Education Opinion

Response on Ayers Petition

By Deborah Meier — October 15, 2008 3 min read
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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.


The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.