Education Opinion

Reply to Mike Petrilli on McCarthyism in the K-12 Debate

May 19, 2008 3 min read

The Fordham Institute’s Mike Petrilli writes:

I didn’t call Bill Ayers a terrorist because I disagree with him, but because he blew stuff up to forward his political views. But fine, call him whatever you want. And while you’re at it, have the guts to say that an unrepentant bomber (is that better, Millot?) shouldn’t be welcomed with open arms by the education field.

Next question?

My response below:Actually, that is better, because it’s accurate.

On the McCarthyist issue, I was torn between calling Mike McCarthyist outright and pointing out that this is the direction in which this rhetoric takes us. The former sentiment was refelected in my “have you no shame” line. The latter in the paragraph Mike quoted above. My intent was to steer a fine line between the two. I tried not to call him a McCarthyite, but to emphasize the direction Mike’s rhetoric could take us.

Senator McCarthy took people with left-leaning views or leftist relationships in their youths and called them Communists. Mike labeled someone a terrorist who, in his youth, planted bombs in government offices and phoned in so the buildings could be evacuated and no one harmed - and in fact no one but Weathermen were harmed. There are those who call Secretary Rumsfeld a war criminal for his role in the authorization of aggressive interrogation techniques. All such statements are irresponsible because they are inaccurate and will incite others.

My “fear (of) a return to the chilled atmosphere of policy discourse in the 1950’s called McCarthyism” is reflected in the tendency of many who use the web to move from Ayers’ leftist views on k-12 education, to his leftist political philosophy, to his days as a Weatherman, to the terrorist label - and then to equate the last with the first. Readers need only Google “Bill Ayers Education AERA” to see how many partisans to the right of center in the education wars subscribe to that train of logic http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&ie=UTF-8&oe=utf-8&client=firefox-a&q=Bill+Ayers+Education+AERA

It’s perfectly relevant and reasonable to argue against Ayers political philosophy as the basis of any public education policy. Throwing in “by the way, the guy’s a terrorist” is an appeal to readers’ emotions rather than rational thinking on the merits of the case. I accept that Mike’s motivation was based only on what Ayers admits to have done and his lack of repentance for it. But intentional or otherwise, it was entirely forseeable that readers would infer a nexus between terrorism and Bill Ayers’ educational ideas.

Mike is the number two in a respectable think tank. Things he says are made respectable among many of those who follow Fordham; they are picked up by others, used and even twisted. People in positions like Mike’s need to think about the consequences of what they say. What he said has had consequences. And Mike bears some responsibility for helping the debate on education policy to sink a bit more.

P.S. regarding: And while you’re at it, have the guts to say that an unrepentant bomber (is that better, Millot?) shouldn’t be welcomed with open arms by the education field.

I never joined AERA - for two reasons. First, I felt it had low standards of research as reflected by it’s annual meeting agendas. Second, it struck me as left of center, and so not entirely conducive to my own research interests, which follow from a value judgment about the relative advantages of markets over central planning.

I didn’t do a detailed study of the group’s politics, but I did act consistent with my impressions. I believe the Constitutions freedom of assembly, and that’s a group I chose not to assemble with. The fact that someone with roots in the radical left of the 1970s was elected an officer was hardly a great surprise to me.

Had I been an AERA member, as an adherent of left, center, or right politics, and had the Weatherman intended to kill innocent people, but through poor planning or otherwise managed to kill no one, I could not vote for Bill Ayers. Nor would I have voted for him if the Weatherman had accidentally killed people and Ayers remained unrepentant for his actions. Had I somehow decided to join despite with my pro-market views, I would not have voted for Ayers because of his educational philosophy. My guess is I would have abstained from many votes - which is why I didn’t join in the first place.

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