The Chicago schools strike would not surprise Barack Obama or Bill Ayers. They shared a similar distrust of Chicago educators, in fact a remarkably similar distrust.
In 1994, Ayers co-authored an essay whose title befits a former merchant seaman, “Navigating a restless sea: The continuing struggle to achieve a decent education for African-American youngsters in Chicago.”
In “Navigating,” Ayers and his nominal co-author, former New Communist Movement leader Michael Klonsky, offer a detailed analysis of the Chicago school system and a discussion of potential reforms.
Curiously, so too does Obama in “Dreams from My Father,” also written in 1994. I say “curious” because Obama spent only a few months working on education issues as a community organizer – and that while his mind was admittedly “elsewhere.”
The parallels in their arguments are striking. The particular value Obama brought to the partnership, however, can be found not in not the many points on which Ayers and he agree, but rather on the one in which they at least seem to differ.
First, the areas of agreement. “Dreams” tells us that Chicago’s schools “remained in a state of perpetual crisis.” “Navigating” describes the situation as a “perpetual state of conflict, paralysis, and stagnation.”
“Dreams” describes a “bloated bureaucracy” as one source of the problem and “a teachers’ union that went out on strike at least once every two years” as another.
“Navigating” affirms that the “bureaucracy has grown steadily in the past decade” and confirms Obama’s math, citing a “ninth walkout in 18 years.”
“Self-interest” is at the heart of the bureaucratic mess described in “Dreams.” In “Navigating” Ayers elaborates that “survivalist bureaucracies” struggle for power “to protect their narrow, self-interested positions against any common, public purpose.”
In “Dreams,” educators “defend the status quo” and blame problems on “impossible” children and their “bad parents.” In “Navigating,” an educator serves as “apologist for the status quo” and “place[s] the blame for school failure on children and families.”
Another challenge cited in “Dreams” is “an indifferent state legislature.” Ayers cites an “unwillingness on [the legislature's] part to adequately fund Chicago schools.”
In “Dreams,” “school reform” is the only solution Obama envisions. In “Navigating,” Ayers has no greater passion than “reforming Chicago’s schools.”
In “Dreams,” the thoughts on educational reform are channeled through the soulful voices of two older African-Americans. One goes by the phonied-up name “Asante Moran.”
“The first thing you have to realize,” Moran tells Obama, “is that the public school system is not about educating black children. Never has been. Inner-city schools are about social control. Period.”
“Social control” was an Ayers obsession. In his memoir, “Fugitive Days,” he claims that white America’s one dominant intention for black America was “social control through random intimidation and unpredictable violence.”
In “Dreams,” Moran elaborates on the fate of the black student: “From day one, what’s he learning about? Someone else’s history. Someone else’s culture … the same culture that’s systematically rejected him, denied his humanity.”
Precociously Afro-centric, especially for a white guy, Ayers was making the same case as a 23-year-old director of an alternative school in Ann Arbor.
“The public schools’ idea of integration is racist,” he told the local paper. “They put Negro children into school and demand that they give up their Negro culture. Negro children are forced to speak, behave, and react according to middle-class standards.”
The second of Obama’s educational mentors in “Dreams” is the very real communist pornographer “Frank” Marshall Davis.
“Understand something, boy,” Frank tells the college-bound Obama. “You’re not going to college to get educated. You’re going there to get trained.”
“Education is for self-activating explorers of life, for those who would challenge fate, for doers and activists, for citizens,” Ayers writes in his 1993 book, “To Teach.”
“Training,” Ayers continues, “is for slaves, for loyal subjects, for tractable employees, for willing consumers, for obedient soldiers.”
Although the real-life Davis treasured his college experience, the Frank of “Dreams” shares Ayers’ distaste. “They’ll train you to forget what it is that you already know,” Frank tells Obama.
“They’ll train you so good,” Frank continues, “you’ll start believing what they tell you about equal opportunity and the American way and all that s–t.”
For all of his genuine interest in reform, one major force still intimidated Ayers: Chicago’s sluggish and self-interested educational bureaucracy.
Over the years, this bureaucracy had morphed, as Ayers notes in “Navigating,” from being a bastion of “white political patronage and racism” to being “a source of black professional jobs, contracts, and, yes, patronage.”
Unwilling to challenge African-Americans in any venue, Ayers wilts in the face of this bureaucracy. In “Navigating” he seconds the black activists who gripe that assaults on the bureaucracy were based not “on hopes for educational change, but on simple Chicago race politics.” Or at least he seems to.
On this racially tender issue, not so strangely, “Dreams” tells a different story. Obama openly chides the black “teachers, principals, and district superintendents” who “knew too much” to send their own children to public school.
“The biggest source of resistance was rarely talked about,” Obama continues, namely that these educators “would defend the status quo with the same skill and vigor as their white counterparts of two decades before.”
As to the claims of these educators, affirmed in “Navigating,” that “cutbacks in the bureaucracy were part of a white effort to wrest back control,” the author of “Dreams” says teasingly, “not so true.”
“Not so true”? In these three words one can anticipate Obama’s potential return on Ayers’ investment. Simply put, as an African-American Obama could address sensitive racial issues in ways Ayers could not.
Ayers surely recognized this. To advance Obama’s career, it seems, Ayers finished up “Dreams,” got Obama appointed chair of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge grant, and held a fundraiser for his State Senate run in his Chicago home, all in 1995.
The political calculus behind that ambition helped shape “Dreams.” This was a careful book written to launch the career of a deeply indebted and highly malleable Chicago politician, maybe even a mayor, one who saw the world through white eyes, as Ayers did, but one who could articulate the city’s real problems in words that Ayers could not.
This all might have worked – if only Obama had contented himself with Chicago.