Bill Ayers, according to the right, is Barack Obama’s terrorist trainer and ghostwriter. Upon further inspection, Ayers is nothing quite as dramatic or fearsome. While more famous for his anti-war activities as a founder of the Weather Underground in the 1960s and ‘70s, he is now a committed educator. Retired from his education professorship at the University of Illinois in Chicago, Ayers continues to give lectures to teachers in training, speak at education conferences and agitate against America’s two-tiered educational system – one for rich, one for poor – on behalf of low-income parents, students and instructors.
I recently had coffee with Ayers in Chicago. We discussed his recent appearance on Megyn Kelly’s Fox News program, the role of the teacher in the broadening of minds, teaching as a subversive activity, and the future of public education, especially as it suffers the ballistic assault of the Republican-led war against public schools.
The passion and mission of Ayers’ life for the past 30 years has been the improvement, democratization and enhancement of American schools. Given the controversy of his anti-war activism, and life underground that followed it, much of the expertise and inspiration he provides in the classroom is lost in a cacophony of allegations of terrorism, smear campaigns and character distortion. One hopes that this conversation begins to change that.
Your conversation with Megyn Kelly on Fox News demonstrated how television news has become more theatrical than journalistic. Can you talk a little about the absurdity of that experience, and what it says about American culture that there is such an appetite for that form of anti-dialogue?
So many people have approached me about that interview, and have had different reactions to it, but I don’t look at something like that as a big deal. I write a lot, and I’m still a very politically engaged and active person. I had never even seen Megyn Kelly. She struck me as a very strange person. She’s like a cyborg constructed in the basement of Fox News. She’s very striking, but very metallic, very cold. Her eyes are very cold.
We are in a culture where spectacle is more important than substance, and celebrity is more important than accomplishment. This is a danger. The ongoing, continuous circus does take a toll on our ability to think clearly. So, when we should be talking about issues of war and peace, economic choice and ecological destruction, we get drawn into the latest scandal, or the newest nude photos, and those things are all a distraction.
If you look at the two great dystopic novels of the 20th century, "1984" and "Brave New World," they were both right. So, we have big brother and the surveillance state, but we also have sex, and entertainment, and Soma. There’s that great moment in "Brave New World" when the narrator says to his date, “Don’t you want to be free?” She says, “I am free.” Then he says, “Don’t you want to break out of this?” And she says, “Break out to do what? I’m free do all of these wonderful, entertaining things.” So, on the one hand you have the circus, and on the other hand you have the nightstick and the torture cell. We have both.
It is a big problem, but it isn’t totalizing. There is a chance people can break free, but it’s tough.
David Foster Wallace pointed out that it is not freedom if one is living to satisfy our every whim, desire and consumptive lust.
Absolutely. What does freedom mean in America? Everyone is free, but they are suffocating in the folds of the American flag if freedom is divorced from social purpose and common good, and freedom is entirely a private, individual goal. So, you’re free, but you’re free to destroy the planet.
When I was underground for 11 years, I learned that you’re never freer than when you can name the obstacles to your freedom. That’s paradoxical, but you think about the people in the ANC, you think about runaway slaves, and you’re never more free than when you can see the obstacles in front of your freedom or someone else’s, and you’re moving against it.
There has to be a dialectic between the individual and social – between the we and the me – and without that freedom is a myth. It’s a joke. So, with the Tea Party, for example, there’s no understanding that the entirety of human history is the war between the individual and the group. If I’m not for me, I can’t live a day, but if I’m not for the group, I won’t live long either.
Charles Taylor once wrote that individual freedom is meaningless, and authenticity is impossible, if you don’t connect your freedom to horizons of significance. The teacher is connected to those horizons. How do you believe that education, and the role of the educator, can prove useful in getting people to see beyond these narrow categories of the self and society, without having the teacher turn into a propagandist at the podium?
I think you’ve nailed the fundamental contradiction. On one hand, you want people to think more broadly, but you don’t want to say, “Don’t read Adam Smith. Read Marx.” One of my mentors, Maxine Greene, used to say in class, “Of course I want you to love your own music. I want you to choose what music you love, but I hope you choose Bach.” Saying it that way was a wonderful way of identifying the contradiction that all teachers have an agenda, but the agenda should be to open up the space for students to develop a mind of their own.
Learning and living is the same thing. The example I always give is watching my oldest son being born 37 years ago, and seeing him cleaned up, and swaddled, and put on his mother’s breast. Now, she had read books on nursing, and consulted her midwife, and her sister, and her friends. So, she took him and put him up to her breasts. Now, he was five minutes old, but who was teaching who? He was coming up to nurse absolutely instinctively. It's interior, it's internal, it's driven, and it's dialogic. He pushes back – not that way, this way, move a little this way, now I need to burp. So, he’s teaching her at five minutes. How much can he teach her at 5 years old? Or 35 years?
So, the dialogue of learning is something that sensitive teachers become aware of immediately.
Also, education is built on two pillars – enlightenment and liberation. So, you can always learn and think more. You can always gain more knowledge. That’s the enlightenment part. But my advice to every teacher is to always be willing to ask the next question. Students should feel that their experience in the classroom is one of enlightenment. For enlightenment to occur, however, there needs to be liberation. Students have to be free to explore and grow for themselves, and that requires alternatives.
A curriculum of questioning is much more important than a curriculum of knowing the answer. The Mississippi Freedom School curriculum of 1964 is the best example of this. The idea came from a young volunteer named Charlie Cobb. Cobb wrote that the black children of Mississippi have been denied many things – adequate facilities, decent education, etc. – but the fundamental thing is that they’ve been denied the ability to think for themselves about the circumstances of their lives and how they could be otherwise.
The curriculum, then, is 27 pages of questions. They weren’t prescribing ideology. They were asking questions like, “What does the majority have access to that you would like?”
You can transfer what Cobb said from feudal Mississippi in the 1960s to contemporary Chicago or Indianapolis or anywhere else. Now, we have Black History Month in which we tell students the civil rights movement was great, but it has nothing to do with you. The problem is not then. Now is the problem. So, we should teach it with questions, how does the civil rights movement relate to you now? How did you get here? What does it mean to be American? What does it mean to be human?
Here’s another example. In Arkansas, after Gov. Huckabee became a spokesperson for ending childhood obesity, they put on every student’s report card that student’s mass body index. My response to that would be, if I was a teacher in Arkansas, I hope I wouldn’t go along with it, but I wouldn’t want to get fired for opposing it. So, what I would do is use it as an opportunity to make a Freedom School curriculum.
I’d ask questions like, what’s the history of shaming people into making these kinds of medical changes in regards to diet, or drugs, or alcohol? Who owns the franchise of our lunchroom? Do we still have P.E. in our schools? What’s the state of the parks? Is there a food desert in our neighborhood?
So, in other words, don’t just go along with it, or shout about it, but fuck with it. Use it as a lever to pull to help create a Freedom School Curriculum.
You used the word “contradiction” earlier. In a debate with Dinesh D’Souza, you said, “Contradictions can save us” and that “we should learn to live in the contradiction.” Can you elaborate on that?
I’ll give you an example. I have a white student who lives and works in a black neighborhood. She’s taught there for 10 years. Now, she wants to write an ethnography about life and schools in that neighborhood, but she came to me very torn about it. On the one hand, she said, I’m white, and maybe it isn’t right for me to do this, but then on the other hand, I’m one of the “good white people.”
I told her to dive into the contradiction, because the contradiction can save her. You can’t say, “I’m one of the good white people and think that solves the problem.” Are you fucking kidding me? But, it is foolish to pretend like you know nothing after living and working there for 10 years. Plus, you share a culture as well as there being a line of separation. You share a human culture, you share an American culture, and you share a Chicago culture. You also share your capacity to empathize and imagine. That’s what being human is about.
So, when I say that contradiction can save us, what I mean by that politically is that what we have here is killing us. We’re killing the poor. We’re killing the planet. But the good news is that it is in contradiction with other forces. The powerful tell us that we used to have racism, we used to have sexism. Well, I’m sorry, but those problems are unresolved, despite progress. We’re living in the vortex of history, which means diving into the contradiction can save us, because history is still in motion.
And history is not a vehicle in motion toward one direction. It is multiple vehicles, moving in different directions, often colliding with each other.
Absolutely, and I often say that in 1840 if you were opposed to slavery, you were opposed to the Bible, the founders, the law, your parents and your neighbors. The morality of America in 1840 was a morality that accepted torture, cruelty and ownership of human beings as normal. Even if you objected to it, it was considered normal. The moral baseline of America embraced systematic torture and rape. Then, abolition created a different moral floor – raised it up a little bit. It didn’t mean that people were no longer wicked or murderous or stupid, but it did mean that the moral floor had shifted. That could happen again, and that’s why contradictions can save us.
This reminds me: Recently, a business school asked me to speak about social justice – I don’t know why. But, all these kids were well-scrubbed, doing internships, and I said, “Now you would never be involved in slavery, right?” They all said, “Oh, no.” Then I said, “What about sweatshops? Would you help a company invest in sweatshops?” “Oh, no,” they all said. I asked, “What are you wearing, by the way? Is that from the Gap? Is that from Target?”
We end up in this funny schizophrenia. On the one hand, we know what we think and value, but we live a life that is filled with those contradictions. That’s what I want to expose as a teacher, and get people thinking.
In your memoir, "Fugitive Days," you write that you try, and often fail, to live a life that doesn’t make a mockery of your values. As much I love that, it is really tough. It’s a challenge.
That’s my theme song, and it’s not tough. It’s impossible.
Is teaching a subversive activity?
Yes, it is. If education is about preparing people to fit into society as it is, then you have to subvert that, especially if you want to live in a way that doesn’t make a mockery of your values.
Every school is a mirror and window of a social system. So, if you went to the old South Africa, and you peeked into a white school classroom, and you saw 20 kids, fully trained teachers, state of the art machinery, clean environment, and then you saw 125 black kids in a classroom with no machinery, and no resources at all, you would know what apartheid was because that school system mirrored it. If, on the other hand, you knew what apartheid was, you would guess that the school system looked like that.
So, every school system, no matter where or when it was – Nazi Germany, apartheid South Africa – wanted kids to stay away from drugs, not get pregnant, do their work, learn and be a good citizen. But the hidden curriculum was obedience and conformity. The schools of fascist Germany produced many brilliant, proficient citizens, but they also produced a culture that looked the other way while people were being led into the ovens.
We want a school system, in an aspirational and imperfect democracy, that bases itself on the fragile, but precious ideal that every human being is of incalculable value. All this school reform shit you see now, is all trying to calculate the value of people.
Why do you think public education isn’t a big political priority in America, and we allow for this apartheid-lite educational system, and why is the discussion that is happening – cut it, privatize it – moving in the wrong direction?
There are a couple of things going on in the current, contentious debate surrounding public education. One is that the privatizers, the individualists, have taken control over the debate. After a decade and a half, however, of them controlling the debate, they are still losing, and that’s encouraging. Parents, teachers and students don’t buy it.
They don’t buy that you can reduce education to a single metric – the test score. They know the privileged would never impose that on their kids, but they want it for everyone else. Barack Obama, Arne Duncan and I all sent our kids to the University of Chicago lab school. They have their class sizes capped at 15, they have well-respected, unionized teachers, they have fully equipped classrooms, and they have a culture that respects the pursuit of one’s own creative interests. So, good enough for us – not good enough for poor kids. Rahm Emanuel would no more send his kid to a school with no library than he would jump off a bridge, but there are 125 schools in Chicago with no library.
The corporate school reform agenda is also trying to eliminate the collective voice of teachers. They want to reduce the ambition and agenda of teachers down to the role of clerk. Again, Rahm Emanuel would never send his child to a school where the teacher was a clerk.
Finally, they are also trying to sell off more and more of the public space to the private sector, under the theory that everything private is better than anything public. That’s wrong.
The reduction of education to a single metric also plays, quite effectively, into the narrow vision of materialism that dominates too much of American culture, and permeates into politics.
Successful kids in this society are often left with the idea that all that matters is getting ahead and making money. My oldest son went to Brown University. As a freshman, everyone in his class wanted to be a novelist, a musician or a poet. By his graduation there were two of them left standing who wanted to be artists, and he was one of them. I said, “What happened?” He said, “The ‘real world’ imposed itself, and very few can withstand it.”
You lose something with that. The fact that so many people are drawn into banking and the financial sector is unfortunate. By all accounts, everyone who looks at it says that the financial sector is immoral, predatory and based on illusions. Yet, the smartest kids coming out of the best schools are landing there.
And they are left with emptiness …
That’s what I think, and they would be better if they worked in community organizing or a soup kitchen. They would grow their souls. The crisis that we are facing, not only in this country, but in the world, is of such depth and breadth that we are going to be confronted with the fact that the real challenge is to grow our souls and grow our intelligence, and not make so much money.