Interview with Bill Ayers

October 2nd, 2007 · No Comments

This is the first installment of Nick Lindsley’s three-part interview with Bill Ayers, a former member of the Weather Underground, a radical leftist organization active in the ’60s. Today Ayers is a Professor at the University of Illinois. Read the second installment here and the third here.

Nick Lindsley: On your website, you wrote a blog called “A Single Spark” framed around the saying “a single spark can start a prairie fire”. You compared this to the “spark” teachers start which inspire their students to go out and make a difference. What is the “spark” that students need today, so they will be inspired to stand up and speak out against governmental policy the way many did back in the late ’60s and early ’70s?

Bill Ayers: Teachers have to begin by reclaiming the intellectual and ethical dimensions of their work, resisting all the attempts to deskill and hammer them into interchangeable cogs in a bureaucracy, all the pressure to reduce teaching to a simple set of manageable skills. Teachers have to decide who they intend to be in the classroom.whether to stand at attention as dutiful clerks, inculcating students into the status quo, the social order as it is, obediently passing along the received curriculum that.s handed them, or whether to move beyond sorting and shaping, striking out in pursuit of the new, questioning and challenging all that is before them, anything that wounds their souls. Teachers have to ask themselves whether they.re up for being bold and taking risks. If they.re not, perhaps they should withdraw now, for they.ve cut themselves off from teaching.s intellectual and ethical well-springs, the real adventure of it all before it.s even begun.

Education at its best is eye-popping and mind-blowing. It;s about opening doors, opening minds, inviting students to become more capable and powerful actors and choice-makers as they forge their own pathways into a wider world. Education at its best is the practice of freedom. But much of what we call schooling forecloses or shuts down or walls off meaningful choice-making. While many of us long for teaching as something transcendent and powerful, we find ourselves too-often locked in situations that reduce teaching to a kind of glorified clerking, passing along a curriculum of received wisdom and predigested bits of information. A fundamental choice and challenge for teachers, then, as I noted, is this: to acquiesce to the machinery of control, or to take a stand with our students in a search for meaning and a journey of transformation. To be a prison guard or an educator. To teach obedience and conformity, or to teach its polar opposite: initiative and imagination, the capacity to name the world, to identify the obstacles, and the courage to act upon whatever the known demands.

Lots of schools built for the industrial age look like little factories, and the metaphor of production dominates the discourse.assembly lines, management and supervision, quality control, productivity, and outputs. Students are intermittently the raw materials moving dumbly down the assembly line while value is added by the workers/teachers, or, if the metaphor shifts its angle slightly, students are the workers themselves, workers-in-training, of course.

Central to an education for citizenship, participation, engagement, and democracy.an education toward freedom.is developing in students and teachers alike the ability to think for themselves.to decide that this is black and that this is white, that this is false and the other true. The core lessons of a liberating education are these: we each have a mind of our own; we are all works-in-progress swimming toward an uncertain and indeterminate shore; we can each join with others in order to act on our own judgments and in our own freedom; human progress and freedom is always the result of thoughtful dissent and action.

On the side of a liberating and humanizing education is a pedagogy that has as its beginning and end identical points on a circle: the act of questioning. This pedagogy of questioning opens rather than closes spaces of curiosity, perspective, dialogue, and imagination. It.s modus operandi is generous not stingy, revealing not concealing, unmasking, exposing, embracing. It.s a tool that promotes intellectual growth, awakens curiosity, encourages skill development, and a lot else. And at its core this pedagogy of questioning demands something altogether different, something upending and revolutionary from students: repudiate your subordinate place in the pecking order, it urges, remove that distorted, congenial mask of compliance. You must change. All of this requires a radical rethinking of the relationship of teacher and student, students and learning, schools and society, education and justice.

Another basic lesson is this: school learning is a commodity, traded at the market like boots and hammers. Unlike boots and hammers, whose value is inherently satisfying and grasped directly and intuitively, the value and use of school learning is elusive and indirect.hence, students are asked to accept its unspecified value on faith and to be motivated and rewarded externally. The value of school learning, we.re assured, has been calculated precisely by wise and accomplished people, and the masters know better than anyone what.s best. The pay-off is way down the line, but it.s surely there, somewhere, over the rainbow.

We are relentlessly reminded that we are free to choose among products and brands.even as authentic, consequential choices are withheld.that consuming is a higher form of citizenship than actual participation in civic life, and that what.s good for Microsoft or the Pentagon is somehow the common good, a benefit for all. Celebrity overshadows accomplishment, consuming trumps contributing, accumulation conflates to happiness. This all develops into a flattening out of any urgent sense of democracy, of any vital vision of freedom.

Central to an education for citizenship, participation, engagement, and democracy, an education toward freedom is developing in students and teachers alike the ability to think for themselves, to decide that this is black and that this is white, that this is false and the other true. The core lessons of a liberating education are these: we each have a mind of our own; we are all works-in-progress swimming toward an uncertain and indeterminate shore; we can each join with others in order to act on our own judgments and in our own freedom; human progress and freedom is always the result of thoughtful dissent and action.

On the side of a liberating and humanizing education is a pedagogy that has as its beginning and end identical points on a circle: the act of questioning. This pedagogy of questioning opens rather than closes spaces of curiosity, perspective, dialogue, and imagination. Its modus operandi is generous not stingy, revealing not concealing, unmasking, exposing, embracing. It’s a tool that promotes intellectual growth, awakens curiosity, encourages skill development, and a lot else. And at its core this pedagogy of questioning demands something altogether different, something upending and revolutionary from students: repudiate your subordinate place in the pecking order, it urges, remove that distorted, congenial mask of compliance. You must change. All of this requires a radical rethinking of the relationship of teacher and student, students and learning, schools and society, education and justice.

One last note: Don’t get discouraged by thinking that the so-called Sixties was a time of easy activism in comparison to today. Those years have been mythologized beyond recognition, and one negative aspect of that myth-making is the received wisdom that today’s activists are somehow inadequate, today’s students uniquely stupefied, today’s aspirations hopelessly constrained. I disagree. The responsibility of people who hope to make humane and progressive social change are the same: analyze the situation before you, learn all you can, reach out and speak up, organize and take action. And approach the whole thing with some humility.you don’t know all there is to know.and a lot of hope. If I can understand this or that, then others can too.

Tags: AP Issues · Interviews · January 2007

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