No Regrets

From our August 2001 issue: “Kill your parents!” urged sixties leftist Bill Ayers, whose father was the chairman of Commonwealth Edison here. In Ayers’s new memoir, Fugitive Days, he reconciles his militant past with his present identity: father of three, esteemed professor at UIC—and unabashed patron of the great bourgeois coffee chain, Starbucks

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Now, Ayers is a respected name in the field of education; his books, including To Teach: The Journey of a Teacher and A Good Preschool Teacher, are hailed by some as groundbreaking and thoughtful approaches to learning. Certainly they are reactions against the popular theories of the 1950s, which held that students were empty vessels to be filled with knowledge.

“Essentially, you must see the student before you as a locus of energy,” he says. “He already has a heart, a soul, a mind, interests, and dreams. You need to help him shape those interests, pursue those dreams.” Ayers is distinguished professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where two years ago the university named him Senior University Scholar, an award given to outstanding faculty members. He also directs the Center for Youth and Society, an organization that brings an interdisciplinary approach to working with youth—from art education to after-school programs. One of the center’s recent efforts was a symposium inspired by the book Racism Explained to My Daughter, by Tahar Ben Jelloun. “We brought together people to discuss how to address racism with kids,” says Therese Quinn, associate director of the center. What strikes Quinn about Ayers is “his enthusiasm and optimism,” she says. “He is just overwhelmingly generous and supportive.”

“Teaching has always been, for me, linked to issues of social justice,” he says. “I’ve never considered it a neutral or passive profession." 

In Fugitive Days, Ayers has a personable style that pulls the reader in from the book’s start—when he describes the moment he heard about the 1970 Greenwich Village explosion. It is the moment, of course, when his own life figuratively blew apart. “In the beginning, Bill wanted to write about the Vietnam War and why he thought it was wrong,” says Helene Atwan, director of Beacon Press, who edited Ayers’s book. “But I told him that most Americans now believed that that war was wrong and certainly the people reading a book of memoirs would feel that. I wanted him to concentrate on his personal story.”

Except for a few minor polemics along the way, Ayers does—and then some. “He very effectively captures the spirit of the times,” says Bernardine Dohrn, who is now a clinical associate professor at Northwestern University School of Law. “He conjures it up and reflects on it.”

Like her husband, Dohrn claims she feels no need to escape the legacy of the 1960s and 1970s. “I feel it’s always with me. It’s taken a long time to achieve a precarious balance about it, where it’s not all defining and a cartoon. But this isn’t just my problem; it’s a generation’s problem.”

For two radicals once living underground, Ayers and Dohrn have raised three accomplished children: Zayd (named for a fallen Black Liberation soldier and colleague), 24, graduated from Brown University and has an M.F.A. degree in writing from Boston University, where he now teaches; Malik (for Malcolm X), 21, is attending the University of California at San Diego; and Chesa, 20, their adopted son, just finished his sophomore year at Yale University.

Recently, Ayers himself has returned to school as a student for the first time since he earned his Ph.D. in education at Columbia University—thanks to the monetary award he received from UIC as senior university scholar. He periodically commutes to Bennington College for the school’s low-residency M.F.A. program in writing, in which he is concentrating on nonfiction. So far, he has studied with essayist Philip Lopate and novelist/memoirist Susan Cheever. “It’s exciting and scary and all those good things,” he says. “They have been wonderful in helping me find my own voice.”

That is not something you would have thought Ayers needed help with. It is a different time, though, and he is a different man. But not completely changed. Talk to him for any length of time and some rhetoric of the past slips into the conversation. “I think there will be another mass political movement,” he predicts, “because I believe that the kind of injustice that is built into our world will not go quietly into the night.”

But the time-warp moment is over as quickly as it begins. Ayers—totally back in the present moment—pauses to sip his double skim latte, then greets a graduate student who awaits his attention. “These aren’t mountain times, these are valley times,” he says, acknowledging a change in the culture, the political climate, and maybe even in himself. “But you can still work the vineyard where you are.”

 

Photograph: Jeff Sciortino

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6 years ago
Posted by Anonymous

POS

6 years ago
Posted by Anonymous

Doesn't surprise me in the least. There are plenty of old national socialists that aren't apologetic about their "Good Old Days" either. Why should this Left-wing fascist be any different?

6 years ago
Posted by Anonymous

>>> "Teaching has always been, for me, linked to issues of social justice," he says. "I've never considered it a neutral or passive profession."

Of course not. Neo-Marxists don't view education as the conveyance of information and skills, but as a means of political indoctrination for the next generation. No wonder his views are so popular amongst the American education monopolists.

Would love to hear his arguments in opposition to school choice and voucher programs, or rather why parents shouldn't be allowed to influence the educational system in any way. I bet he dances a merry jig around that one.

6 years ago
Posted by Anonymous

The irony of people like this is hard to fully comprehend, in my opinion. Here's a guy that literally tried to start a bloody revolution in this "evil" country, yet never had to pay any price for his crimes. If he had done the same thing in one of his socialist utopia's, he would have been executed as a traitor. Instead, he's a rich man with ties to a potential (if not likely) President of the United States.

6 years ago
Posted by Anonymous

Pride goes before destruction,
And a haughty spirit before a fall.
Proverbs 16:18

6 years ago
Posted by freods

I wonder how Mr. Ayers would feel if a bunch of old vets decided to bring the war home - to his home. Oh, if Mr. Ayers agonizes over how his beloved blew herself up I'll tell him. She screwed up the bomb along with the other nitwits. Finally, how's this for the free exchange of ideas Mr. Ayers so passionately desired. Abortion is murder, Islamists are murderous barbarians, the Jews are right and the Palestinians are wrong, socialism is evil, capitalism is good, and the baby boomers are the most worthless, self obsessed generation in history. I would imagine Mr Ayers' present day comrades would not allow discussion on any of these ideas except maybe the last. But of course I doubt you could find anyone to take the other side of that argument since Mr Ayers' re-emergence makes the propostion self evident. How pathetically tiresome these retreads are still trying to justify their worthless lives and lousy choices. (don't bother to point to Mr Ayers' academic career as evidence of a life well spent. I taught in a university English dept. and have more respect for folks who work the midnight shift in a convenience store or who can wire a three way switch than I have for ANY liberal arts or ed. dept. faculty member)

6 years ago
Posted by Anonymous

Remove his american citizenship

6 years ago
Posted by Anonymous

"The Days of Rage," as the 1969 protest was called, brought several hundred members of the Weatherman—many of them attired for battle with helmets and weapons—to Lincoln Park. The tear-gassed marches, window smashing, and clashes with police lasted four days, during which 290 militants were arrested and 63 people were injured. Damage to windows, cars, and other property soared to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Around this time, Ayers summed up the Weatherman philosophy as "Kill all the rich people. Break up their cars and apartments. Bring the revolution home, kill your parents—that's where it's really at."

- Gee, I wonder how this historical account would have differed had the exact same protest taken place in China, Cuba, or the Soviet Union? My guess is it would have lasted 4 hours instead of 4 days with 0 arrests, 0 injured, and lots of body parts strewn around.

But hey, what do I know? I'm just a capitalist pig...

6 years ago
Posted by Anonymous

"There you have the complexity of Ayers: a man who once tried to overthrow his country's government and now works for a state university; an opponent of the bourgeoisie who has been married for 20 years; a left-wing radical who loves a good cup of imperialist coffee"

Nope, there you have typical liberal hypocrisy.

6 years ago
Posted by Anonymous

typical. Hypocrite. scumbag.

6 years ago
Posted by Anonymous

"The next year, a Weatherman killed a Brink's guard and two state troopers in a bungled armored truck robbery."

I must have missed the part where Ayers details how much of his University salary he has donated to the families of the guard and the 2 troopers, not to mention how he reimbursed the hundreds of thousands of dollars of damage done by his group's bombings and Days of Rage.

I guess he is too busy sipping his lattes and writing his memoirs to be worried by that.

6 years ago
Posted by Anonymous

Why, again, is it that this "esteemed professor" and demonstrable fool is not in jail?

-- Brian Kennedy

Kaohsiung, Taiwan

6 years ago
Posted by Anonymous

I am trying to imagine an article about say, a 60s Alabama Klan member who bombed churches, and his cool swagger, and how he loves Starbucks now.
Yeesh.

Karen Barefield
Arlington Virgina

6 years ago
Posted by Nathan Patrick

Hey, don't be so hard on Bill Ayers. This is a free country. He is perfectly free to be an idiot. Lord only knows how many upstanding American men and women in uniform have laid down their lives in defense of our nation so nut jobs like him can drink lattes and contaminate the minds of young people with left-wing dribble.

6 years ago
Posted by Anonymous

He's a piece of garbage.

6 years ago
Posted by Anonymous

I remember their mantra of "Don't trust anyone over 30" well how does it feel being twice that age? The fortunate thing about these 60's rejects is that the inevitability of their own mortality is rapidly approaching and they will soon have to face the six foot deep dirt nap and leave the rest of us alone. All their treasonous actions will fade into the history books as a sad footnote to the 20th century. It will be nice to have you feed the worms to help renew our environment - at least that is a worthy contribution along with your books in the landfills. Don't anybody dare drape an American flag over the coffin of this terrorist, he prefers a hammer and sickle or maybe a swastika since he is trying to create his own version of Hitler Youth through his teaching degree.

6 years ago
Posted by Anonymous

Is the University of Illinois a state-funded university? If so, do the residents of Illinois not have a say as to whether or not this terrorist remains on the faculty?

6 years ago
Posted by Anonymous

Give the guy a break, he's not the testosterone-fueled radical of his youth. He's cleaned up his act and is a productive member of society.

6 years ago
Posted by Anonymous

Give him a break??? You have got to be kidding me? He wished he could do more so now he teaches our youth to follow in his footsteps. He got enough of a break because of a technicality and isn't rotting away in prison. Take a close look at the photo, isn't that an American Flag under his feet? Cleaned up his act? What drugs are you on?

6 years ago
Posted by Anonymous

"Give the guy a break, he's not the testosterone-fueled radical of his youth. He's cleaned up his act and is a productive member of society."

I doubt the 3 people the Weathermen killed think he deserves a break, and ol' Professor Ayers sure doesnt sound remorseful in the least now that he is a so-called productive member of society:

Ayers interviewed in the New York Times on September 11, 2001, of all days: “I don’t regret setting bombs. I feel we didn’t do enough.” Translation: “We meant to kill that judge and his family, not just damage the porch.” When asked by the Times if he would do it all again, Ayers responded: “I don’t want to discount the possibility.”

http://www.city-journal.org/2008/eon0430jm.html

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