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Tuesday, Mar 31, 2009, 10:29 am

Bill Ayers’ Speech to Students Cancelled Due to ‘Outrage’

By Jeremy Gantz

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Bill Ayers, Vietnam-era lightning rod and bete noire of the failed McCain-Palin ticket, won't be speaking to a group of Illinois high school students next week about his experiences as a Weather Underground member. The superintendent of the Naperville, IL school system (just outside of Chicago) sent out an email last night announcing the decision to cancel Ayers' scheduled April 8 speech to a group of students who had received permission from their parents to hear the education professor speak.

Let me repeat this: Despite the fact that only students who had received the express permission of their parents would hear Ayers speak, the prospect was "just a huge community debate," Supt. Dr. Alan Leis said. In his email to parents, he says that...

[e]ach day, the level of emotion and outrage has seemed to increase, along with the number of emails and phone calls received. What was most unfortunate was that a few directed their anger toward an outstanding high school and at a well-regarded, award-winning teacher who encourages students to think for themselves.

Leis seems on point; he told the Tribune that Ayers' visit as a chance to help students think critically. And not just about Vietnam: Ayers would have talked about his experiences during last year's presidential campaign, detailed in In These Times here.

But hotter, fearful heads prevailed, perhaps worried that Ayers would be passing out firebombs to impressionable young minds. Apparently America's schools exist not to teach children to think for themselves, but to inherit the political and cultural battles of their parents.

Here's the full text of last night's email from Leis:


NAPERVILLE SCHOOL DISTRICT 203
Message sent - 3/30/2009
Ayers visit to NNHS canceled

The appearance by Dr. Bill Ayers at Naperville North High School next week has been canceled.

On Friday, it was announced through a Talk203 email that we were reviewing the decision to invite him and that we were also exploring the possibility of moving the appearance to another venue. Initially, many people were upset about his appearance in a school building, even though it was to have been with a select group of students with required parental permission. Several people offered worthy suggestions about how to make the event more meaningful by concurrently inviting someone that would provide an equally strong opposing viewpoint.

Over the weekend, however, it became clear that this issue was not really about where Dr. Ayers was speaking, but that he was speaking at all. Each day, the level of emotion and outrage has seemed to increase, along with the number of emails and phone calls received. What was most unfortunate was that a few directed their anger toward an outstanding high school and at a well-regarded, award-winning teacher who encourages students to think for themselves.

While parents and others have written urging us to continue with the event because they want students exposed to diverse viewpoints, Dr. Ayers’ appearance has clearly become a “lightning rod,” both inside and outside the District 203 community, because of his past actions. It is clear that any value to our students would be lost in such a highly-charged atmosphere, and that any debate of issues or viewpoints would be overshadowed by media coverage and anger over the event itself.

Dr. Alan Leis
Superintendent of Schools

Jeremy Gantz is a contributing editor at the magazine. He is the editor of The Age of Inequality: Corporate America's War on Working People (2017, Verso), and was the Web/Associate Editor of In These Times from 2008 to 2012.

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