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The other Williams Ayers

Driving to work yesterday I heard one of Atlanta’s conservative talk radio hosts announce with a mixture of pride and wistfulness that, as a concession to Barack Obama’s victory, he had thrown out all his “research” on William Ayers, whose violent past he had been preaching for months.  Now that Obama has been chosen by the voters to lead the nation, the talk show host noted, it was time to move past Ayers and Jeremiah Wright and onto larger topics.  At the same time, though, while Sarah Palin has been insisting that the association (however modest) still matters, Ayers himself has emerged into the public spotlight, having given some recent interviews (he was on Good Morning America the other morning) and published some op-ed pieces.

As the election unfolded, only passing notice was typically given to the other/older William Ayers, the University of Illinois (Chicago) professor of education.  Now that November 4th has passed, and accepting for the moment the impulse to bracket his past to better understand his influence today as an advocate for educational reform, I’ve been reading some of his work on social justice pedagogy.  It was this work, actually, that led him to cross paths with Obama, since their mutual interest in school reform led both to agree to serve on the same Chicago board of directors, an association that obviously led Obama’s critics to question the wisdom of his political and intellectual alliances.

Ayers has a way of getting right to the point, a trait much on display in the recent interviews but which also makes him an interesting writer.  One book review he authored starts:  “Drawing on traditional methods and straightforward approaches… Vonovskis fails to add anything new to the story of the origins of Head Start despite constant and irritating assertions to the contrary.”  And an essay co-authored with Michael Klonsky begins, “Each day, children in Chicago are cheated out of a challenging, meaningful, or even an adequate education…  Despite the well-publicized crime rate in Chicago’s poor neighborhoods, the greatest robbery is not in the streets, but in the schools.”  But Ayers’ purpose is not just attention-grabbing or op-ed-style hyperbole, for he quickly moves to back up such provocative claims by the presentation of truly appalling data about urban education.  The Chicago research, which appeared in 1994, noted that as of that year, for instance, “reading scores in almost half of Chicago’s schools are in the lowest 1% of the nation.”

Ayers’ work in Chicago does partly mirror the logic of his anti-war activism, which was animated by the view that one must deal with criminal negligence by use of a proportionally urgent response (this was the argument he made on GMA in justifying his participation in anti-Vietnam War insurgency; his view was that what he saw as America’s murderous policies in southeast Asia were so monstrous that they demanded even the use of violent opposition).  In the context of education reform, this has led to the mobilization of what might best be considered a social movement, organized to provide tangible opposition to schooling bureaucracies.  And this, in turn, leads to a wide-scale systemic perspective that attends as much to the macro-allocation (or misallocation) of educational funds as to the local dynamics of this or that classroom.  Schools in Illinois, as elsewhere, are funded by property taxes, and because urban property values tend to be lower they generate less revenue than ends up available in the richer suburbs.  In 1992, Illinois voters narrowly rejected a statewide constitutional amendment to provide funding equalization (a constitutional amendment requires 60% support, while this one received 56%).

The passions elicited by the issue of educating children run deep.  Ayers recounts the firestorm evoked when, in 1988, then-governor of Illinois Bill Thompson resisted higher funding for Chicago schools – he didn’t want to throw more money into a “black hole.”  When one of Chicago’s representatives in the state legislature accused Thompson of having made a racist comment, pundits accused the senator of playing the race card.  But such back-and-forths are not surprising given the complex history of racial politics that has characterized the city’s political history, not to mention the long period of conflict between the city and its teacher union that led to a regular cycle of walkouts in the 1980’s and ‘90’s.  One can gather some sense of Ayers’ fuller indictment in the following passage, also written in the mid-1990’s:

Returning to Chicago [from a discussion of schooling in South Africa], a similarly persuasive argument can be made that the failure of some schools and some children is not due to a failure of the system.  That is, if one suspects for a moment the rhetoric of democratic participation, fairness, and justice, and acknowledges (even tentatively) that our society, too, is one of privilege and oppression, inequality, class divisions, and racial and gender stratifications, then one might view the schools as a whole as doing an adequate job both of sorting youngsters for various roles in society and convincing them that they deserve their privileges and their failures.  Sorting students may be the single, brutal accomplishment of U.S. schools, even if it runs counter to the ideal of education as a process that opens possibilities, provides opportunities to challenge and change fate, and empowers people to control their own lives.  The wholesale swindle in Chicago, then, is neither incidental nor accidental; rather, it is an expression of the smooth functioning of the system.

The movement that emerged as a reaction to the frustrating situation in Chicago was in large measure centered on the idea of accountability, a rhetorical rubric that can accommodate both conservatives (who might prefer to emphasize how schools fail to respond to or engage the interests of parents) and liberals (who might prefer to emphasize the need for greater investments, paired with oversight better able to hold bureaucracies to account) both.  Emerging as it did under the leadership of Mayor Harold Washington, the mobilization of parents and educational reformers brought (Ayers and Klonsky argue) African-American parents to the forefront, along with the traditional themes of civil rights organizing (grassroots activity, decentralization, desegregation, community empowerment).  But they were also assisted by the then-recent creation of academic research activity that provided concrete data able to call attention to the true problems.  Early on, Mayor Washington was able to bring together mainly minority parents and white business leaders, all of whom shared concerns about poor schooling, but that coalition was fragmented when the funding issue percolated to the top of the reform agenda (community leaders favored more equitable tax policies and greater funding, while many in the business community were opposed).

Starting with the local reflects an ongoing theme in Ayers’ work, and in an essay he wrote in 1988, it becomes an explicit focus of his account of his past.  Ayers wrote:  “My experience with making change leaves me unimpressed with theories of change, big theories and little theories alike.  Big theories are often compelling because of their bold self-assurance and their tidy certainty…, [but] too often the self-activity of people is lost in a kind of determinism…  Small theories of change promise a different kind of certainty, but they fail as often for missing the larger context…”  Such a view, in turn, has shaped Ayer’s subsequent work on education as social justice, in which he repeatedly insists he is not seeking airy abstraction but on-the-ground changes for children.

Ayers’ departs from social justice accounts of education that see education as a mechanism for improving students’ economic and social prospects.  For Ayers such an approach reflects a certain naivete, since it rests on a basic endorsement of the overall forces and institutions that shape society and often constrain progress even for the well educated (the emphasis in such an approach can too fully rest on the idea of equipping under-educated students for society, without enabling changes in the political and social system that will make the resulting educated citizens more welcome).  Ayers thus also argues that social justice education has to be politically empowering even as basic life skills are inculcated, where schools might be imagined as also fostering real political agency.

The challenge, of course, is that education is complicated and the dynamics of successful teaching cannot be reduced to axiomatic rules teachable in college education classrooms.  In Teaching Toward Freedom, his 2004 book, Ayers (channelling Walt Whitman) cites the following as offering a more hopeful (and explicitly poetic) view of the well formed citizen:

Love the earth and the sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks, stand up for the stupid and the crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem.

SOURCE:  William Ayers, “The Republican’s Favorite Whipping Boy, Former Student Radical William Ayers Tells What it Was Like to Be Painted as a Symbol of Evil by McCain and Palin,” Montreal Gazette, 8 November 2008, pg. B7; Colin Moynihan, “Ex-Radical Talks of Education and Justice, Not Obama,” New York Times, 27 October 2008, pg. A22; William Ayers and Michael Klonsky, “Navigating a Restless Sea:  The Continuing Struggle to Achieve a Decent Education for African American Youngsters in Chicago,” Journal of Negro Education 63.1 (1994): pgs. 5-18; Ayers, “The Shifting Ground of Curriculum Thought and Everyday Practice,” Theory into Practice 31.3 (Summer 1992): pgs. 259-263; Ayers, “Problems and Possibilities of Radical Reform:  A Teacher Educator Reflects on Making Change,” Peabody Journal of Education 65.2 (Winter 1988): pgs. 35-50;  Emery Hyslop-Margison, “Teaching for Social Justice,” Journal of Moral Education 34.2 (June 2005): pgs. 251-256; John Pulley, “Former Radicals, Now Professors, Draw Ire of Alumni at Two Universities,” Chronicle of Higher Education, 16 November 2001, pg. A32.


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