the chilled atmosphere of policy discourse in the 1950’s called McCarthyism. “If you don’t agree with me, you must be a Communist - or in this case a terrorist (and I, by implication, must be a patriot).” This is truly a serious threat to a free society.

Eduwonkette offered some insight into where this kind of debate leads. Petrilli is a Fellow at the right-of-center Hoover Institution, along with Donald Rumsfeld. There are those who call the former Secretary of Defense a “war criminal” for his role in the authorization of interrogation techniques that quite a few legal experts and - even John McCain - consider to be torture and a violation of domestic and international law. Plaintiffs brought suit on such charges against the former Secretary in Paris. Congressman Charles Rangel introduced articles of impeachment on the same grounds. Petrilli dismisses the idea as something from the “looney left.” One might consider labeling Ayer’s a terrorist something from the looney right. Whatever the facts and legal theories one side or the other can bring to bear on either matter theories, neither man has seen his day in court and been found guilty.

Finally, returning to where I started, k-12 education as politics more than policy…

What exactly does Ayers’ role in the Weathermen or Petrilli’s relationship to Don Rumsfeld have to do with substantive issues of education research? What possible improvement in methodology or subject matter focus at AERA will be prevented because Ayers was a founder of the Weathermen? For that matter, what is the plausible importance of Don Rumsfeld in Mike Petrilli’s research and advocacy? It’s all pretty remote from the school reform as public policy.

Of course, if we want k-12 to remain more a matter of politics than policy analysis education, keep it up.

I don’t agree with much of Prof. Ayers’ politics, any of the Weathermen’s violent activities, or many of his views on education policy, but I’ll be damned if I’m not going to protest actions and tactics that can only drag political discourse into the mud.

To paraphrase the historic response to Senator McCarthy, “Mike Petrilli, have you no shame?”

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