By Nicholas Johnson
As much as letter writers may have condemned Highline Community College for inviting Dr. Bill Ayers to speak about education reform during the college’s MLK Week, Ayers’ presentation Thursday made no significant mention of his past. Rather, the education professor from the University of Illinois focused on the subject he has practiced since he graduated college in the ‘60s and studied for more than two decades: education.
“The lecture was to focus on education, not Bill Ayers,” said Natasha Burrowes, chair of the college’s MLK Week Committee. “This week is not about creating polarity. We didn’t organize this by labeling people. It’s about the issues.”
And for Ayers, the issues were simple. First, teaching should not be constricted to traditional roles. Second, democratic principles require the recognition of each student as having incalculable value. Third, citizens in a democracy must open their eyes to the world as it is, become motivated to do something and always doubt so as to avoid becoming dogmatic.
Deconstructing the tradition of teaching
Early in his presentation, Ayers revisited his first teaching experience at the age of 20. When his kindergartners began asking questions to which he had no good answer, Ayers said he began questioning traditional models of teaching and learning.
“If the teacher has to be an expert on everything that comes up, it leads to all the squirrelly answers that teachers give,” he said. “The point being that if you think of knowledge as linear and flat and complete, then you’re always in this position where you are trying to figure out, ‘how do I answer that,’ as if there’s a sequence to learning.”
For Ayers, learning isn’t scripted and modeled; rather it’s a unique and differing process for each student. Once he broke down the traditional model of education, he realized alternatives were possible.
“Rather than seeing the teacher as the master and commander in charge of the podium, in charge of the classroom, you could begin to see the teacher as a pilgrim on a voyage, with his or her students, on a voyage of discovery and surprise,” he said. And instead of thinking of kids as a mass of deficits, which is what the school system tends to do, we can think of kids as unruly sparks of meaning-making energy on a voyage.”
What democracy requires of education
Regarding the requirements democratic principles place upon education, Ayers’ key critiques included the inequities of funding and resources for schools, political rhetoric framing education as a product to be bought and sold, and the labeling of students that stands in the way of recognizing each student as having incalculable value.
“What’s important is how people, including students, think of themselves,” he said. “Not how they are labeled.”
He stressed the importance of viewing education as a human right, rather than a product, and denounced a system based upon standardized testing and the weeding out of winners and losers. The issue of inequitable funding for schools prompted Ayers to mention the gap in funding per student per year between students on the west end of Chicago and the east.
“What are we saying to kids?” he asked. “We’re saying to kids, ‘we have an educational policy and that policy is simple: chose the right parents. If you choose the wrong parents, don’t blame me. What were you thinking? Why did you get born in that town instead of that town? You could have done better.’ Well, that’s wrong. In a democracy, that is fundamentally, profoundly backward.”
Open your eyes
Ayers then proceeded to argue that to be worthy of citizenship in a democracy, a person must open his or her eyes.
“We are all blind people who can see; we are all seeing people who are blind,” he said. “So when I say open your eyes, I don’t mean once or for a minute. I mean continually. There’s always more to know, more to see. And as soon as you are satisfied that you can see everything, then you are dead as a seeing person.”
The essential reason Ayers advocates opening your eyes, questioning and doubting, is so you can consider alternatives and avoid dogmatism. Ayers said seeking alternatives is to believe another possible world sits right next ours, a world where the inequities that challenge us now have been overcome.
“You cannot be an engaged and moral person if you can’t begin to posit, either tease out or invent or imagine, that standing right next to the world as such is a world that could be,” he said. “Another world is possible. Alternatives are there. If you can’t find them, you have to search for them. If you can’t find them once you search for them, you have to group up with other people and search harder. It’s our responsibility to open our eyes and imagine another world.”
Tim Lloyd, a Des Moines resident who lives down the street from Highline, attended Ayers’ presentation and said he felt the controversial activist made a great contribution to MLK Week.
“The things he is doing today are definitely things Dr. King would absolutely advocate for,” Lloyd said. “He’s about leveling the playing field, about making sure everyone in our country gets the same type of education and the right kind of education, and I think he perfectly addressed all that.”
Bill Ferguson, a part-time instructor at Highline, said he felt Ayers represented Dr. King’s ideals and principles very well.
“One thing I liked about his presentation is that he said, ‘I don’t like being labeled. I don’t like being put into a box of what I might believe,’” Ferguson said.
Burrowes, who organized the event, said labeling hinders open discussion of important issues, which has not been the goal of MLK Week.
“I think what we’re really trying to do is continue [Dr. King’s] legacy of dialogue in order to create more non-violent, just, equitable communities,” she said.
To see a full video of Dr. Ayers’ presentation, click here.
Dr. Ayers addresses community’s criticism
When asked whether he felt he made a suitable representative for Dr. King in participating in Highline’s MLK Week, Ayers had this to say:
“I never for a minute claimed I was a good representative for MLK Week. That wasn’t my choice. I think people at the community college have a right to speak to whoever they want to in the spirit of dialogue. Because they invite somebody does not even mean they agree with that person.”
Regarding similarities and comparisons between Dr. Ayers and Dr. King, Ayers had this to say:
“There’s a lot of mythology that surrounds me and what I’ve done. There’s also a lot of mythology that surrounds Martin Luther King. He was an absolute champion of non-violence. He was also a champion of activism. Martin Luther King stood for non-violent, direct action. I think that’s a healthy aspect of every democracy.
Martin Luther King was a radical. He was in the tradition of radical social democracy. By radical I mean what Ella Baker said about King. Baker defined radical as going to the root; finding out the root cause of something.
In his writings from 1965 to 1968 King identified himself as a radical – opposed to racism, opposed to militarism and also opposed to capitalism. People want to rewrite all that and say he was just a saint who mainly thought we should all be nice to each other. That’s not quite right. When he died, he was less popular than George W. Bush when he left office. His popularity came later, after he was defanged and made more palatable. He was a radical and he was an activist, and those are important things to remember about him.”
Regarding accusations of violence on the part of The Weather Underground, he had this to say:
“What I find objectionable is when people single out The Weather Underground as the exemplar of violence when 6,000 people a week were being murdered, and when John McCain runs for president on this phony narrative of being a war hero. He was not a war hero. War heroes don’t actually fly over civilian targets and bomb and kill people. That’s what he did. Forty years later he wanted to make that narrative one of heroism. He’s a violent person.”