Bill Ayers: I've been saying for 40 years, you can't separate "the concept of progressive education from the concept of politics and political change"
by Andy McCarthy
Reader John Rylanders points to this very interesting October 2006 interview of Bill Ayers in Revolution (the self-styled "Voice of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA").
Some context: Ayers explains that he returned from summer vacation to his post as a professor of education at the University of Illinois only to find an apologetic letter from colleagues with whom he had been working for decades. The colleagues were writing to explain why they were not inviting Ayers to a conference on "progressive education" being planned for the following spring. Ayers tells Revolution (all italics in this post are mine):
The people who wrote the letter were an administrator at a university, a dean, and then a couple of people I knew pretty well, actually. I think I was stunned to get it because what it said in effect was weíre having an important progressive education conference, we count you as one of the important progressive educators in our era. Therefore we feel we owe you an explanation of why youíre not invited.... [A]s I thought about it I thought Ö hereís one of the dismal signs of the times. These guys arenít just progressive, theyíre socialists, and they think of themselves as activists. And yet they feel that in order to have a meeting that will be legitimate, they have to make a decision who to exclude, and they excluded me. And I decided it wasnít an issue about me in particular.... But I did feel increasingly agitated about the thinking that went into it....
They said in the body of the letter: we want to position progressive education not as radical, but as familiar and good. Now that just steamed up my ears because if youíre saying youíre a progressive educatorÖ Thatís one of the things thatís actually annoyed me for about 40 years of being a progressive educator: the separation of the concept of progressive education from the concept of politics and political change. You canít separate themÖand this is a contradiction, incidentally, that goes all the way back to the beginning of progressive education and really the beginning of the conversations about the relationship between school and society. But John Dewey was one of the brilliant, brilliant writers about what democratic education would look like and was himself an independent socialist. But he never resolved a central contradiction in our work, the contradiction between trying to change the school and being embedded in society that has the exact opposite values culturally and politically and socially from the values youíre trying to build in a classroom. This contradiction is something progressive educators should address, not dodge. So this is what got me going. Thatís a short version.
Ayers goes on to complain that the presentation of progressive education "as something nice and familiar" is "just saying, Iím giving you progressive education-lite. I donít see the point in that." Moreover, since "schools serve society in subtle and overt ways," his colleagues don't appreciate that "[y]ouíre not changing anything if you donít address the social inequities out there."
Ayers dilates on "Berlusconi ... [t]he right-wing ******* that used to run Italy."
He says, "[i]f you look at a place like Chicago or if you look anywhere around the country, the right wingóitís not just conservatives, itís probably the most reactionary cabal of ideologues Iíve ever seen, operating with a very, very clear ideological purpose ..." Amusingly, included in the cabal for Ayers are not only all three branches of government (this interview was a month before the 2006 elections ó and Ayers goes on to paint the Democrats as cowards anyway, so it's not surprising that he thinks the Right controls the federal courts); he also thinks the media is in the tank for conservatives ó a "kind of bought priesthood of the media that does nothing but bow down to them and kowtow to them."
He blasts our "authoritarian society," standardized tests, the idea that the schools should be evaluated under market standards with producers being pressured to satisfy consumers, charter schools and school voucher programs.
Ayers, in unabashed solidarity with fellow socialists, communists and leftists, also offers a spirited defense of Ward Churchill:
Ward Churchill is a great example because what I think people, leftists are continually doing with the Ward Churchill case is missing this larger context ... and instead kind of parsing, ďWell, what did he say and do I agree with it.Ē What the hell do I care? First of all, there was a thorough study done by a university committee that never should have been set up, and they found a few, a tiny, a handful of instances where he might have borrowed a phrase, but nothing like Doris Kearns-Goodwin ... did, nothing like, you know, the big academics at Harvard have done, like Dershowitz[.] And yet somehow heís held to the standard. And then people on the left again feel like they have to say, well this is part of what Ward says I donít agree with. What has that got to do with it? Heís being pilloried for his politics, for being a leftist, for being a critic of U.S. imperialism as it relates to Native Americans. How can we as socialists or as communists or as leftists, how can we leave him in the cold and say, well Iím a good leftist because I donít talk the way Ward talks. I find that appalling. And I would hope that when they come to get Ward, we all link arms and donít allow it.
Ayers ends by detecting what he takes to be this streak of cowardice in many Democrats and in the letter he received from his colleagues:
Itís not only cowardly, itís cynical. But itís suicidal. And by cynical what I mean is that you donít trust people and so you kind of try to parse out your own little place to have your career as a lefty. And that just makes me sad when it doesnít make me sick. You have to believe that if you speak the truth, if you speak up and speak the truth as you understand it ... that people can get it. So the cowardliness of not speaking outówe see this in the Democratic Party all the time. Why wonít they speak out against the war? They know better, some of them. But they wonít. And partly because theyíre bought into the same system. But even those who know better wonít do it, and the reason is they donít trust people. And we as revolutionaries have to say that at the end of the day, people will be smart enough, good enough, strong enough to stand up. But why should they do it if we donít have the courage to do it? And the letter I got was a cowardly letter. Its cynical, itís cowardly, and itís slippery.
Again, this is from only two years ago. Ayers does not try to hide who he is or where he is coming from. He is a proud leftist revolutionary. His driving idea, in this phase of his career, is that the classroom is the frontline of the revolution. And when he was given the opportunity of a lifetime, a $150 million fund to be doled out as seed money for the kind of programs he thought would advance the cause, the guy brought in to run it was Barack Obama ó with whom he worked closely on "change" in the schools for five years.