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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Bill Ayers's involvement with education goes back to his days as a radical. He worked as a teacher and school director before his time with the Weather Underground, and he has said that his teaching was close to his political activity—he hoped his students would grow up to be activists, too. After he surfaced from being underground in 1980, he got a master’s degree in early childhood education from the Bank Street College of Education in New York and a doctorate in education from Columbia University. Then he returned to Chicago, where he had grown up in comfort. He has been a member of UIC’s education faculty since 1987, and he has gained a reputation for expertise—last year, he was elected vice president for curriculum of the American Educational Research Association, the nation’s largest organization of education-school professors and researchers.
Many of his tenets are hardly revolutionary—that parents and communities should control their own schools, that students learn better in “small learning communities,” that teachers are most effective when they ask questions and facilitate projects and discussions, rather than simply lecture or drill. These ideas in particular have become components in most major school reform efforts across the country, influencing not only educators but also private philanthropists and public policymakers.
What’s more, many of his ideas have been around for years. As a preschool teacher in the 1960s, he followed the Summerhill method, a philosophy pioneered by the Scottish educator A. S. Neill in the 1920s and popularized in “free schools” around the world in the 1960s, allowing children almost total freedom in choosing what, if anything, to learn.
Today Ayers occupies a unique position in the world of education. Neither a policy wonk nor an administrator, he functions instead as a kind of populist intellectual—consulting, lecturing, writing, and training teachers, speaking always from the perspective of the classroom teacher he once was. The combination of his infamous past with his respected academic work has long made him a popular guest at universities and conferences, but now his profile seems to have been raised to another level. After a January speech at Florida State University was met with student protests, Georgia Southern University rescinded its invitation to Ayers to speak there in March “because of the increased amount of security and costs required.”
Ayers holds to an educational philosophy known as “teaching for social justice” that takes an expansive view of the purpose of schools and teachers. They exist, say Ayers and other proponents, as instruments of democracy. At their best, they turn out active, engaged citizens. Ayers sums it up this way: “All schools serve the societies in which they’re embedded—authoritarian schools serve authoritarian systems, apartheid schools serve an apartheid society, and so on. Practically all schools want their students to study hard, stay away from drugs, do their homework, and so on. . . . But in a democracy one would expect something more—a commitment to free inquiry, questioning, and participation; a push for access and equity; a curriculum that encouraged free thought and independent judgment; a standard of full recognition of the humanity of each individual. In other words, social justice.”
Unlike, say, literacy or math skills, a fluency in social justice is hard to test. Agitating outside of school for improved social conditions is not a stated goal of social-justice education, but it is frequently cited, by supporters and opponents, as one measure of the effectiveness of the teaching. But preparing kids for a lifetime of civic participation requires more than a well-constructed curriculum. It demands that students have access to the institutions of public life, that they are healthy and safe and well fed, confident that their basic needs will be met, even as they turn their attention to larger questions.
In practice, the ideals of social-justice education have been applied mostly in a limited fashion, failing to catch on in a substantial way in the urban settings where reform is needed most. For one thing, Ayers and others oppose the zero-tolerance discipline codes that often accompany efforts to improve failing schools. For another, efforts to improve standardized test scores generally mean that kids have less control, rather than more, in choosing what they study. And no major urban district has tried to partner with entire communities to bring about the kinds of social changes, like economic empowerment, that would address all the challenges facing their school-age kids.
Instead, the common thread connecting education policy today—from No Child Left Behind at the national level to local reforms in cities all around the country—is accountability, the setting of specific, quantifiable goals and the relentless movement toward achieving them, eliminating perceived obstacles, like struggling teachers, as quickly as possible.
Ayers and other social-justice thinkers are deeply suspicious of this bias for quick, directed action. They encourage experimentation and an approach that lets kids, parents, and teachers decide what to try next. In this, Ayers says, his work in education parallels the progressive approach to political organizing, summarizing his methods in both cases as: “Pay attention, be astonished, act, rethink, act again, and doubt again.”
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