There is nothing to condemn about Ayers’ leadership over the past 20 years.
August 30, 2008
BY LINDA LENZ
Somewhere in the afterlife, Walter Annenberg must be shaking his head and wondering what in the world is going on in Chicago. First, the Sun-Times and the Tribune gave up precious inches of their dwindling news space to report that the University of Illinois at Chicago was refusing — and then later agreed — to release documents detailing Sen. Barack Obama’s role in a nonprofit education project “started” by William Ayers, a founder in the 1960s of the radical Weatherman group, which embraced violence as an anti-war tactic.
The project in question was the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, a pairing of nonprofit organizations and schools funded by the late publishing magnate and mainstream Chicago foundations. Ayers had been one of the authors of Chicago’s proposal to get a slice of Annenberg’s $500 million multi-city school reform grant, and Obama was the project’s first board chairman.
The issue of Obama’s role arose when a blogger for National Review raised questions about his relationship with Ayers, a favorite election-year target of conservatives. The blogger felt quite sure that the pair were much closer than Obama intimated when he said he knew Ayers “from the neighborhood” where both live. The blogger hinted darkly that the pair were really ideological soul mates and that Obama was aligned “with Ayers’s radical views on education issues.”
When the appointed hour arrived for release of the documents, reporters, camera operators and bloggers descended on the hapless university library staff to pore over hundreds of files of grant proposals, meeting minutes and reports — a “media frenzy,” the Tribune called it.
And what did the muckrakers find? Horrors, Obama had attended meetings and retreats with the author of The Good Preschool Teacher and To Teach: The Journey of a Teacher. He had actually rubbed shoulders — can you believe it? — with a distinguished professor of education who holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in early childhood education and a doctorate in curriculum and instruction. He had probably even shared a cup of coffee, as only a co-conspirator would, with this professor, whose writings describe good schools as places that are “organized around and powered by a set of core values” and “effectively meet students where they are and find ways to nurture and challenge them to learn.”
In other words, Obama does, indeed, know Bill Ayers as more than just a guy from the neighborhood. So do a host of civic leaders in Chicago. For example, the Chicago Annenberg Challenge board included Susan Crown of the General Dynamics Corp. family; Patricia Graham, former dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and Arnold Weber, past president of Northwestern University and of the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago. Indeed, just about everyone active in Chicago school reform in the early days saw Ayers as a colleague. No one ever accused them of being radical because of their association with Bill Ayers.
Whatever one thinks of Ayers’ actions 40 years ago, there is nothing to condemn, and much to admire, about his leadership and commitment over the past 20 years in making schools better places to teach and learn. And there is nothing to condemn, and much to applaud, in Obama’s close association with those efforts.
Some of the reporters assigned to dig into the Annenberg archives felt a little silly about it all, I’m told. Their editors should too.
Linda Lenz is the founder and publisher of Catalyst Chicago, an education newsmagazine published by Community Renewal Society.