The following is the full text of Nick Lindsley’s three-part interview with Bill Ayers. Ayers is a former member of the Weather Underground, a radical leftist organization active in the ’70s. Today, Ayers is a Professor at the University of Illinois. The interviews originally appeared in Volume 1, Issues 2, 3 and 6 of the Ames Progressive.
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 de-skill 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. 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.
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.
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 responsibilities 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.
Nick Lindsley: You were involved in the Weather Underground in the 70′s. You have expressed regret as well as defense about your actions while in the group. When the “Underground” was planting explosives in government buildings, how did the media label those actions, and how do you feel those actions would have been perceived in the media if they had taken place today?
Bill Ayers: The Weather Underground was called a terrorist organization by the government and the pro-state, bought media at the time, and it’s still referred to that way. Of course, it was no such thing.
We should demand a definition each time the word “terrorist” is used, and we should insist on stable, universal usage applicable to crazed groups of religious fanatics, cults, political formations, but also to governments. If “terrorist” means attacks on innocents or non-combatants, for example, if it means random killing or injury, if it means coercion and intentional collective punishment … then, no, the Weather Underground was not terrorist. But the US government was terrorist in Viet Nam, and is terrorist in Iraq, and Israel offered a textbook case of terrorism unleashed last month in Lebanon.
NL: Can peaceful protest and violent protest, if successful, ever have the same positive outcome? And, which do you feel has more of a sway amongst those in politics?
BA: The point of progressive political action is always to educate, organize, and mobilize masses of people. You can judge your own effectiveness by a simple standard: did our activity teach us as well as others, did it strengthen the movement for change, did it engage and involve more people who are collectively working toward revolution?
I don’t advocate “violent protest.” We do, however, live in a sewer of violence in this country, the greatest purveyor of violence in history. The fact that the violence is largely exported or hidden or kept from your consciousness through a mighty range of mystifications and manipulations doesn’t make it less true. Part of our job is taking the pretty mask off the beast, showing what’s really there. And we need to remember that power concedes nothing without a demand, and that violent thugs rarely give up power willingly.
But back to the point of protest – we need to build a movement for change, a mighty radical mass movement. We don’t need to try to calculate whether this or that act will get this or that opportunist to vote our way in Congress. Remember, FDR was not a labor leader, nor was LBJ a Civil Rights leader – each was a brilliant politician responding to facts on the ground. Create a different reality – alter the facts on the ground – and watch what happens.
Nick Lindsley: A friend told me, “When Bush won in 2004, I cried. I felt as if there was no hope for our country and I still haven’t totally recovered from it.” Is there hope for our country today and if so, where can we find it?
Bill Ayers: You have to live as if the world could be otherwise: you have to become the change you hope to see in the world.
For every human being life is, in part, an experience of suffering and loss and pain. But our living experience also embraces other inescapable facts: that we are all in this together, and that much (but not all) of what we suffer in life is the evil we visit upon one another, that is, unjustified suffering, unnatural loss, unnecessary pain – the kinds of things that ought to be avoidable, that we might even imagine eliminating altogether.
In the realm of human agency and choice, we come face to face with some stubborn questions: Can we stop the suffering? Can we alleviate at least some pain? Can we repair any of the loss? We lurch, then, toward deeper considerations: Can society be changed at all? Is it remotely possible – not inevitable, certainly, perhaps not even very likely – for people to come together freely, to imagine a more just and peaceful social order, to join hands and organize, to struggle for something better, and to prevail?
If society cannot be changed under any circumstances, if there is nothing to be done, not even small and humble gestures toward something better – well, that about ends all conversation. Our sense of agency shrinks, our choices diminish. What more is there to say? But if a fairer, more sane and just social order is both desirable and possible – that is, if some of us can join one another to imagine and build a participatory movement for justice, a public space for the enactment of democratic dreams – our fields open slightly. There would still be much to be done, for nothing would be entirely settled. We would still need, for example, to find ways to stir ourselves and our neighbors from passivity, cynicism, and despair; to reach beyond the superficial barriers that wall us off from one another; to resist the flattening effects of consumerism and the blinding, mystifying power of the familiar social evils – racism, sexism, and homophobia, for example; to shake off the anesthetizing impact of the authoritative, official voices that dominate the airwaves, the media, and so much of what we think of as common sense; to “release our imaginations” and act on behalf of what the known demands, linking our conduct firmly to our consciousness. We would be moving, then, without guarantees, but with purpose and with hope.
Education is, of course, one arena of struggle as well as hope: struggle because it stirs in us the need to reconsider everything we have wrought, to look at the world anew, to question what we have created, to wonder what is worthwhile for human beings to know and experience, to justify or criticize or bombard or maintain or build up or overthrow everything before us; and hope because we gesture toward the future, toward the impending, toward the coming of the new. Education is where we gather to question whether and how we might engage and enlarge and change our lives, and it is, then, where we confront our dreams and fight out notions of the good life, where we try to comprehend, apprehend, or possibly even change the world.