Bill Ayers was a professor of education at the University of illinois at Chicago until 2010, and he has published several books on pedagogy, including Teaching Toward Freedom (2010) and To Teach: The Journey of a Teacher (2001). Before becoming a teacher, he was best known for his antiwar and civil rights activism in the Sixties and Seventies as co-founder of the Weather Underground, an activist group that bombed a series of public buildings. Ayers was born in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, and now lives with his partner Bernardine Dohrn—also a former Weatherman—in the Chicago neighborhood of Hyde Park, where the editors of The Point met with him last September. What follows is an excerpt from the interview, focused on our conversation about education. Another excerpt is available here. If you’re interested in the whole thing, it is available in print in issue 5 of The Point.
The Point: In one of your education books you write that “school is both mirror and window: it shows us what we value and what we ignore, what is precious and what is menial.” What do you think the current educational system in America can tell us about American society?
Bill Ayers: Well, my point there is that all school systems reflect the societies that they exist in. An ancient agrarian society would teach people how to do animal husbandry and agriculture; a kingdom would teach fealty; a religious state would teach, you know, piety. And so my basic argument is that in a democracy, you would expect the schools to reflect some of the fundamental values of democracy—for example, that we are all the sovereign, that each one of us is of incalculable value. And it’s astonishing if you stop and think about it. Here’s a nation founded on the idea that all human beings are equal, and we spend an enormous amount of time trying to figure out how we’re not equal, how we’re different, how we’re not really part of the same polity or society. And my argument is that if you start from the premise that every human being is of incalculable value, and go from there, then the schools should look quite different from the way they do now, because what we see now is a market model of education.
Look at a place like Chicago. My kids went to Lab School; Barack Obama’s kids went to Lab School; Arne Duncan, the Secretary of education, spent twelve years at the Lab School, and his wife taught there. What they find at the Lab School is small classes, capped at fifteen; they find a well-respected and unionized teacher core; they find a well-resourced classroom and a curriculum based at least in part on kids formulating their own questions and pursuing those questions to their outer limits. So that’s a kind of education: it’s for the Obama kids, for my kids, it’s for you guys. But what about the kids on the West Side of Chicago, or in Oakland, where my son Malik teaches? He has forty kids in a class. Public school, bilingual, math-science middle school, and forty kids in a class. Well, there’s a difference, and the difference leads to hugely different outcomes which are not particularly mysterious. So if school is mirror and window, what we see when we’re looking at American schools is not at the highest level of what we would hope for in a truly democratic society, or in a society that respected and honored everyone.
TP: I don’t know if you saw the movie Waiting for Superman—
BA: I picketed…
TP: Some of the reformers in that movie present themselves as wanting to give kids on the West Side of Chicago a better classroom experience, wanting to ensure that they have better teachers. So I’m interested to hear what your response to it was. Obviously, a lot of liberals didn’t like the movie.
BA: I hope you’re not calling me a liberal. I’m not a liberal.
TP: OK, sorry… A lot of people on the Left—
BA: I’m not on the Left, but, ok, I get where you’re going. You know, as in so many things in our culture, it all depends on how you frame the issue. So when a political candidate gets up during the presidential election or the Senate elections and says, “We need to get the lazy, incompetent teachers out of the classroom,” every one of us around this table would nod, somewhat dully, without much thought. I mean, what am I going to say? “No, my granddaughter deserves a lazy, incompetent teacher—leave her where she is because my granddaughter wants her”? You just framed the issue in a way that I can’t disagree—but if I got to the microphone first, and said, “Every kid in a public school in this country deserves an intellectually grounded, morally committed, courageous, hardworking, well-paid, well-rested teacher,” you’d agree with that too. So who’s framing these issues?
And this school reform debate couldn’t be more dishonest. It’s the most dishonest thing I’ve seen in all the years I’ve been an educator, which is since 1965. There was actually a profile of Arne Duncan in the New Yorker [“Class Warrior,” February 2010] that broke it down perfectly. Early in the article the author says there are really two camps in the school reform debate: there are the radical reformers who want to crush the unions, create charters, get vouchers, and you know, clear away all the deadwood. And then there are the status quo people, who love the union and love the cause of education. Well, you just narrowed the horizons of my imagination dramatically—and, frankly, I can’t find myself. I know some people who are radical reformers, lots of them in fact, but one of the things that’s dishonest about that framing is that the leaders of this so-called reform movement, every one of them went to a private school, every one of them. Michelle Rhee, Bloomberg, Gates, Zuckerberg—they all went to private universities, and they would never send their kids to the schools they’re engineering, never. They would never send their kids to a school that didn’t have art; they would never send their kids to a school that didn’t have sports and after-school activities and a chess club and all the other things that make for an educated person, so why do we even listen to them when they say that the black kids on the West Side need uniforms, that they need to march in a row, that they need to drill a skill until they drop—as if that’s the measure of an educated person in a democracy?
TP: But some of the schools featured in the movie were having a lot of success, relative to where the kids would have ended up otherwise. Is there no place for some of those reforms?
BA: Well, the problem with the Waiting for Superman thing—and again, I’m willing to concede that many of these people are well-intentioned—is that it’s based on a vision of education that is narrow and anemic. Frankly I think that freedom and education, they’re linked, they’re almost the same thing; you can’t be free if you’re not enlightened. So yes, we want to push education, we want to push a certain kind of education. But Waiting for Superman, instead of thinking of education as either a human right or a lifelong journey, presents education as a series of gates that can be narrowly defined and easily tested. And if you read any, any, any of the articles about reform, in about the twentieth paragraph it says, Of course, there aren’t any results to show this stuff has worked. This stuff doesn’t work. So OK, you know, privatize the schools, but there’s no evidence that charter schools are better than the neighborhood schools, so the problem with Superman—
TP: That wasn’t the argument in the movie, though. The movie doesn’t say we should privatize the schools.
BA: The argument of the movie is about lazy, incompetent teachers, which is one of the clichés of the moment. It is based on hating the unions and bureaucracy. So we have Geoff Canada—who I used to know quite well and who I like a lot—as a model of a great educator. But what does Geoff Canada have that other reformers don’t have? Well, he has millions and millions and millions of dollars! And even at his school, they’re not doing exactly what they’re promising to do. And you’ve probably noticed, if you’ve been paying attention to the news at all this summer, that we have a major cheating scandal in Atlanta, a major cheating scandal in Connecticut, now a major cheating scandal looking backward in Washington, D.C.—when Michelle Rhee ran the system. How come? Well, because you’ve incentivized cheating. you’ve said: we’re going to judge teachers by how they’ve done on a test score.
TP: On the narrow point, though, of the tenure issue that they raise in the movie, that they really hammer on in the movie, of its being so hard for a principal to fire teachers…
BA: Number one it’s not true. Number two, do you know how many people who graduate with teaching certificates continue after five years? It’s less than 50 percent. If that were true of law or medicine, there would be an absolute scandal. You mean I went to law school, and I come out and half of us are not going to practice law? That’s ridiculous, we went to law school for fuck’s sake! Teachers don’t stay in teaching. Why? Because there are too many kids, too few resources, too little respect, because it’s a killing profession, because it grinds you down. And the idea that we can’t get rid of them! We’re getting rid of too many of them. We can’t keep teachers.
TP: But we’re not necessarily getting rid of the right ones…
BA: But that’s not true. We’re getting rid of all of them. We need to pay them better, we need to keep them longer, and what we see now is this kind of parade of short-timers, like Teach for America—which is one of the great frauds. The fact is that Teach for America started off saying, “We’re going to change the face of teaching,” and now it says, “We’re going to get a group of smart kids interested in a lifelong commitment to education.” So, you know, two-thirds of those kids leave after three years. My wife is a law professor and half of her incoming class is Teach for America grads; it’s a nice resume builder. I don’t know if you guys did Teach for America, but why not? everybody does it. But it doesn’t actually help in the schools that it claims to be helping. Those kids need experienced teachers; and everybody has to be inexperienced before they’re experienced. That’s just in the nature of life, but you don’t actually want to throw thirty first-year teachers into the poorest school in Chicago and think they’re going to do anything—they’re not.
TP: You talk in Teaching Toward Freedom about the so-called Great Virtues. Which virtues should be taught today, and how can they be taught?
BA: in a democracy the kinds of virtues we want to foreground are things like curiosity, imagination, initiative, courage, human solidarity, entrepreneurship. And the kind of values that we are not that interested in, although they have a place, are obedience and conformity. But frankly our schools are all about obedience and conformity. If you’re obedient, and you conform, and you land right in the middle of the pack, and you’re not a noisemaker or a troublemaker, and you’re not a genius because most of us aren’t, nobody will bother you. You’ll just pass through. And that is a catastrophe in a democracy. It doesn’t allow us to create people who are able to run their own affairs. Democracy requires us to be in charge of ourselves, collectively and individually.
TP: What do you think solidarity is? And how is it that education can actually nourish this virtue?
BA: Solidarity to me means fellow feeling. I don’t mean it in the Marxist sense of class solidarity. What I mean is that if we simply open our eyes it becomes obvious that we were born into a going world, and the world is going because human beings have done two things: they’ve worked together to accomplish things and they’ve worked individually to accomplish things. And it’s that dialectic between individual initiative and human solidarity that makes the thing go, and we want to be part of both of those things. You want to be a distinct individual, so that there will never be another one like you, but it’s also true that you’re sharing the planet for a brief instant with a whole bunch of people—and the older you get the more you see this. This feeling is solidarity. Now how do we nourish it in school? This is always the problem with school: you need to create an environment where people can see and experience and feel the values that you think are important. We don’t do that enough.