August 20, 2008

So Much To Learn: Barack Obama, Bill Ayers, and Social Justice

We share the belief that education is the motor-force of revolution.
--Bill Ayers, referring to Hugo Chavez, Caracas, Venezuela, World Education Forum, November 2006

by Jerome du Bois

Since Barack Obama came into the national spotlight last year, I've often asked myself what lies behind his popularity, but I didn't bother to do any serious research about it. I thought he was a jumped-up empty suit draped in moribund socialism. I skipped news stories about him and changed the channel every time he showed up. Only recently, after the Bill Ayers connection came up, have I begun to dig into his background, specifically his relationship with Ayers, and their common ground, which is social justice in education. And right there, I believe, is the source of his popularity. To state my thesis succinctly: Obama's largest demographic is the college-educated young, and those people have been schooled in social justice because their teachers have been schooled to teach social justice by Bill Ayers and his allies in the educational establishment. And social justice is the core of Barack Obama's message.

In other words, Bill Ayers et. al., along with Barack Obama, have, working side by side, cultivated the ground and sowed the seeds for the fruit now ripe for the picking.

Three years ago, prompted by human stinkbomb Ward Churchill, I wrote five pieces about rebarbarization in the academy. The last one, with links to the first four, was called "So This Is Where They Come From: The Zombie Dispositions." In that piece I described how graduate education students are required to prove that they have absorbed social justice dispositions before they will be accepted as teachers. This is how I defined those dispositions, in another post about "community engagement" at Arizona State University's Herberger College of the Arts:

It was century-old Progressivism, now wearing jeans and a hoodie: everyone should serve the common good (as defined by the experts), including those in educational institutions; they must do what they can to right the injustices and inequities of racism, sexism, poverty, health care, education, homophobia, the environment . . . all those Moral Equivalents of War on the Agenda.

Nowhere in my readings for that series did I come across Bill Ayers.

But in the last few days, prompted by Barack Obama's continued deceptive brandishing of the ten-foot pole between himself and Ayers, I got out my Google shovel and easily uncovered the findings of a few people who have already done the serious digging. What they unearthed indicates that Barack Obama is well aware of the mindset of his core constituency. He embodies that mindset, and that's why he's their mirror, their megaphone, and their messiah. They have been carefully taught.

I refer to, first, Sol Stern, a contributing editor of City Journal and the author of Breaking Free: Public School Lessons and the Imperative of School Choice. In the Summer 2006 issue of City Journal, Stern published "The Ed Schools' Latest --And Worst--Humbug." That's where I learned that Bill Ayers has had his fingerprints all over social justice teaching --what its advocates call "critical pedagogy"-- for over twenty years. And this pedagogy applies in all disciplines. For example:

In 1997, Ayers and his mentor Maxine Greene persuaded Teachers College Press [TCP] to launch a series of books on social justice teaching, with Ayers as editor and Greene serving on the editorial board (along with Rashid Khalidi, loyal supporter of the Palestinian cause and the Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies at Columbia University [and who held a fundraiser for Obama in 2000]). Twelve volumes have appeared so far, including one titled Teaching Science for Social Justice.

Stern continues:

Teaching science for social justice? Let Teachers College professor Angela Calabrese Barton, the volume’s principal author, try to explain: “The marriages between capitalism and education and capitalism and science have created a foundation for science education that emphasizes corporate values at the expense of social justice and human dignity.” The alternative? “Science pedagogy framed around social justice concerns can become a medium to transform individuals, schools, communities, the environment, and science itself, in ways that promote equity and social justice. Creating a science education that is transformative implies not only how science is a political activity but also the ways in which students might see and use science and science education in ways transformative of the institutional and interpersonal power structures that play a role in their lives.” If you still can’t appreciate why it’s necessary for your child’s chemistry teacher to teach for social justice, you are probably hopelessly wedded to reason, empiricism, individual merit, and other capitalist and post-colonialist deformities.

There is also a textbook (not part of the TCP series) on teaching math for social justice.

One of the leading lights of the genre is Eric Gutstein, a Marxist colleague of Ayers’s at the University of Illinois and also a full-time Chicago public school math teacher. Gutstein’s new book, Reading and Writing the World with Mathematics: Toward a Pedagogy for Social Justice, combines critical pedagogy theory and real live math lessons that Gutstein piloted with his predominantly minority seventh-grade students.

Like Ayers, Gutstein reveres Paolo Freire. He approvingly quotes Freire’s dictum that “there neither is, nor has ever been, an educational practice in zero space-time—neutral in the sense of being committed only to preponderantly abstract, intangible ideas.” Gutstein takes this to mean that since all education is political, leftist math teachers who care about the oppressed have a right, indeed a duty, to use a pedagogy that, in Freire’s words, “does not conceal—in fact, which proclaims—its own political character.”

. . . Gutstein’s book comes with the imprimatur of two of the nation’s most influential ed profs, Gloria Ladson-Billings of the University of Wisconsin and William F. Tate of Washington University in St. Louis—the outgoing and incoming presidents of the American Education Research Association. The 25,000-member AERA is the umbrella organization of the ed-school professoriate, and over the past two decades it has moved steadily left, becoming more multicultural, postmodernist, feminist, and enamored of critical race theory and queer theory.

In March of 2008, Stern notes in his recent piece "Obama's Real Bill Ayers Problem," Ayers was elected as vice-president of curriculum for the AERA.

AERA already does a great deal to advance the social-justice teaching agenda in the nation’s schools and has established a Social Justice Division with its own executive director. With Bill Ayers now part of the organization’s national leadership, you can be sure that it will encourage even more funding and support for research on how teachers can promote left-wing ideology in the nation’s classrooms—and correspondingly less support for research on such mundane subjects as the best methods for teaching underprivileged children to read.

Okay, you say, that's Bill Ayers. But what does that have to do with Barack Obama? Enter Steven Diamond of the Global Labor blog (who is no partisan of John McCain, by the way). Diamond is the go-to man on the Obama-Ayers relationship. In an April 22, 2008 post titled "Who 'Sent' Obama?" one from late June titled "That 'Guy Who Lives in My Neighborhood': Behind the Ayers-Obama Relationship," and one in August called "The Obama-Ayers Top Ten," Diamond chronicles in detail an ongoing relationship between the two men going back to the late 80s, with education for social justice as their common concern.

(Diamond's postings also show that Obama's connections with the Chicago machine, the Ayers family, and other financial, political, and legal heavyweights are as tangled as the tails of a ratking.)

In 1994 Bill Ayers wrote a successful grant proposal to the Annenberg Foundation, and received $49.2 million to create the Chicago Annenberg Challenge (CAC), with 2-to-1 matching funds planned from private donors. These funds arrived, meaning that the CAC, which ran until 2001, received about $150 million to do its work. The first person chosen by Bill Ayers to chair the CAC was a 33-year-old associate at a small, left-leaning law firm named Barack Obama. Question: If you were Bill Ayers, with all that money at your disposal, and with a lifelong dream of social transformation through authoritarian education reform, would you pick someone to help you who did not share your views? And wouldn't you have to know that person pretty well in order to know what those views were? Reader, you answer as you will. I myself infer that Obama does indeed share those views, and that Ayers was not just some guy who lived in Obama's neighborhood.

Obtaining programmatic details about Ayers's and Obama's past efforts on educational reform, though, have now become hard to find. Stanley Kurtz of National Review discovered that the ten-foot pole has now about tripled in length. He's been trying to get access to the records of the CAC, consisting of 976 folders now housed at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Kurtz is being stonewalled by the UIC, and the effort is still ongoing as I write this.

Kurtz writes:

This country is now mere months away from a momentous presidential election in which a central issue is the political background and character of a relatively young and unknown senator. The Chicago Annenberg Challenge records almost surely contain important information on Senator Obama’s political associations, policy views, ideological leanings, and leadership ability. His role as board chairman of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge is the most important executive experience Obama has held to date. Given this, the public has an urgent right to know what is in the Chicago Annenberg Challenge records.

If you go to the "Education" section on Barack Obama's official website, and scroll down to "Record of Advocacy," you will find precisely nothing about the six years he spent at the CAC. Maybe that's because the CAC was a failure. According to another important Steve Diamond post:

The CAC also funded a third arm, the Consortium of Chicago School Research (CCSR), in parallel with the two operational arms, the Board and the Collaborative. This arm was to conduct research on the impact of the CAC’s funding.

In 2003 the final technical report of the CCSR on the CAC was published. The results were not pretty. The “bottom line” according to the report was that the CAC did not achieve its goal of improvement in student academic achievement and nonacademic outcomes. While student test scores improved in the so-called Annenberg Schools that received some of the $150 million disbursed in the six years from 1995 to 2001,

“This was similar to improvement across the system . . . .There were no statistically significant differences in student achievement between Annenberg schools and demographically similar non-Annenberg schools. This indicates that there was no Annenberg effect on achievement.”

But that doesn't keep the social justice advocates from trying. Linda Darling-Hammond, for example, a Stanford University professor and top Obama adviser on education policy, is floating a variation of the reparations-for-slavery notion called the "education debt." The invaluable Steve Diamond blogs about it here.

Darling-Hammond is well-acquainted with Bill Ayers, as well.

Darling-Hammond is co-editor of a volume called Learning to Teach for Social Justice. A chapter called "Education for Democracy" by Darling-Hammond appeared in a volume co-edited by Ayers called A Light in Dark Times.

Another advisor to Obama on education policy, and an advocate of "education debt," is/was Bill Ayers's SDS buddy, Maoist Mike Klonsky. I say "was" not because he is deceased but because he has been erased from any connection to the Obama campaign, right after Steve Diamond called attention to him. If you go to the "View My Complete Profile" section of Klonsky's own blog, you find no reference that he ever had anything directly to do with the Obama campaign.

Barack Obama has been surrounding himself with social justice advocates in education for almost his entire professional life. And social justice as a professional attitude has been a requirement for teachers for just as long. Our own experience over the last five years on this blog with local teachers and university-trained artists supports our contention that social justice dispositions pervade their minds. And far from fostering open-mindedness and generosity, these dispositions create one-sided, intolerant people. In March, for example, we got a mean email from a local, university-trained global-music musician, completely out of the blue. He said that we disgust him. When I checked out his website, what did I see? A banner endorsement for Barack Obama. He's read his core demographic well, and he's counting on them. Too bad for him there's not enough of them to carry the election.

And when the Annenberg gate opens up, and his disingenuous dodging about his Born Alive Act votes goes viral, and more people get to wondering about the other things he's keeping secret, true social justice will be served.

Posted by Jerome at August 20, 2008 03:45 PM | TrackBack