Interview: Bill Ayers Pt. 4 [of ]

Categories:  Interviews

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That Bill Ayers is a loaded topic these days has practically nothing to do with the last few decades of his life. The Ayers of 2010 is an educator–a professor and an education activist, sides of the writer that are reflect in his latest book To Teach: The Journey in Comics, a graphic adaptation of his seminal 1993 text, To Teach: The Journey of a Teacher.

It likely will not be possible, however, for many potential readers to divorce the Ayers of To Teach from the one that offered plenty of partisan fodder to Sarah Palin and John McCain during the 2008 presidential race. With that in mind, we wrap up this four-part interview with a discussion of how the writer expects such rhetoric to play a role in the reception of his first graphic novel.

[Part One][Part Two][Part Three]

You can imagine education professors banning this book?

Well, I’m being a bit tongue-in-cheek, but I think that if you didn’t have an appreciation for comics, you could say that this was simple-minded or making light of it. I don’t think it does any of that, but I know Maus and Fun Home and Palestine. When I was a kid, comics were the devil’s handiwork. You couldn’t buy them in a legitimate store.

A stigma they carry.

Sure, and I think most people have gone beyond that, but not completely. If you can see a comic book every week in The New York Times and a comic strip in The New Yorker, I think it’s hard to make the case that it’s some kind of sinful silliness.

Although obviously not everyone reads The New Yorker.

That’s right. That’s the sophisticated liberal class.

You’d said early that you feel that—at least for you—politics and teaching are very much connected. On any level, do consider this a political book?

When I said they’re intertwined—the first thing I think I said was, ‘notions of access and equity are completely intertwined in my mind.’ But on a deep level, I don’t think anything is without politics. In other words, everything is situated, if you look deeply enough, in relationships, in cultural and economic and historical contexts. Everything speaks to power in some way. That’s the sense in which I mean “politics.” I don’t mean politics in the opportunistic, silly sense in which we usually talk about it.

But yes, of course, in that sense I think this is a political book.Why? Because the argument that’s going on in the United States about education is deeply politicized and deeply troubling to me. And I want to stand firmly on the side that says, not only should we not privatize the public space, and not only should we not see teaching as easily reducible to a metric that we can lineup on a chart, but we should also resist the idea that the status quo is healthy or good. It’s not.

I want to be a person who says there’s a better way, a more human way of thinking about the classroom, and from the classroom, thinking about the school, and from the school, thinking about our democracy and what kind of a world we want to live in. And I have argued my whole adult life that the best model for a classroom is a good family, not a good factory or military unit.

And I think this book portrays that pretty clearly. This kindergarten is a place I want to live. If I can trickle up, instead of trickle down, I would argue that we should all think about living in a place like that, where everybody is recognized, everybody has face time, everybody comes to tell their story, everybody learns to live together, everybody is nourished, and everybody is challenged. That’s the world I want to live in. And that’s the world we created in that classroom.

And education has become such a commodity, as well. It’s very much fenced off from people.

Absolutely. We reduce it the market and we think of education as something that you buy in the marketplace like a refrigerator, a stove, or a toilet. But it’s not like that at all.

I was in my son Malik’s classroom, the other week. He’s a middleschool math/science teacher, bi-lingual. I spent a couple of hours there. At the end of the day, we were walking out to get lunch, and I said, “I don’t think [Arne] Duncan has ever seen a classroom like this. I don’t think he’s ever seen a classroom like that.” Malik said, “it’s a rule when you take exams to become a principal, they drain you of any knowledge you’ve ever had in your own classroom.”

The administrators don’t get it. And he’s out there building relationships with a complex group of kids and doing it brilliantly. But that’s not what the commodity folks are interested in. And in a way we tried to portray that by having those two administrators come in and look at the classroom and be moderately disapproving, but we tried no to make them devils, either. They’re also people.

That was a fun thing to work on, and Ryan was very, very helpful in that. We could have made these flat devil characters. But instead we made the supervisors people who had lives themselves and had reasons for what they were doing, even if they were wrong-headed.

Given the way your history has been painted in the last few years, do you feel as though you have to divorce that part of you from the part that is an educator?

Not really. I’ve lived with this for 40 years. And I’m very used to it. I know that it became this caricature in the presidential race, and I know that I’ve got an unwarranted and undesired notoriety that I didn’t really want. On the other hand, I have never taken it very seriously. I’m too old to—it’s not just that I’m too old, I just try not to take that too seriously.

I know who I am. I know what people say about me. The funny thing is, I speak at campuses, virtually every week. I spoke at Penn State about a month ago, and six guys got in a van and drove up from Pittsburgh to confront me. At the end of my talk—and they were all my age and all had a difference of opinion from what they thought I was—one guys said, “I can’t find anything to disagree with you about” [laughs]. To his chagrin, you know? Like, “damn, I should disagree with you.” But he couldn’t find anything to disagree with me about.

And I think that one of the things that’s bizarre—and I think, if you met me, you’d find that this is true—is that I’ve been painted as this very dangerous person with horns. Actually, I’m a very mild-mannered professor, who’s 65 years old. You look at me, and the stereotype falls apart. I don’t take it seriously, and I don’t think most people do. I find that I can do my work just fine, and I don’t think too much about it. When people ask me questions, I talk as honestly as I can about it. I’ve lived it and written about it, and so there’s no mysteries or secrets about it.

So it’s more annoying than anything else when it flares up.

I don’t even feel annoyed by it, in the sense that I understand that the media makes a mess of these things. I understand that people have question about it, and when people ask me questions, I just try to answer as honestly as I can. And if it’s a question that I’ve heard a thousand times, I try not to be patronizing about it. I get it that, for you, it’s the first time you’ve ever asked it—“you” being the person who asked it.

How many times does Kareem Abdul-Jabbar have to answer the question, “how’s the weather up there?” It must be awfully annoying to him. But at the same time, this guy thinks it’s original.

I had my picture on the front of the University of Chicago newspaper last week. I was giving a talk there. And I live in the neighborhood—I’m very well-known, as Obama said. And they took my picture and put it on the paper and the title was, “Putting on Ayers.” How many times have I heard that? it’s like if your name is Butt or Dick—you have to put up with that shit your whole like.

But that was an original thing for one undergraduate journalist. It’s so fucking silly, but at the same time, I don’t want to be superior. It doesn’t hurt me. I’ve got a job, I’ve got a family who loves me, I’m fine. I’m not a whiner by nature. Shit goes on.

It sound like the problem with politics is the same problem you’re describing in education. Not to mention her by name, but the rhetoric really becomes a one way conversation.

Exactly. Exactly. And one of the things I believe about teaching is that, when it’s at its best, it’s always a dialog. And on of the things I like about my dialog with Ryan on this book, is that it was really a dialog. Ryan played a huge role in this and was just marvelous. I learned so much from him.

Do you think the American political system has something to learn from your book?

Oh, I think so. I’m hoping it has a real intervention. As I said in the discussion about education, I hope it has some kind of an intervention. We’ll see. I think that—and I think this about Avatar, too—you create a world, and it’s a world that you know isn’t exactly a real world, but you know that it’s a possible world. And I think the kindergarten we created in this book is a possible world. it’s a world I want to live in and I think it’s one other would want to, as well.

So, if the criticism of this book is that it’s not the real world, that’s exactly the point. It’s in dialog with the real world. It’s a possible world. But no, it’s not the real world.

–Brian Heater