Governor Huckabee and Teaching Toward Free Inquiry

April 30, 2008

The core lessons of a liberating education—an education for citizenship, participation, engagement, and democracy—are these: each human being is unique and of incalculable value, and we each have a mind of our own; we are all works-in-progress swimming through a dynamic history in-the-making toward an uncertain and indeterminate shore; we can choose to join with others and act on our own judgments and in our own freedom; human enlightenment and liberation are always the result of thoughtful action.

On the side of a liberating and humanizing education is a pedagogy of questioning, an approach that opens rather than closes spaces of curiosity, perspective, dialogue, and imagination. It demands something upending from students and teachers alike: repudiate your place in the pecking order, it urges, remove that distorted, congenial mask of compliance. You must change.

Occasions for teaching that tries to get to the root of things, teaching that is more than a kind of trivial pursuit of the obvious, happen all the time. Practically anything, from the lofty to the mundane, can be the object of serious inquiry and provide, then, opportunities for teachers and students to enact a curriculum of democracy and freedom. I recently read, for example, that in Arkansas—where Governor Huckabee is the poster boy of dramatic weight loss and a leader in the national campaign against obesity—school report cards must now include each child’s B.M.I., his or her body mass index. Obesity is indeed a massive public health problem and its dimensions have been growing for decades: obesity is the number one killer-disease in the US, and today’s children will be the first generation in history to fail to outlive their parent generation, chiefly because of fat. But rather than dully accept that the B.M.I. notation will make students and parents more aware of the scale of the thing, we might hold the initiative up to scrutiny and interrogation.

In the interest of historicizing everything, we might ask:

· What is the history of obesity as a health problem in the US and elsewhere? Is it considered an “eating disorder,” and if so how is it like/unlike other “eating disorders”? What part of the problem is genetic predisposition, what part habit or education, what part access?

· What is the history of engaging schools to solve broader social problems? What’s been the result of mandating alcohol and drug awareness programs, for example, or suicide prevention and abstinence programs?

In the spirit of politicizing everything, we can go further:

· Who decided to mandate the inclusion of the B.M.I.? Was there broad participation and dialogue by parents, students, teachers, or the broader community?

· What industries suffer because of obesity, and which ones benefit? What’s the relationship of fat and sugar to the problem? What public and economic policies impact the sugar industry, for example?

· Is obesity correlated in any way to income, class, race, or gender? How?

· Are exercise facilities available equally across communities regardless of income or property values? Are parks equitably distributed?

· Are fruits and vegetables accessible equitably regardless of community income?

In the spirit of active inquiry close to home, again more questions:

· How much time is allotted to recess and physical education?

· Are all students equally encouraged or even required to participate in sports and games?

· What is a typical school lunch?

· Does the school sell soda, candy, or fatty foods from vending machines? Does it sell fast food or junk food? Fruits and vegetables? Why?

· Do clubs or teams sell candy or cookies to raise funds?

While many of us long for teaching as something transcendent and powerful, we find ourselves too-often locked in situations that reduce teaching to a kind of glorified clerking, passing along a curriculum of received wisdom and predigested bits of information. A fundamental choice and challenge for teachers, then, is this: to acquiesce to the machinery of control, or to take a stand with our students in a search for meaning and a journey of transformation. To teach obedience and conformity, or to teach its polar opposite: initiative and imagination, curiosity and questioning, the capacity to name the world, to identify the obstacles to your full humanity, and the courage to act upon whatever the known demands. A pedagogy of questioning can begin to open those doors.

A very brief word on teaching for social justice…

April 30, 2008

All schools serve the societies in which they’re embedded—authoritarian schools serve authoritarian systems, apartheid schools serve an apartheid society, and so on. Practically all schools want their students to study hard, stay away from drugs, do their homework, and so on. In fact none of these features distinguishes schools in the old Soviet Union or fascist Germany from schools in a democracy, and in fact those schools produced some excellent scientists and athletes and musicians and so on. They also produced obedience and conformity, moral blindness and easy agreement, obtuse patriotism and a willingness to follow orders right into the furnaces. In a democracy one would expect something different—a commitment to free inquiry, questioning, and participation; a push for access and equity; a curriculum that encouraged free thought and independent judgment; a standard of full recognition of the humanity of each individual. In other words, social justice.

Much Ado by Stanley Fish NY Times, April 28,2008

April 29, 2008

In 1952, when McCarthyism was at its height, Supreme Court Justice
William O. Douglas labeled the investigative techniques of the
junior senator from Wisconsin “guilt by association” (Adler v.
Board of Education). Douglas added that McCarthyite tactics were
“repugnant to our society” because, despite the absence of any
overt wrongdoing, the pasts of those attacked were “combed for
signs of disloyalty” and for utterances that might be read as
“clues to dangerous thoughts.”
More than a half century later, “McCarthyism” was joined in the
lexicon by “Swiftboating,” the art of the smear campaign mounted
with the intention not of documenting a wrong, but of covering the
victim with slime enough to cast doubt on his or her integrity.
Now, in 2008, after a primary season increasingly marked by dirty
pool and low blows, “McCarthyism” and “Swiftboating” have come
together in a particularly lethal and despicable form. I refer to
the startling revelation – proclaimed from the housetops by both
the Clinton and McCain campaigns – that Barack Obama ate dinner at
William Ayers’s house, served with him on a board and was the
honored guest at a reception he organized.
Confession time. I too have eaten dinner at Bill Ayers’s house (more
than once), and have served with him on a committee, and he was one
of those who recruited my wife and me at a reception when we were
considering positions at the University of Illinois, Chicago.
Moreover, I have had Bill and his wife Bernardine Dohrn to my
apartment, was a guest lecturer in a course he taught and joined in
a (successful) effort to persuade him to stay at UIC and say no to
an offer from Harvard. Of course, I’m not running for anything, but
I do write for The New York Times and, who knows, this association
with former fugitive members of the Weathermen might be enough in
the eyes of some to get me canned.
Did I conspire with Bill Ayers? Did I help him build bombs? Did I
aid and abet his evasion (for a time) of justice? Not likely, given
that at the time of the events that brought Ayers and Dohrn to
public attention, I was a supporter of the Vietnam War. I haven’t
asked him to absolve me of that sin (of which I have since
repented), and he hasn’t asked me to forgive him for his (if he has
Indeed in all the time I spent with Ayers and Dohrn, politics –
present or past – never came up.
What did come up? To answer that question I have to introduce a word
and concept that is somewhat out of fashion: the salon. A salon is a
gathering in a private home where men and women from various walks
of life engage in conversation about any number of things,
including literature, business, fashion, films, education and
philosophy. Ayers and Dohrn did not call their gatherings salons,
but that’s what they were; large dinner parties (maybe 12-15), with
guests coming and going, one conversation leading to another, no
rules or obligations, except the obligation to be interesting and
interested. The only thing I don’t remember was ideology, although
since this was all going on in Hyde Park, there was the general and
diffused ideology, vaguely liberal, that usually hangs over a
university town.
Many of those attending these occasions no doubt knew something
about their hosts’ past, but the matter was never discussed and why
should it have been? We were there not because of what Ayers and
Dohrn had done 40 years ago, but because of what they were doing at
the moment.
Ayers is a longtime professor of education at UIC, nationally known
for his prominence in the “small school” movement. Dohrn teaches at
Northwestern Law School, where she directs a center for child and
family justice. Both lend their skills and energies to community
causes; both advise various agencies; together they have raised
exemplary children and they have been devoted caretakers to aged
parents. “Respectable” is too mild a word to describe the couple;
rock-solid establishment would be more like it. There was and is
absolutely no reason for anyone who knows them to plead the fifth
or declare, “I am not now nor have I ever been a friend of Bill’s
and Bernardine’s.”
Least of all Barack Obama, who by his own account didn’t know them
that well and is now being taken to task for having known them at
all. Of course it would have required preternatural caution to
avoid associating with anyone whose past deeds might prove
embarrassing on the chance you decided to run for president
someday. In an earlier column, I spoke of the illogic of holding a
candidate accountable for things said or done by a supporter or an
acquaintance. Now a candidate is being held accountable for things
said and done four decades ago by people who happen to live in his
upper middle class neighborhood.
Hillary Clinton and John McCain should know better. In fact, they do
know better. To date, Clinton has played hardball, but hasn’t really
fouled. I never saw anything wrong or inaccurate about her saying
that Martin Luther King’s vision required a president’s action
before it could be implemented, or Bill Clinton’s saying that Jesse
Jackson won the South Carolina primary twice. He did, and if the
implication was that Obama’s base constituency is African-American,
that too was accurate and continues to be so.
As for her saying that all Obama had ever done was give a speech,
she was being generous: he gave that speech against invading Iraq
at a small event featuring other speakers (including Jackson); the
local press coverage did not even mention him; and if this was, as
his campaign claims, an act of courage, it was a singularly private
one, maybe even a fairy tale. Clinton’s exaggerating the danger of
her visit to Bosnia (most likely unintentional because, as she
said, “I’m not dumb”) came a little closer to crossing a line, but
didn’t. Re-telling a story (about a hospital’s refusal to treat an
uninsured patient) that turned out not to be true was evidence of
faulty campaign organization, not of deliberate duplicity.
But the literature the Clinton campaign is passing around about
Obama and Ayers cannot be explained away or rationalized. It
features bold heads proclaiming that Ayers doesn’t regret his
Weathermen activities (what does that have to do with Obama? Are we
required to repudiate things acquaintances of our have not said?),
that Ayers contributed $200 to Obama’s senatorial campaign (do you
take money only from people of whose every action you approve?),
that Obama admired Ayers’s 1997 book on the juvenile justice
system, that Ayers and Obama participated on a panel examining the
role of intellectuals in public life. That subversive event was
sponsored by The Center for Public Intellectuals, an organization
that also sponsored an evening conversation (moderated by me)
between those notorious radicals Richard Rorty and Judge Richard
Posner (also a neighbor of Ayers’s; maybe the Federalist Society
should expel him).
I don’t see any crimes or even misdemeanors in any of this. I do see
civic activism and a concern for the welfare of children. The
suggestion that something sinister was transpiring on those
occasions is backed up by nothing except the four-alarm-bell
typography that accompanies this list of entirely innocent, and
even praiseworthy, actions.
As for Senator McCain, in 2004 he repudiated the Swiftboat attacks
against fellow veteran John Kerry, but this time around he’s
joining in, and if Obama gets the nomination, it seems that the
Arizona senator will be playing the Ayers card. Of course, McCain
knows a little about baseless accusations and innuendos, given his
experience in South Carolina in 2000. And in case he has forgotten
what it feels like, he may soon be reminded; for there’s a story
abroad on the Internet that says that rather than being a heroic,
tortured prisoner of war, McCain was a collaborator who traded
information for a comfortable apartment serviced by maids who were
really prostitutes. I don’t believe it for a second, just as I am
sure that Senators McCain and Clinton don’t really believe that
Obama condones setting bombs or supports a radical agenda that was
pursued (as he has said) when he was eight years old.
The difference is that I feel a little dirty just for having
repeated a scurrilous rumor even as I rejected it. Apparently
Obama’s two opponents have no such qualms and are happily
retailing, and wallowing in, the dirt.

Mayor Daley Speaks Out

April 27, 2008


There are a lot of reasons that Americans are angry about Washington politics. And one more example is the way Senator Obama’s opponents are playing guilt-by-association, tarring him because he happens to know Bill Ayers.

I also know Bill Ayers. He worked with me in shaping our now nationally-renowned school reform program. He is a nationally-recognized distinguished professor of education at the University of Illinois/Chicago and a valued member of the Chicago community.

I don’t condone what he did 40 years ago but I remember that period well. It was a difficult time, but those days are long over. I believe we have too many challenges in Chicago and our country to keep re-fighting 40 year old battles.

Letters to the Chicago Tribune

April 27, 2008

I, too, have been to Bill Ayers’ home. He has been to mine. I have known him 13 years. I have read his powerful prose, heard him speak in public and have had many private conversations with him over coffee. Am I somehow a different person because of this? I sincerely hope so. I am one of an incalculable number of Bill Ayers’ friends, associates, mentees and students who seek his company to be challenged, invigorated, sometimes irritated and often inspired.

I do not condone what Bill did 40 years ago. In fact, I find it impossible to defend.

I do celebrate who he is in his many dimensions, today.

This is what I know: When I spend time with Bill, I see our world as a flawed, fascinating and hopeful place that is rife with ironies and potential. Bill’s curiosity about the world and his abiding respect for its people is contagious. He speaks with passion and eloquence about the lives and futures of children in ways that remind us that this is the most important subject of our times. His belief in the capacities of all people is tenacious, and he has a gift for nurturing individuals’ strengths forward. He is unique in his ability to make lasting friends of strangers in a matter of moments.

He can also be aggravating and perplexing. But it was Bill Ayers, more than anyone else, who has taught me to care about the three-dimensionality of all people, and to know that every one of us is a whole lot more complex than the best or the worst thing we’ve ever done.

I know all this, not from what I hear on talk radio or read in the papers. I know this from 13 years of first-hand experience that has remained unfailing over time.

–Mark Larson


Steve Chapman argues guilt by association, but if one happens to agree with that premise, perhaps we should expand and revise the argument. I suggest instead that we judge Barack Obama by arguing affirmation by association, with a far more convincing scenario. Look what Obama has done with a little help from his friends: He has put together a campaign that has been able to steer his candidacy from virtual obscurity 15 months ago to where it is today, along with $40 million in the coffers and thousands of new voters now excited about the political process. These people are surely better friends and acquaintances with him than is William Ayers, and they are talented, smart, disciplined and dedicated to his cause. I suggest we look to their organizational accomplishments when judging Obama’s character, judgment and leadership, rather than what Ayers did when Obama was 8.

–Jeanine Tobin


Letters to the Chicago Tribune

April 27, 2008

Steve Chapman’s normally deft portrayal of the American political scene surprised me in his column concerning Barack Obama’s acquaintance with William Ayers. Most of us liberals loved William F. Buckley Jr. and his conservative purity, with whom Chapman opened his piece.

The word “extremism” never sits well with me, whether spouted by Barry Goldwater or Chapman, whom I admire and read as often as I can. In such analogy, I remind myself why I don’t mix in social circles involving the Bushes, Cheneys and Rumsfelds–themselves saintly conservatives who have led America to real political purity. I guess it’s OK for others to socialize with them without condemnation of blowing up people abroad.

Ayers’ and his wife’s actions are no less tragic and criminal in their intent. But we have an august body of political cohorts in Congress for whom such political deliberation involves comparable mayhem. Whether they wear flag pins on their lapels or not, extremism in pursuit of liberty is a vice if it leads to the deaths of innocent people too. Thank God, William Buckley and Barack Obama have not been convicted of such homicide; neither would abide by hiding behind a pin to foster such political destruction, already witnessed by our forces of extremism disguised as democratic action.

Often it takes more courage to remove a pin than to wear one, if the cause is just.

–Vincent Kamin


It’s sad to see a Libertarian such as Steve Chapman embrace McCarthyism. First he tells us that Pete Seeger should be banned from getting medals for his folk singing due to his politics. Then he tells us that Barack Obama is responsible for having an acquaintance with William Ayers.

Well, what about the Chicago Tribune, which has done far worse than Obama? The Tribune has printed pieces written by Ayers. Will Chapman resign from the Tribune now that its past association with a so-called terrorist (albeit one who never hurt anybody) has been revealed?

–John K. Wilson


Radical left

‘Who has forgiven William Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn for their revolutionary activities in the Weather Underground? Certainly it is not those who love their country and want to protect it from left-wing revolutionaries.

Many forgivers are concentrated in our universities, where the radical left tends to concentrate as if by centripetal force.

Parents who want to know what happened to their children’s minds and morals during college years should look to the left-wing faculty for answers. There are many examples to support this assertion.

–Stan Stec


Letters to the Chicago Tribune

April 27, 2008

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We’re all terrorists

Steve Chapman’s column about Barack Obama’s friendship with Bernardine Dohrn and William Ayers (“About Obama’s terrorist acquaintance,” Commentary, April 20) was far, far too simplistic. All of us who were adult Americans in the ’70s were complicit in one form or terror or another.

Yes, police officers were tragically lost in a foolish attempt to attack the U.S. government, but all such casualties were part and parcel of a foolish war instigated by a Democratic president and continued by a Republican.

The Weather Underground is guilty of terror, as is each Vietnam vet who killed or ordered the killings of civilians. I sat on my 2-S deferment and let it all happen; I’m guilty.

We’re all ex-terrorists, no matter which side we enabled then or are on now. That’s what wars of aggression do to the instigating nations.

Obedience and loyalty are never excuses for sins against mankind. Finger-pointing won’t hide that.

–Chris Deignan


Past transgressions

Steve Chapman apparently doesn’t believe in redemption by others for past misconduct. Nor does he demonstrate the need to cease and apologize for his own complicity in misconduct.

His column on Barack Obama’s relationship with former Weather Underground leaders William Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn appears to be part of a concerted media and Republican campaign to paint Obama as unpatriotic. Ayers and Dohrn are convenient vehicles to further this agenda.

As one who opposed the Vietnam War in the 1960s, I understand the frustration of those who worked to end an immoral war that needlessly killed more than a million Vietnamese and 58,000 Americans. Ayers and Dohrn make no apologies for their particular efforts, which included condoning if not participating in violent conduct.

But Chapman fixates on the lack of apology as the main reason to impugn Obama’s character through his relationship with Ayers and Dohrn.

They long ago fulfilled their legal responsibility for their radical activities. They could have thrown away the rest of their lives as many in their movement did. Instead they redeemed themselves by becoming productive citizens, working to make this a better country and world.

Thankfully at least one presidential contender has the wisdom and courage to work with anyone, regardless of past transgressions, who now treads the path of peace and progress.

Instead of obsessing over refusals to apologize for 40-year-old behavior, Chapman and the rest of the Tribune editorial board should examine their continued enabling of the Bush administration’s needless and self-destructive war in Iraq, which is bankrupting America, morally and financially.

Our future leaders need to solicit the support of every thoughtful and productive member of society if we are going to end this catastrophic war and begin solving the avalanche of problems confronting America.

–Walt Zlotow