Revolution #63, October 1, 2006
Interview with Bill Ayers:
On Progressive Education, Critical Thinking and the Cowardice of Some in Dangerous Times
Bill Ayers, Distinguished Professor of Education and Senior University Scholar at the University of Illinois at Chicago, returned from summer vacation to find a letter from colleagues he’d worked with for decades. They told him about a conference on progressive education they were planning for the spring, and at the same time informed him that he would not be welcome to it!
Professor Ayers is the author of Teaching Toward Freedom and many other books, anthologies, and essays on progressive education that have appeared in many journals, including Harvard Educational Review, Journal of Teacher Education, Teachers College Record, Rethinking Schools, Nation, and Cambridge Journal of Education. Ayers is also the author of the book Fugitive Days, about his experiences as one of the founders of the ‘60s-’70s group the Weather Underground.
Revolution correspondent Reggie Dylan recently spoke with Bill Ayers about his colleagues’ letter and its larger implications.
Reggie Dylan: Tell us about how you learned that you had been “disinvited” to a conference by your colleagues, and about your initial response.
Bill Ayers: I returned from summer vacation and I had a letter on my desk. The people who wrote the letter were an administrator at a university, a dean, and then a couple of people I knew pretty well, actually. I think I was stunned to get it because what it said in effect was we’re having an important progressive education conference, we count you as one of the important progressive educators in our era. Therefore we feel we owe you an explanation of why you’re not invited. And my first read, I kind of laughed and put it aside. But then as I thought about it I thought… There’s not a single sign of the times, there are many, many signs of the times, and some of them are quite hopeful, some of them are quite exciting, but here’s one of the dismal signs of the times. These guys aren’t just progressive, they’re socialists, and they think of themselves as activists. And yet they feel that in order to have a meeting that will be legitimate, they have to make a decision who to exclude, and they excluded me. And I decided it wasn’t an issue about me in particular. It wasn’t an issue about my personal feelings. And I certainly didn’t feel hurt. But I did feel increasingly agitated about the thinking that went into it. I don’t have it in front of me, but here’s what I remember about being first very, very agitated about.
They said in the body of the letter: we want to position progressive education not as radical, but as familiar and good. Now that just steamed up my ears because if you’re saying you’re a progressive educator… That’s one of the things that’s actually annoyed me for about 40 years of being a progressive educator: the separation of the concept of progressive education from the concept of politics and political change. You can’t separate them…and this is a contradiction, incidentally, that goes all the way back to the beginning of progressive education and really the beginning of the conversations about the relationship between school and society. But John Dewey was one of the brilliant, brilliant writers about what democratic education would look like and was himself an independent socialist. But he never resolved a central contradiction in our work, the contradiction between trying to change the school and being embedded in society that has the exact opposite values culturally and politically and socially from the values you’re trying to build in a classroom. This contradiction is something progressive educators should address, not dodge. So this is what got me going. That’s a short version.
Reggie Dylan: In your letter you say you see great harm for progressive education itself in what’s represented in the approach they’re taking.
Bill Ayers: There’s two things. The first thing is they take the teeth out of the critique. They say we’re presenting progressive education as something nice and familiar. Then you’re not critiquing standardized testing, you’re not critiquing sorting kids, you’re not critiquing the privatization of the public space, you’re not critiquing the attack on teachers and the undoing of the trade union movement. So to me, you’re just saying, I’m giving you progressive education-lite. I don’t see the point in that. That’s one problem
The second problem is not addressing the fact that schools serve society in subtle and overt ways. So every school in every society is a microcosm of, or represents in some sense, that society… Here’s a great example. Sometimes its hard for people to see this inside our own country because these things are so familiar. But go outside our country. If you went to apartheid South Africa and you went into the schools, you would see a white school with 15 kids per class, high-tech, highly educated teachers, peaceful campuses. And you go to the township and you see a classroom of 85 kids, no equipment and no rooms—and that would speak volumes. You could see, even if you knew nothing about apartheid, you would see apartheid represented in the school. One school is preparing kids to run society in the future; one school is preparing kids for the mines and the mills and the prisons.
Well, that’s true of all societies, and it’s as true of ours as any other. Go to the schools in the inner city. Go to the schools in the privileged suburbs and see what you see. To separate progressive education from the savage inequalities of our schools, from the drill and kill, from the sort and punish, it’s like a fantasy world. You’re not changing anything if you don’t address the social inequities out there. And right now, one of the cruelest places we see this is the question of preparing kids for prison, for unemployment, and for war. We see this in big schools, we see this in big urban schools. Where does the military recruit? They don’t recruit in New Trier [upper middle class school in the Chicago suburbs]. They don’t recruit at Andover and Exeter [elite private schools]. They’re not allowed in there. They recruit in DuSable high school and Lawndale high school [mainly Black and poor schools in Chicago]. And that’s unfair.
Reggie Dylan: You are on the David Horowitz list. (Horowitz is a highly placed operative in the service of the Bush regime carrying out an orchestrated attack on dissent and critical thinking in the universities. Bill Ayers is one of the faculty viciously attacked in Horowitz’s book The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America.) Maybe we can step back a bit and talk about the bigger attack on dissent and critical thinking that’s going on in academia in general. What you’re describing is a whole front of this which is really important to be brought into it—what’s going on in the elementary and secondary level. But there has been this whole attack going on in the universities which…
Bill Ayers: I agree with you, it’s not just elementary and high school. And I have a very strong take on it these days. I actually was listening to Berlusconi the other day in Italy. The right-wing bastard that used to run Italy. And Berlusconi said people criticize us because we have so much power. But the truth is we don’t have the schools, and we don’t have the economy. And that’s very much what’s true in America. You know, if you look at a place like Chicago or if you look anywhere around the country, the right wing—it’s not just conservatives, it’s probably the most reactionary cabal of ideologues I’ve ever seen, operating with a very, very clear ideological purpose—control all three branches of the federal government, control many state governments, control the media—the kind of bought priesthood of the media that does nothing but bow down to them and kowtow to them. And yet, if you hear them talk, they’re whining about how little power they have, how marginal they are, how under attack they are. And on the one hand, you could say, oh that’s just demagoguery, those guys are bullshitting. But the truth is they see something that they know that we maybe don’t know so well, and that is their power is tenuous and short-lived. I think the reason we’re going to see the bombing of Iran is because they know that they have a little window here to do all the bad things that they’ve wanted to do, or in their view, to set the conditions for all the things that they would like to struggle for over the next decade. And they are going at their agenda with a fierce single-mindedness. And whether they are thrown out of power, the one public space that still irritates the crap out of them is education. And it is one of the public spaces that’s left to fight about.
So what do we see? We see a whole frontal attack on the very idea of public education. It’s an attack on the idea that there should be a free common public education for all. And we see it in all kinds of subtle and in not-so-subtle forms. Subtle forms like zero tolerance. What’s the point of the zero tolerance in a democracy? In a democratic school system, classroom justice is flexible. But not in an authoritarian society. In an authoritarian society classroom justice is authoritarian. Zero tolerance, right? So there’s that kind of attack. And the obsession with a single-minded standard of standardization. And again, I’m a big fan of standards. But I’m against standardization which I take to be fundamentally anti-democratic. And I’m for standards set by people working in classrooms with one another. And then we see the metaphorical market being held up as the ideal of what the public schools should become. So we see charters and we see vouchers. But behind it all is the idea that it’s a market, that there are consumers and that there are producers, etc.
As far as higher education is concerned, it’s like, anybody who works in higher education like me—and we hear it said this is a bastion of liberal thought and this is where the radicals hang out—we’re like completely stunned. We have no idea what they’re talking about. I mean its true I’m here, but its also true there’s a whole bunch of right-wing colleagues up and down the hallway who promote the status quo and believe in it and so on. And that’s true across the academy. So why are they on the attack? Because it is true people with a critical view can find a place and things to do —and not only things to do, but a public forum from which to have these debates. That’s unacceptable to these hard right-wingers, unacceptable. And so that’s why we’re seeing, in my mind why we’re seeing a wholesale attack on education generally.
On the level of K-12, we’re seeing the attack on the public space. And on the level of higher education, that attack on the public space is an attack on the idea that intellectual freedom has a place. And I think that’s huge, very, very important.
Reggie Dylan: And there’s a connection. Because you have kids coming to college now who have been fed a very narrow understanding of reality, including rooted in fundamentalist religion, rooted in the notion of evolution being a theory and not a fact. And they come to the university and they get challenged with ideas they’ve never heard before. They’re being encouraged to question things in a way they never have before. And to overturn that seems to be the goal of what Horowitz is doing. And you know we were talking about this, Ward Churchill has become a concentration point of that.
Bill Ayers: Well, Ward Churchill is a great example because what I think people, leftists are continually doing with the Ward Churchill case is missing this larger context you and I are talking about and instead kind of parsing, “Well, what did he say and do I agree with it.” What the hell do I care? First of all, there was a thorough study done by a university committee that never should have been set up, and they found a few, a tiny, a handful of instances where he might have borrowed a phrase, but nothing like Doris Kearns-Goodwin [a widely published historian who was found to have plagiarized extensively in one of her books] did, nothing like, you know, the big academics at Harvard have done, like Dershowitz [who has been accused of plagiarism]. And yet somehow he’s held to the standard. And then people on the left again feel like they have to say, well this is part of what Ward says I don’t agree with. What has that got to do with it? He’s being pilloried for his politics, for being a leftist, for being a critic of U.S. imperialism as it relates to Native Americans. How can we as socialists or as communists or as leftists, how can we leave him in the cold and say, well I’m a good leftist because I don’t talk the way Ward talks. I find that appalling. And I would hope that when they come to get Ward, we all link arms and don’t allow it.
Reggie Dylan: And there’s a connection between them going after Ward Churchill and Horowitz’ book, The Professors, which has a hundred professors in it, and the point you make at the end of your letter of, where does this end? You said the attempt to cleanse has no end.
Bill Ayers: It’s not only cowardly, it’s cynical. But it’s suicidal. And by cynical what I mean is that you don’t trust people and so you kind of try to parse out your own little place to have your career as a lefty. And that just makes me sad when it doesn’t make me sick. You have to believe that if you speak the truth, if you speak up and speak the truth as you understand it, and you’re willing to listen and be in dialogue with people, that people can get it. So the cowardliness of not speaking out—we see this in the Democratic Party all the time. Why won’t they speak out against the war? They know better, some of them. But they won’t. And partly because they’re bought into the same system. But even those who know better won’t do it, and the reason is they don’t trust people. And we as revolutionaries have to say that at the end of the day, people will be smart enough, good enough, strong enough to stand up. But why should they do it if we don’t have the courage to do it? And the letter I got was a cowardly letter. Its cynical, it’s cowardly, and it’s slippery.
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