It was great to escape the deplorable, scary election news to spend Friday evening in conversation with Bill Ayers, on a tour to promote his new book, Demand the Impossible: A Radical Manifesto. Ayers is best known for his activity during the turbulent 1960s in the Weather Underground. He spent an entire career after that as distinguished professor in the Department of Education at the University of Illinois, Chicago. On Friday, Ayers said while he thinks many activists on the left are good at explaining what’s wrong, we need to be better at declaring our deepest values and asking: “What if?” Ayers’ new book makes a plea for re-framing and mobilization across myriad issues, but on Friday he talked some about public education, and one of his new chapters examines ideas about bringing people together to support the great American institution of public schools.
Asked on Friday night how we can go about making a radical turn away from corporate school reform—8 years under Bush—8 years under Obama—and the years that led up to our current catastrophe —Ayers explained what he calls three pillars of corporate school reform—measurement by the single metric of standardized test scores—destruction of the collective voice of teachers, not only their unions but also their voices as professionals—and the privatization of our nation’s great public system of education. In the book he defines the wave of privatization—“The eclipse of the public, the frantic pace of privatization and the fire sale of the public square—the public schools and public housing, prisons and the military, and in Chicago, the bridges and parking meters—all of which represent the triumph of corporate power and a kind of fatal entangling of corporations with the state, leading to a thieves’ paradise in government with the arid ideology of capital and the ‘market’ promoted as the truest expression of authentic participatory democracy.” (p. 11)
To challenge corporate school reform, Ayers suggests, begin with a simple question: “Is education a product to be sold in the market or is it human right?” Some other questions follow. What if we define education as a right for every child? How would that change things? “In what ways is education liberating, and in what ways can schooling be entangling and oppressive? Can learning be cast as a creative act, enjoyable and social, or is it always framed as competitive and brutal?” (p. 152)
“Education for free people is powered by a particularly precious and fragile ideal. Every human being is of infinite and incalculable value, each a work in progress and a force in motion, each a unique intellectual, emotional, physical, spiritual, moral, and creative force, each of us born equal in dignity and rights, each endowed with reason and conscience and agency, each deserving a dedicated place in the community of solidarity as well as a vital sense of brotherhood and sisterhood, recognition and respect. Embracing that basic ethic and spirit, people recognize that the fullest development of each individual—given the tremendous range of ability and the delicious stew of race, ethnicity, points of origin, and background—is the necessary condition for the full development of the entire community, and, conversely, that the fullest development of all is essential for the full development of each. This has obvious implications for education policy.” (p. 161)
And what about our determination, especially in the urban schools that serve our poorest children, to organize our schools around obedience and conformity? “As young people in New Orleans or South Central LA or Oakland or Philadelphia or Cleveland or many points in between discover and intensify their own sense of agency, they can start to see themselves as actors in the world and not merely adjuncts in society. Schools would be organized around an ardent faith in human agency—in individual as well as collective capacity. They would work to align themselves to children and youth in their infinite and dynamic diversity, as opposed to forcing the child to fit the school as if school were immutable and fixed in stone… In interrogating the real conditions of their lives they step out of subjugation and into history as subjects themselves. They realize as free and full human beings that they are inherently (and not contingently) valuable, that both they and the world they inherit are works in progress and still under construction, that as humans they are paradoxically completely unique and simultaneously the same as all others—we are all born into a human culture, we all experience pain, we all die—and finally that they don’t need anyone’s permission to interrogate the world.” (pp 157-158)
Prospective teachers study these ideas in their required class on the philosophy of education. In the education chapter in this new book, we all have a wonderful introduction to the educational philosophy of Bill Ayers, with undertones of John Dewey and Paulo Freire—a philosophy entirely antithetical to the technocracy of today’s U.S. Department of Education, that just announced new rules to require states to rank and rate teachers colleges by the academic performance of the students their graduates will teach once they get a job.
Ayers considers, “When education is posited as a product like a car or a refrigerator, a box of bolts or a screwdriver—something bought and sold in the marketplace like any other commodity—and schools are conceived as businesses run by CEOs with teachers taking the role of assembly-line workers and students playing the part of the raw materials bumping helplessly along the factory floor as information is incrementally stuffed into their little upturned heads, then it’s rather easy to suppose that ‘downsizing’ the least productive units, ‘outsourcing’ and privatizing a space that once belonged to the public is a natural event.” (p.164)
Instead, Ayres suggests we wonder: “What if this school/classroom/experience were for me, or for my child? Are these the schools a free people require? This is a clarifying starting point for discussion.” (pp. 164-165) On Friday night, in an aside, Ayers noted that while his book’s title is “A Radical Manifesto,” his ideas don’t really seem so radical. The problem is that we get used to the way things are and forget to ask, “What if?”
Thanks to Mac’sBacks on Coventry in Cleveland Heights, Ohio for sponsoring Friday’s refreshing conversation. If you are looking for a copy of Bill Ayers’ new book, I know Mac’sBacks has a stack of Demand the Impossible: A Radical Manifesto in stock.