Don’t you wanna just tousle the little scamp’s hair?
I was tickled when eduwonkette said she’d link to a reaction piece re: Ayers, Petrilli and Millot. Time to do my part.
Bill Ayers’ March election to the post of Vice President of Curriculum Studies for the American Educational Research Association raised a few eyebrows – albeit too few – in the great education debate. There’s been quite a bit of discussion since Sol Stern wrote his most recent piece about Ayers in City Journal in which he introduces, as have some pundits, Ayers’ connection to Senator Barack Obama ["Obama's Real Ayers Problem"]. Primary politics aside, some thought that electing an unrepentant terrorist to AERA’s ranks was a mistake; others, however, found that insinuation shameful.
There has been surprisingly little discussion of Ayers’ history with the Weather Underground Organization [also known as Weatherman or Weathermen] – or, for that matter, some of those acronyms like SDS and AERA that edubloggers assume everyone else already knows.
When I read Dean Millot’s indictment of Fordham’s Mike Petrilli, I decided to write up something brief that touched on some of the points the rest of the edublogosphere has taken for granted. The truth is that few normal people – you know, those folks who have an interest in education, be it from the teacher’s or parent’s or community member’s perspective, but don’t speak in terms of “agency” and “critical pedagogy,” or who, in their lovable ignorance, refer to schoolchildren as “kids” or “students” instead of the more fashionable and more enlightened “learners” or “citizens in training” – follow the AERAcracy or care at all about the historical follies of a bunch of college kids who played revolutionary.
What is AERA?
The American Education Research Association is the professional organization of education-related researchers in the United States. Their mission statement describes them:
“The American Educational Research Association (AERA), founded in 1916, is concerned with improving the educational process by encouraging scholarly inquiry related to education and evaluation and by promoting the dissemination and practical application of research results.
“AERA is the most prominent international professional organization, with the primary goal of advancing educational research and its practical application. Its more than 26,000 members are educators; administrators; directors of research; persons working with testing or evaluation in federal, state and local agencies; counselors; evaluators; graduate students; and behavioral scientists.”
Their influence on teacher education in the United States is marked; they are, rightly, considered a major force in steering teacher training nationwide. AERA’s far-reaching mishmash of academics and social policy – with an emphasis on the latter, though less explicit – can be gleaned from the theme for the 2009 AERA conference and a conscientious click-fest on their website.
What is the Weather Underground Organization?
The Weather Underground was an offshoot of the larger, more successful Students for a Democratic Society [SDS], an organization dedicated to student activism in opposition to United States’ foreign policy [at SDS' inception, Cold War policy], world-wide military conflict, racial and economic inequality in the US, etc. It was a most comprehensive agenda – if the New Left saw a problem, SDS tried to cover it.
As SDS’ general dissatisfaction with US foreign policy became focused on the expanding military action in Vietnam, SDS stepped up its efforts. Teach-ins, protests, sit-ins, student strikes, et al. were more common – membership had grown quickly and there was, to SDS leadership’s relief, a tangible, pressing issue to attack.
But, as with most all large organizations, internal strife grew with both membership and the increasing complexity of SDS’ actions. The Revolutionary Youth Movement [RYM], which included much of SDS’ leadership, was particularly dissatisfied with SDS’ relations with Progressive Labor – so dissatisfied that at the 1969 SDS convention, the RYM supporters left, walked across the street and declared themselves the real SDS.
RYM believed that the US proletariat could be re-educated to appreciate RYM’s ideals, and in that march rise up to overthrow capitalism and attain the liberation of which RYM dreamed. To my knowledge, RYMers overwhelmingly shared this goal; the difficult part was how to get there.
SDS leaders Bernardine Dohrn, Mark Rudd and others broke to form RYM I, who advocated armed, aggressive tactics. RYM II, a more moderate, Maoist child of RYM, was led by edublogger Mike Klonsky. RYM became known as Weatherman, a reference to a line in Bob Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues: “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”
[Klonsky's RYM II disintegrated and was absorbed by a multitude of Communist, Socialist and unaffiliated activist organizations.]
What did Ayers and the Weather Underground do?
The Weathermen [they had not yet used the name "Weather Underground"] started with the Days of Rage in Chicago – a large-scale, multi-day protest of the trial of the Chicago Eight. WU expected many thousands; only a few hundred showed up. Ayers, Dohrn et al. rallied in Haymarket Square and detonated a bomb between the legs of the police memorial statue. Though no one was hurt, the explosion destroyed the monument and shattered more than 100 nearby windows.
The protesters formed a mob that ran through Chicago’s Gold Coast district, breaking windows, assaulting cars and damaging public/private property. They were met by well-armed police who, when provoked by a violent rush of protesters, controlled the mob with riot gear and tear gas and made appropriate arrests.
After two more days of inactivity [it's worth noting that the Klonsky faction held non-violent, peaceful protests/rallies during these two days] the group reformed and marched through The Loop [business] district. The marchers again broke through police escorts to destroy windows, storefronts and cars, but were quelled quickly.
The WU followed the Days of Rage with a declaration of war against the United States in early 1970. By this time, the WU was entirely covert and began using the name Weather Underground Organization; they issued a proclamation in May stating that within two weeks a domestic target would be bombed. A month later they bombed a police station in New York City.
Later that year, the WU was contracted to break Timothy Leary, a developer and proponent of the LSD/psychadelic drug subculture [edited as per Mr. Fasso's comment], out of prison – they did so successfully. In 1972 they detonated a bomb in a ladies’ restroom in The Pentagon.
1974 saw the publication of the Underground’s manifesto, Prairie Fire: The Politics of Revolutionary Anti-Imperialism. By this time, the WU’s members were on the FBI’s Most Wanted List; some turned themselves in as the WU disintegrated through the mid-1970′s, while Dohrn and Ayers – who married while on the lam – avoided arrest and prosecution.
Ayers and Dohrn gave themselves to the authorities in 1980. Charges against Ayers were dropped due to improprieties in his investigation, while Dohrn received probation and a light fine. Four other Weathermen were involved in the Brinks armored car robbery of 1981 that resulted in the death of two police officers and one guard.
No innocents were killed by Weathermen bombs, though three WU members were killed by their own faulty bomb that exploded prematurely in a Greenwich village residence.
The Prairie Fire Organizing Committee carries on the legacy of the Weathermen.
Why does this matter?
As Stern, Petrilli and others have noted, Ayers has been elected to serve AERA in a capacity that will have a strong influence on curriculum. His qualifications are based on his scholarship in education [his career of choice after resurfacing Aboveground], the volume of which is undeniable. The value of that scholarship, however, continues to be debated [though not vigorously enough].
Mike Petrilli drew the ire of Eduwonkette when he suggested in Memo to the AERA that:
“The [AERA] Council might consider whether it’s prudent to allow a former terrorist to join its ranks—particularly a man who said as late as 2001 that “I don’t regret setting bombs; I feel we didn’t do enough.” …
“Is there any doubt that the election of a former terrorist to the organization’s governance body is “contrary to the interests” of the Association?
“Out of political necessity, Obama is already distancing himself from Ayers, and most likely will do more of that in coming months. When the AERA’s Association Council meets next month, it should do the same.”
Petrilli’s point is simple: Ayers’ background is such a stain on AERA that they would do well to avoid the association.
The most notable criticism of Petrilli’s suggestion came from Dean Millot. Since Eduwonkette found his comment so compelling that it was “worth reprinting in full”, I suppose that I should deem it so compelling as to warrant a reaction of my own.
I apologize in advance for re-ordering parts of Millot’s comment, but it’s necessary. He wrote:
“I’m a lawyer now involved in k-12 education with a long background in national security.
“Putting on my lawyer hat – Ayers was a fugitive from justice, but all charges against him were dropped in light of prosecutorial misconduct.
… “As a citizen of this free society, I also have something to say. To call someone who has never been found guilty of of a violent crime, let alone terrorism – the highly charged word “terrorist,” is to take political debate back to the atmosphere of 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).”"
I don’t have a “lawyer hat” – and no national security experience to speak of – but I’ll do my best.
Millot takes issue with calling one who has not been convicted by a legitimate court a “terrorist” and invokes the specter of McCarthyism in what he thinks is a robust defense. Petrilli points in today’s post to a continuation of Millot’s comment:
“Rather than practice the indiscriminate killing of innocents to create fear among the public at large, they sought to avoid such collateral damage, while damaging symbols of government and military power.”
Implicit is Millot’s definition of real terrorism, not the petty stuff – remember, they’ve got to be guilty in court, too.
Normal folks – those who prefer worn out baseball caps to legal haberdashery – know that conviction isn’t a necessary condition for appropriately labeling one an offender. Consider:
- Gerry Adams, IRA and Sinn Fein leader, who has been charged with just a tiny fraction of the murderous offenses for which he is, to varying degrees, responsible;
- Senator Ted Kennedy, whose responsibility in Mary Jo Kopechne’s death is undeniable, yet the court saw it sufficient to ticket him for leaving the scene of an accident and nothing else;
- A host of domestic terrorists in centuries past, from vigilantes who co-opted the agendas of Quantrill’s Raiders or the Redlegs and Jayhawkers, and who weren’t tried for what would now be called ‘crimes against humanity’ or ‘war crimes.’
- Mr. Simpson, the ultimate low-hanging fruit here, does the “Did I? Didn’t I?” dance daily despite the court’s ruling.
If Millot or others feel that Adams can’t be rightly called an inciter of violence, that Kennedy can’t be called guilty of involuntary manslaughter, or that those inspired by Bill Quantrill can’t be labeled a bushwhacking terrorist scourge, they’re welcome to make their case.
Plenty have already touted Mr. Simpson’s innocence, so I won’t ask for that.
It must be noted that the term “terrorist” is “highly charged,” as Millot describes it, because it’s an unconscionable, unacceptable way to go about things that we reject except in the rarest circumstances [the WU felt that those circumstances were sufficiently present to warrant terrorism - others didn't]. Though Millot would likely defend his characterization by citing the current multi-facted climate of terrorism, it is a term that is self-evident to most; we see it as the ultimate case of the end as a justification for the means.
Millot would likely concede [and has in the comments of this post] that if the Weather Underground had injured or killed citizens in any of its bombs, they would deserve the label of “terrorist.” I, however, look to the WU’s actions – an open, explicit declaration of war against the United States, promoting fear, and several shows of force that resulted in the destruction of state property, as evidence of WU’s terrorism. William Ayers, as supported by his own testimony, played a critical role in planning and executing these acts.
Millot, though, seems to give Ayers et al. a free pass [well, a discounted fine, really] simply because the Weather Underground wasn’t as effective [or didn't intend to be?] at terrorism as, say, Al-Qaeda, and because they eluded capture long enough for the government to blow the case.
I suppose that the warnings distributed by the Underground before bombings were a noteworthy gesture to limit collateral damage. I think, based on the many interviews of WU members to which we have access, that they made sincere efforts to avoid unwanted injuries. Would they have wrought their hands had Richard Nixon or Henry Kissinger accidentally wandered into that ladies’ bathroom as the bomb detonated? Doubtful, but WU took steps to avoid killing innocents.
But we can’t excuse one’s actions simply because they preface them with something that suggests, sincerely or otherwise, that their intentions aren’t that bad. If Mr. Millot doesn’t believe me, he’s welcome to walk down a busy street and stop a gentleman to say, “No offense, but your wife is an ugly whore.” That “no offense” line is the equivalent of a bomb’s warning – and though it gives one a moment to brace themselves, few would consider it proper absolution for the indignity that followed.
One could only hope that Millot would get through his enlightened explanation of the “no offense” defense before the gentleman’s fist garbled his words. [Millot might be miffed if his assailant fled an assault charge for 10 years, but that's another issue.]
Millot’s point rests in part on the value of our definition of “terrorism”:
“It devalues the serious nature of terrorism to slap the label on every misguided or even deranged person with a bomb.”
Indeed, terrorism is serious business. Though Millot has claimed that Petrilli and others have lowered the bar by invoking Ayers’ terrorist past as evidence that AERA should limit his future, that simply isn’t the case. Upholding the most basic standards is solidifying the floor, not lowering the bar.
We’d all likely agree that serial killers are heinous people who have committed unforgivable acts. We’d also agree that, in a way, killing many people is worse than killing one. But we regard murder as morally reprehensible whether one or ten are killed – and it does not devalue the censure we place on serial killers. We are clear about the floor without devaluing the bar, and I’d argue that not being clear about the floor devalues the serious nature of terrorism.
Clausewitz famously defined war as the “continuation of politics by other means.” Terrorism is a sub-species of war; it is an attempt to affect policy by fear and destruction. As with murder, there are varying degrees of terrorist offense – I’d certainly call Hamas’ willingness to absorb non-combatant women and children into collateral damage a more heinous strain of terrorism than Ayers’ – both discriminate and indiscriminate.
William Ayers, Bernardine Dohrn and the rest of the Weather Underground engaged in a sustained campaign of fear and destruction – or, in fewer words, terrorism.
What should AERA do about Ayers?
In short, whatever they’d like – that’s their right as a private organization. They have already made the decision to vote Ayers into a position of power and I would be surprised if they considered seriously any change.
But just as they’re entitled to decide that the character of a man and his past is wholly irrelevant to their enterprise, we’re entitled to say that they’re using poor judgment. Making an organization accountable for their decisions – or judging them in part by those decisions – is a very different thing than guilt by association, which is the defense du jour that Eduwonkette, Millot and the kette’s skoolboy have touted.
And, though skoolboy argues otherwise:
“…I think it’s pretty silly (hmm…Silly Milli Petrilli?) for someone who is not a member of a professional association to presume to dictate to the association how it should govern itself.”
I see no problem with one not in AERA weighing its actions. Dictating and suggesting are two very different things; skoolboy’s vocab flub aside, if one needed to be an active, voting member in an organization to launch worthy criticism, the blogosphere – as well as society at large – would be an empty place. Let us not forget, too, that AERA’s requirements to join as a voting member aren’t terribly stringent:
“… satisfactory evidence of active interest in educational research as well as professional training to at least the master’s degree level or equivalent.”
Any master’s degree [accredited is not specified] and an interest in education? Gee, I’m halfway there.
This won’t be the end of the AERA/Ayers debate. Having taken a page from Senator Obama’s playbook, Millot frames this issue as a distraction from real policy analysis. It may not be the most important item on the docket, but it’s certainly an important fringe issue that helps us define how we think about education and how we might achieve our goals. It’s best to remove the elephant from the room before he starts to stink.
The obvious question that remains unanswered – and won’t be answered until Ayers assumes his duties – is how AERA’s curriculum and implementation work will proceed. One of the great ironies of the Weather Underground is that yes, Ayers/Dohrn/etc. thought we did need a weatherman to tell us which way the wind blows – after, of course, the gusts were created by the blowback and backdraft of Weathermen bombs. I suspect that the same modus operandi will underscore Ayers’ efforts at AERA just as it has his actions over the last 40 years.
What’s the most intriguing question left?
Why do scoundrels like Ayers gravitate to public education when Plan A fails?
UPDATE at 6.08pm:
Flypaper has a few new posts that I just read.
Diane Ravitch is clear: Millot’s characterization of Petrilli is unwarranted and her summation of WU’s bombing is sound. Be sure to read the comment left by Millot – if you put your ear close to the computer, you can actually hear him Googling in a vain attempt to shore up his terrible argument.
Note this section of his comment:
“This is the comment I offered Mike at the end of our parallel email exchange:
“The only thing I’d add here is that someday you might find yourself in an analogous spot with a colleague on the right, who is hounded at least as much because he is of the right as his imperfect history. I don’t know who or where, but it will be a similarly gray area as a matter of law, definition and effects. You will find it’s much harder to judge someone you like or agree with, let alone be among the first to stand up and call for them to be thrown under the bus.
“I don’t wish it on you, but if it happens, you’ll understand my own reluctance here. I believe strongly in legal justice and the rule of law, and for these to work, I have to defend the principles for people I dislike and despise as much as for those I love and admire.”
“Most of the facts here are in dispute – including the matter of Ayers’ repentance or not, and what it did or did not cover. We have juries and trials for a reason, primarily so that we can assign guilt with some assurance of fairness to the accused.”
Gotcha, Dean. Courts and courts only. Extra points for the condescension – I’m sure Ms. Ravitch and Mr. Petrilli [or anyone else reading your comment] have never faced any sort of moral issue before.
When you’re done digging this hole, perhaps you’ll weigh in on the difference between a spade and a shovel?
UPDATE at 6.18pm:
Jeff Kuhner is the best part of the Gadfly Show – now he’s got the best blog post of the day, too:
“That this man [Ayers] still cannot understand that his terrorist actions were not only illegal and wrong, but a profound assault on this country’s democratic way of life, reveals his moral and intellectual bankruptcy. It also does not speak well for those who seek to downplay or minimize Ayers’s inexcusable behavior.”
16 Responses to “Revisiting AERA, Bill Ayers, the Weather Underground and Public Education”
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