Interview: Bill Ayers Pt. 1 [of 4]

Categories:  Interviews


Bill Ayers has led a number of lives in his time on earth. The 65-year-old Illinois native is likely best known as a co-founder of the late-60s revolutionary activist group, The Weather Underground, an aspect of his life that once again thrust him into the spotlight when Sarah Palin and John McCain began bandying about his name in their run against Obama. When Palin tossed out the phrase “paling around with terrorists,” she was almost invariably talking of the then senator’s fellow Chicagoan, Bill Ayers.

For the past 35 years, however, Bill Ayers has been deeply entrenched in education, currently working as a professor at The University of Illinois at Chicago, and penning a number of books on the subject, most famously 1993’s To Teach: The Journey of a Teacher. When approached to write an updated edition of that title, Ayers initially balked, and ultimately tossed his publishers a curve ball—he would do an update To Teach, so long as he was allowed to re-imagine the text as a graphic novel.

His publishers conceded, and Ayers nominated Ryan Alexander-Tanner for the project, a young Xeric-winning artist whose name—and work—is likely unfamiliar to even the most studious alternative comics fans. Alexander-Tanner ultimately moved into a recently vacated room in Ayers’s Chicago home, and two began work on what would become To Teach: The Journey, in Comics.

In April both artist and writer will attend the MoCCA Fest to promote the book (due out May 1st). Ayers will appear on the Sequential Activism panel, alongside Peter Kuper, Josh Neufeld, Tom Hart, and Ward Sutton. I will be moderating. Ayers, happily, agreed to discuss the project ahead of the event, calling from his car on the way back home from a political rally in Detroit.

Are you working on the weekend?

I’m working every day, doing something. I was speaking at a conference in Ann Arbor, and then I went down to Detroit to see a friend of mine, who I’m collaborating with on a project. We spent the day together and then I went to a political rally, and now I’m heading home.

Were you speaking about education?

Not this time. This is the 50th anniversary of the Port Huron Statement, which is the founding of Students for a Democratic Society. The first president of SDS lives in Ann Arbor, and he organized a conference called “Bring it Back, Take it Forward.” And there were a series of panels on a series of issues about the movement then and the movement now, it was a very interesting inter-generational conversation. I was on a panel with several folks I knew from the civil rights movement and several young people who are either students or activists in Michigan. It was fun.

Do you tend to compartmentalize these two parts of your life—politics and education? Or are they one in the same for you?

They’re very much the same for me. That’s partly because when I began teaching in 1975, I had been arrested in the first International Days of Protest against the war in Vietnam. I was 20-years-old. I spent ten days in jail, and in jail I met some folks who had started a freedom school as part of the civil rights movement. I marched out of jail and went for a teaching job. I had no idea that I was going to teach or wanted to teach. It became very much a life-changing event. And from that day, frankly, I can’t see teaching separated from issues of access, equity, recognition, justice—those kind of seem all tied up in my mind with teaching. It’s a lens through which I look at teaching.

You’re something of a teacher or teachers now. At what point did that begin?

It’s funny, because I was a teacher when I was 20, and when I was 22, I began teaching other teachers. I have a certain kind of approach to teaching teachers that I suppose is a little different than one imagines. It’s really based on how I got into teaching. I think of teaching teachers as allowing them to live the kind of discovery and surprise that they ought to organize in their own classrooms. So I organize my adult education classes the way I hope they’ll organize their kindergartens.

One metaphor for that is, I learned very early that you should put easels along one wall and put red, yellow, and blue paint in front of each easels. And, of course, the reason is because, just playing around with the paint, every month, every day, every year, some kid will come up to me and say, “Bill, look at this! Red and blue makes purple!” I could have said, at that moment of discovery and surprise, “don’t you remember? We covered that in the primary and secondary colors unit, you idiot!” Or I could say, “oh my god, how did you find that out?” and then we’re back to what I think learning is all about, which is the construction of knowledge and the construction of meaning and discovery of the world.

And, in discovering the world, even in a simple example like that, the main thing you discover is your own power to access the world and to perform in the world. That’s the lesson I want everyone to have. Not just because I think it’s the best way to learn, but because I think it’s the best way to be a participant, a citizen, an ethical person in the world. You have to believe that you have a mind of your own, and that it’s capable of discovery and new ideas. When you stop thinking that, you’re either a slave or a dogmatist, and that kind of amounts to the same thing.

That’s the big lesson to me, teaching teachers or teaching kids: you are a working in progress, each of you. You are living in a world that is not finished, that’s incomplete. And through your own imagination, curiosity, initiation, courage, in unison with others, you can not only rediscover the world, you can remake the world. That’s the big lesson to me about teaching.

In a sense, you’re structuring the classroom as a laboratory of sorts.

I think of the classroom as a laboratory for discovery and surprise, absolutely. And I think every classroom should be like that, whether it’s a geography classroom in high school or a physics classroom in college, or a kindergarten, it ought to be structured as a laboratory for discovery and surprise. And you can add other metaphors to that. You can say it also ought to be a performance space. It ought to be a place you can come to tell your story. It ought to be an artist studio. It ought to be a museum. But notice, all of the metaphors that you and I are coming up with aren’t it ought to be a factory [laughs]—it can be a workshop, but not a factory.

You want to stay away from homogenization.

I want to stay away from one-size-fits-all, because I think one size fits none. That’s part of it. And part of it is, I think it’s an absolute myth that we could ever learn the same things at the same time in the same way, 30 of us sitting, eyes up front, well-behaved. It just never has happened and never could happen. I’m interested in, as you say, a laboratory or a museum or something. We’re working away at materials in kindergarten, it’s the blocks and the clay and the paint. In a college classroom, it’s other materials. But working away at materials, interacting with the world, the big, big underlying hidden lesson is that you can discover and construct a world. You don’t have to wait passively for it to be given to you.

Had I taught those kindergarten kids lessons in primary and secondary colors, the hidden lesson of that would be, ‘I know and you don’t know. I know when you need to know this. You don’t know when you need to know this. I’m smart, you’re not smart. I’m active, you’re passive.’ And those are exactly the lessons I don’t want to teach.

Is it hard to maintain that sense of discovery as students get older?

I think when students come to me at the level of college or graduate school, they’ve already learned to play the gamed called “school,” as I have. I mean, we’ve all learned to play the game called school, and then we’re put into a certification concentration camp, where the deal is, you come in and act like you’re interested, and give me what I want, and I’ll act like you’re doing well, and we’ll have an exchange. You pay the tuition and I’ll give you a passing grade, and you go out and repeat the whole formula.

That’s a catastrophe for learning and for any kind of a human and intelligent future. So I try to break with that and say I’m not interested in that project or that deal. I try to undermine it and say to students, “look, you and I have all learned to play the game.” I say this on the first day of class. “We all know how to play it, and we were all successful at it. Not just you. Me too.”

And so, if I say to you, “pick a question of authentic interest to yourself. Something that you can really pursue by closing in on primary sources, by projecting models. But not by referring to secondary sources. Think of a question that powers your passion.” If I say that to a group of college students—and I say it, every semester—the response absolutely predictably, with no contempt, is, “okay, but what do you want?” And I get that. I get that. I’m there too.

I often say to students, after I’ve had them for two or three weeks, and we’re getting down and getting dirty, and getting interesting, “come on, guys, you know that if I put up a sign in the center of campus saying, ‘Professor Ayers will be under this tree every Wednesday at 5 PM. Anyone interested can come along. You won’t get credit and you won’t have to pay tuition. And Ayers won’t get paid.’ How many of you would show up?” And they always kind of giggle uncomfortably, and two or three sweet souls always say, “well, I would.” And I say, “great, I’ll be there.”

But that’s just one way of kicking at the underpinnings of the hypocrisy of what we call ‘education.’ It’s really just a certification camp. And I really don’t want to be in the certification camp. But, there it is. And that’s why, incidentally, schools and universities and classrooms are contested spaces. We’re fighting over what they should be.

I don’t know if you saw The Times this morning, but, oh my god, new standards in Texas. It’s absolutely appalling. In Texas, the right-wing school board has won the day, and they’re going to teach only the good stuff about American history. And they don’t want you to see any peak of the dark side. It would be laughable if it weren’t so tragic. We already make that mistake, and we’re going to make it much, much worse. I think that’s what fuels me every day.

[Continued in Part Two.]

–Brian Heater

8 Comments to “Interview: Bill Ayers Pt. 1 [of 4]”

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