1960s Radical Drawing Fire to Obama Is a Prominent Thinker on K-12 Education

By Mark Walsh — April 25, 2008 4 min read
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William C. Ayers, the 1960s radical at the center of a presidential-campaign controversy over the extent of his ties with Sen. Barack Obama, is widely known and respected in education as a professor, commentator, and advocate for progressive teaching and social justice.

Mr. Ayers recently became the vice president-elect for the curriculum studies division of the American Educational Research Association.

At the AERA’s annual meeting in New York City in March, he was a panelist for several sessions, including one on the topic “The Small Schools Movement Meets the Ownership Society.”

In a paper on his Web site titled “Conceptions of Teaching,” (Word doc) Mr. Ayers, 63, writes: “Teachers might not change the world in dramatic fashion, but we certainly change the people who will change the world.”

Mr. Ayers and his wife, Bernardine Dohrn, tried to bring dramatic change to the world at one time, using methods that have led current political critics of Mr. Ayers to characterize him as an “unrepentant terrorist.” Both Mr. Ayers and Ms. Dohrn were members of the group known as the Weathermen, later the Weather Underground, which took a militant approach to opposing the Vietnam War.

Mr. Ayers has acknowledged taking part in Weathermen bombings carried out at the Pentagon, the U.S. Capitol, the Department of State, and elsewhere. No one was injured in those bombings, but three members of the group were killed in New York City when a bomb accidentally exploded in 1970. That incident helped send Mr. Ayers and Ms. Dohrn underground for more than a decade. After they emerged, they embarked on academic careers.

Mr.Ayers is a professor in the education school at the University of Illinois-Chicago, while his wife teaches law at Northwestern University. They live in Chicago’s Hyde Park-Kenwood area, near the University of Chicago, where they met Mr. Obama, 46, as an up-and-coming politician who also lives in the neighborhood.

‘Valued’ in Chicago

Sen. Obama, the Illinois Democrat who is battling Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York for the Democratic presidential nomination, was asked about his relationship with Mr.Ayers in an April 16 ABC News debate in Philadelphia.

Sen. Obama described Mr. Ayers as “a guy who lives in my neighborhood,” but not one whom “I exchange ideas with on a regular basis.”

The two men served together for a time on a charitable group’s board, and Mr. Ayers and Ms. Dohrn reportedly gave a reception for Mr. Obama in the mid-1990s to help launch his campaign for the Illinois Senate.

Mr. Ayers and his work have been quoted or cited in the pages of Education Week over the years. He was the author of a 1987 Commentary, for example, and the subject of a 1994 profile.

Mr.Ayers could not be reached for comment for this story, and he has kept a low profile since the Philadelphia debate. But on his Web site recently—in response to a growing storm, particularly among political conservatives, over his past and his ties to Sen. Obama—he addressed criticisms that he lacked regret for his actions.

“I’m sometimes asked if I regret anything I did to oppose the war in Viet Nam, and I say ‘no, I don’t regret anything I did to try to stop the slaughter of millions of human beings by my own government,’ ” Mr. Ayers said on April 6. “Sometimes I add, ‘I don’t think I did enough.’ This is then elided: he has no regrets for setting bombs and thinks there should be more bombings.”

In Chicago, Mr. Ayers has been an advocate of small schools and a sometime adviser to Mayor Richard M. Daley on improving the city’s school system. In the wake of the Philadelphia debate, Mr. Daley called Mr. Ayers a “valued member of the Chicago community.”

“By the time Obama came to Chicago, Bill and Bernardine had long since become fully contributing and completely respectable members of the civic community and pillars of the Hyde Park community,” said Adolph L. Reed, a political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania, who once lived in the Chicago neighborhood and says he is a friend of the couple. “What I think is a subject for concern is that Obama is vulnerable to the ... Republican propaganda machine.”

Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the presumptive GOP nominee, has indicated he is willing to tie Sen. Obama to Mr.Ayers.

The relationship between the two was “open to question,” Sen. McCain said on the ABC News program “This Week” on April 20. “Because if you’re going to associate and have as a friend and serve on a board and have a guy kick off your campaign that says he’s unrepentant, that he wished [he had] bombed more. … ”

Education Views Criticized

For Sol Stern, a contributing editor of City Journal, published by the right-leaning Manhattan Institute in New York City, the current concern is Mr. Ayers’ espousal of a social-justice philosophy in 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,” Mr. Stern wrote on the journal’s Web site.

In an interview, Mr. Stern added: “Don’t get me wrong—I’m not saying his time in the Weather Underground was harmless, but it was limited damage. But there is a lot of damage in this movement for teaching social justice in the schools. It is based on teaching kids a left-wing ideology.”

Danny Martin, the chairman of the curriculum and instruction department at UIC’s education school, said last week that he had been instructed not to comment on the controversy.

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A version of this article appeared in the April 30, 2008 edition of Education Week as 1960s Radical Drawing Fire to Obama Is a Prominent Thinker on K-12 Education


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