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Education Opinion

The Ayers Affair (III): Right v. Left

May 22, 2008 3 min read
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Manhattan and Fordham

Before proceeding, readers should understand the relationships between New York’s Manhattan Institute – a broad policy think tank, and the smaller, education-oriented Fordham Institute, and what the two organizations represent. If the center of the AERA’s political gravity lies near the Democratic Party’s social liberal left, the two institutes lean towards the Republican Party’s social conservative right. Both Fordham and Manhattan have neoconservative roots, by which I refer to the decision of important Democratic intellectuals to join the Reagan revolution circa 1980, the ultimate result of a sense of alienation from their partisan roots. This should be distinguished from the tag applied to those in the Bush Administration favoring the invasion of Iraq. Just as members of the civil rights and antiwar movements split on the issue of violent protest, the neoconservative movement has not proceeded in lockstep on Iraq. Notable neoconservatives in opposition include former RAND colleague and The End of History author Francis Fukuyama.

National security was an important component of the defection, but the neoconservative movement has broader scope. Prominent neoconservatives focused on domestic policy include Ben Wattenberg and his son Daniel, Charles Krauthammer, Norman Podhoretz and son John, and former U.S. Secretary of Education William Bennett. Although he worked as a domestic advisor to President Nixon, and was the Democratic Senator from New York, Daniel Patrick Moynihan is generally accepted as a part of the movement as well.

The neoconservative perspective found a forum in Commentary, edited by New York City intellectual and the movement’s founder, Irving Kristol. His son, William (Bill) Kristol, publishes The Weekly Standard, another solid reference. To get a quick insight into the movement’s domestic philosophy consider Irving Kristol famous definitions of a neoconservative as “a liberal who has been mugged by reality,” and a liberal as “one who says that it’s all right for an 18-year-old girl to perform in a pornographic movie as long as she gets paid the minimum wage.”

At a more operational level, Manhattan’s Stern has written for Fordham. Fordham President Checker Finn was a Fellow at Manhattan. Finn co-authored a book with City Journal Publication Committee member Wliliam Bennett and worked with him at the Department of Education. (Finn also worked with Moynihan in the White House, the U.S. Embassy in India, and the Senate.) Manhattan Institute Senior Fellows Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom received Fordham Prizes for Excellence in Education. Manhattan Fellow Jay Greene has been a frequent guest editor on Fordham’s weekly web-based publication, The Gadfly. Fordham board member Diane Ravitch is a frequent participant in Manhattan’s events and projects. Fordham and Manhattan share a board member.

I could go on, but the point should be clear. Just as those who follow education policy find Ayer’s election to an AREA position no great surprise, they understand the relationship between Fordham and Manhattan. They also know that that there is no great love lost between the two camps or any great desire on the part of either to somehow join the other’s organization and institute change from within. The debates and political struggles have too much and too long a history to expect any kind of grand compromise, conversion, or even much of a truce. On the education front their culture wars encompass political battles over whole language v. phonics, the new math, the values that should be taught in public schools, the extent of collective bargaining, vouchers, charters and privatization.

There’s nothing inherently subversive or wrong with either group’s relationships or objectives. I’m just offering a description of facts on the ground, to help readers understand that this is a classic story of right v. left separated by a vast middle. There are people and institutions to the left of the AERA and its members, and to the right of Manhattan, Fordham, and their supporters.

Nevertheless, the two sides are shooting at each other, over the heads of most everyone else. Because both groups are legitimately eager to engage the public at large in a subject most citizens aren’t terribly interested in discussing, the two sides are always looking for opportunities to bring their debate into the mainstream. The Ayers Affair offered just such an opening for Manhattan and Fordham.

The opinions expressed in edbizbuzz 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.

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