What Bill Ayers Wants

The sixties radical stayed quiet during last year’s presidential campaign, but as a prominent education professor, he’s speaking out now about his prescription for fixing the public schools

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During the heat of last year’s presidential campaign, when William Ayers emerged as a “mini demonic celebrity,” as he puts it, he remained uncharacteristically quiet in the mainstream media. He didn’t try to defend himself from being called a terrorist by John McCain, Sarah Palin, and others. He didn’t set the record straight about whether he really did “pal around with” Barack Obama in Hyde Park, as some charged. 

Rather, Ayers responded only to two low-profile critics. One of them, Stanley Kurtz, a senior fellow at the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center, argued in The Wall Street Journal that the real reason to worry about the Obama-Ayers association was Ayers’s “educational philosophy, which called for infusing students and their parents with a radical political commitment, and which downplayed achievement tests in favor of activism.” Similarly, Sol Stern of the Manhattan Institute, another conservative think tank, published a number of essays in the institute’s journal arguing that the “pressing issue” was the “harm inflicted on the nation’s schoolchildren by the political and educational movement in which Ayers plays a leading role today.”

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Why take on the education critics? “The other stuff—that was about a cartoon character,” Ayers says today. “It had nothing to do with me. But those [articles by Kurtz and Stern] were the only things I did read.”

While the pundits and bloggers jousted over Ayers’s 1960s radicalism, he sparred online with Stern in competing postings to the education-policy blog Eduwonkette. Defending his notion of “social justice teaching” from Stern’s claim that it was a “left wing ideology,” Ayers insisted that his ideas reflected no particular political stance, that he simply advanced a style of teaching in which educators emphasize “a commitment to free inquiry, questioning, and participation. . . .”

The education debate got little attention—a frustration to Ayers, who confesses to having blind spots in his understanding of the broader culture. (In Fugitive Days, his memoir of his life in the radical Weather Underground, he admits that he expected thousands of working-class kids to join the group’s Days of Rage rioting in protest of their own, presumably obvious, oppression.) Even today, Ayers seems slightly disappointed that the campaign noise about him did not evolve into a more thoughtful discussion of education policy.

He may yet get his wish. As a professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Ayers was deeply involved with reform efforts in the Chicago public schools, particularly in the early nineties. The high point of Ayers’s direct involvement with the schools came when, as a coauthor of the Annenberg Challenge, a grant proposal that netted $49.2 million in funding for reform efforts in 1995, he helped create and fund numerous programs for teacher training and support. And in the years since then, he has maintained, primarily through his research and writing, a complicated, often contentious relationship with CPS administrators, including Arne Duncan, now the Obama administration’s secretary of education.

Though many of the ideas promoted by Ayers have become almost mainstream in school reform, he remains deeply suspicious of “accountability”—a leading principle in education policy today, but one that Ayers and like-minded colleagues claim suppresses flexibility, experimentation, democracy. As the new administration moves beyond the Bush-era No Child Left Behind effort, Ayers’s voice is likely to rise in the clash of ideas. In fact, in the months following the election, he has had a kind of rebirth in the national media, finding himself spotlighted in a number of highbrow venues, from National Public Radio’s Fresh Air to The New York Times Magazine.

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Photograph: Anna Knott

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