In the recent hubbub about whether or not Bill Ayers really admitted to a conservative blogger in the Ronald Reagan Airport in Washington D.C. his actual role in the writing of Barack Obama’s memoir Dreams from My Father little attention has been paid to why, exactly, Bill Ayers happened to be in Washington, D.C. that day.
It turns out Ayers was one of three keynote speakers at a major conference organized by a consortium of schools of education at some 30 or so middle sized universities called The Renaissance Group. Ayers was given the only keynote luncheon speaker spot at the conference. The two morning keynote speakers were none other than Arne Duncan, the Secretary of Education – and former foe of Ayers (and Obama) in the Chicago School Wars, and Undersecretary of Education Martha Kanter.
Both Duncan and Kanter come from segments of the education policy world that are distinctly separate from the world of people like Bill Ayers, Stanford education professor Linda Darling-Hammond, and Berkeley law professors Chris Edley and Goodwin Liu. Darling-Hammond, Edley and Liu were among the most important players in the Obama campaign on education issues and yet none of them received appointments in the new administration.
A major theme of the Renaissance organization is finding ways to educate the “New American Student,” as described in a statement published a few years after the founding of the group in 1989. Prominent among the themes in this analysis – beyond the standard concern for early childhood education and math and science issues – are the significance of poverty, diversity and multiculturalism and the consequent alleged inability of white teachers to deal with the impact of such issues on their students.
The report states:
“Students [in schools of education] who are preparing to become teachers need a set of experiences that reflect multiculturalism, ethnic pluralism, and sex equity awareness…It is significant that the principles upon which the Renaissance Group was founded recognize multiculturalism as a campus-wide responsibility.”
And thus the job of Education Schools, among other things, it argues, is to diversify their faculty and staff in order to reflect the new racial make up of students in the K-12 environment.
Of course, “multiculturalism” is, as the post-modernists like to say, “contested terrain.” It is as much an ideology as it is a scientifically established fact. It would seem to me – and I admit I am only a law professor and political scientist, not an education school expert – that debate and free inquiry about controversial subjects would be at the top of the agenda of any education school and certainly of any consortium of education schools.
Multiculturalism, of course, is a theme dear to the heart of Bill Ayers. His most recent book co-authored with his wife and Weather Underground comrade Bernardine Dohrn argues that the original sin of American life is white supremacy and that this continues to be central to what ails this country.
Ayers has been peddling a heavily racialized, even racist, view of American life since his days in the SDS and Weather Underground in the late 1960s. That historical background is actually far more important to understanding the relationship between Ayers and Barack Obama than is widely understood. Most on the right have followed the lead of Sarah Palin with her “paling around with terrorists” line during the campaign. But that actually played into the hands of Obama defenders such as the New York Times which had little trouble “proving” that there was no serious relationship between Obama and Ayers, at least when it came to Ayers’ violent political history.
Ayers’ and Dohrn’s bizarro view of American life grew out of their original experience in Students for a Democratic Society which was the major student anti-war organization for most the of the 1960s. As activists in SDS began to look for other issues to tackle they happened upon a combination of “community organizing” in poor neighborhoods and “local control” of urban schools. In both cases SDS activists tried to lead their own alternatives in poor and largely black parts of cities like New York and Chicago, ignoring the kinds of organizations such as unions and other non profit entities that had already established a presence there.
In New York SDS backed a reverse racist attack on the teachers’ union that led to a controversial strike in 1968. That same year, Dohrn backed a controversial proposal that aimed to undermine SDS support for the industrial labor movement – just as that labor movement was about to enter one its most active phases since the Great Depression.
To have participated in the already well established labor and other movements, of course, would have meant a long hard slog through those institutions. That was not the kind of patience found in authoritarian “r-r-revolutionaries” like Dohrn and Ayers.
Thus it was not a big leap for Ayers to the Chicago School Wars in which he worked side by side with Barack Obama. They shared, and likely share, a deep affinity for what the Obama camp calls “race based” approaches to education and other aspects of American life. Ayers and Obama were both active in lobbying for local control of the Chicago school system in the wake of an unpopular teachers strike in Chicago in 1987 and 1988.
Six years later, Ayers secured a $50 million grant from the Annenberg Foundation to establish the Chicago Annenberg Challenge. Ayers appointed Barack Obama as the Chairman of the Challenge board. A major focus of the Challenge was to funnel money to the same local control structure that the 1988 legislation established as well as support for a wide array of multicultural programs in the school system. At its heart the “local control” agenda of the Annenberg Challenge was to watch dog teachers and principals, many black, in the wake of the heat the Teachers Union had taken after the 87 strike.
The reform drew the attention of the Heritage Foundation and was in some ways a forerunner to the school choice, charter school and voucher movements that many on the so-called left in education say they militantly oppose. In many ways the Annenberg Challenge was, in fact, a conservative even authoritarian project. The Chicago Teachers Union had attempted themselves to gain support from Annenberg but it is not a surprise they chose Ayers instead.
The joint effort of Ayers and Obama was opposed by Mayor Richard Daley who was engineering the gutting of the failed local control experiment and re-centralizing governance of the troubled school system under his new hand picked CEO, Paul Vallas. Arne Duncan began his career in education management working under Vallas and later became CEO himself of the Chicago system before being tapped by Obama as Education Secretary.
Thus, the prominent participation of Ayers in the Renaissance conference comes as no surprise. What is notable, though, is that Duncan and Kanter were also participating. Clearly the White House has no problem being associated with Bill Ayers. Ayers, it would appear, is being allowed a “renaissance,” so to speak, now that the potential of their shared history to undermine Obama has receded for the time being.