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The Bill Ayers Problem

The Museum of Education patrons’ reflective statements describing their “personal reconciliations” with “the Bill Ayers Problem.”

Troubled by our Pasts
by Craig Kridel (August 21, 2008)

       
     
 
         

I am inspired by the writings of Bill Ayers. He has done much good for the field of education and for those individuals who wish to become teachers; however, I am troubled by his past. I am troubled by mine, while much less public, but still filled with events that serve to humble me. While I’ve been proud of many students who convince me that they will become outstanding teachers, I am troubled by their pasts as well. Their actions are private—one student intentionally used others’ work as his own; another student, convicted for murder, completed coursework in the College of Education while serving his debt to society. Should I have treated these individuals differently? And should I now quit assigning works by Bill Ayers to my classes, writings that a few years ago inspired most of my students and presently still move many?

           
 
           
           

This is why I find the “Bill Ayers Problem” so crucial for all educators. How do I reconcile a person’s past with “the public good”? Ayers’ past, his “terrorist actions” according to some, led to no physical harm to others nor did they lead to his conviction. His professional work as educator—as community activist and founder of schools, programs and projects—has helped so many. I have watched Ayers sit with South Carolina students, devoting his full attention to them, their experiences, their questions, and through conversation invite youth to explore ideas and to consider the implications of their actions. Many have told me how they were inspired by these brief meetings and would view life differently.

Yet, I find myself in a situation, as occurred this past year, when a graduate student stood up during class, announcing that “Bill Ayers is a terrorist and should be in jail,” and proceeded to walk out. In another recent class, preservice secondary school teachers openly mocked Ayers’ naiveté. When I then introduced “his fugitive days” (as I always do), some applauded his distain for authority and others brutally criticized his cultural and political leanings. I remain sensitive to theirs and others feelings as I note educational insights from his work. But I am also surprised by their immediate disdain. Few books construct such a poignant argument against “labeling” as does Ayers’ To Teach: The Memoir of a Teacher; yet, ironically, its author is now so quickly judged and labeled by others.

I do not judge Bill Ayers nor do I judge my students for their reactions to his controversial past. But I do find myself being overcome with great disappointment as I see individuals display such a lack of curiosity or any effort to understand another’s life and experiences. My comments are not leading to a call for redemption, and Ayers need not make any public declarations or apologies for me. Instead, I am just left with a profound sense of disappointment with what has become of “democracy” in contemporary times and John Dewey’s and Boyd Bode’s faith in the common person—in essence, what they assumed would be a quest for knowledge, understanding, and thoughtfulness. I am overcome with sadness when I read the cryptic, mean-spirited, ad hominem comments entered onto the Museum’s YouTube pages. And I become weak as I see my students’ judgmental and self-righteous characters come to the forefront as they react with smugness and arrogance towards Ayers. While I defend the institution of public schools, these are the moments that cause me to realize the failures of our educational system.

 

“Isn't this guy a terrorist? Why isn't he in jail and before that, why is he teaching our youth? How can this be legal?” (a comment from the Museum’s YouTube excerpt of “Education in a Democracy” by Bill Ayers)

 
           
  “We need patrot act 2 so we can take this un american piece of shit and execute this scumbag and his hag wife.” (a comment from the Museum’s YouTube excerpt of The Call to Teach by Bill Ayers)  
           
     

   
                           
                             

This is not to say that Ayers’ life and beliefs should not be troubling, and I admire so many of my students who confronted the complexities of past and present, fact and fiction about his career. This I witnessed during a summer session of EDFN 749 with a group of students I am so proud and honored to know. I anticipated that some of them would not wish to purchase Ayers’ books, assuming that he may invest those royalties into subversive activities. How can I respond other than honor this concern, and I selected writings that may be obtained through non-commercial means. If I ask students not to dismiss the work of Ayers, then I will not dismiss their unease. I suspect that many of these EDFN 749 students remained troubled by his life and disapprove of his past; but they confronted “the Bill Ayers Problem” as true educators and they now rightfully hold onto their beliefs as they continue to explore and reconsider ideas and values.

My students will agree and disagree with Ayers’ actions and ideas. But our efforts as educators are to understand . . . not to judge. If I was living another occupation, my position would be different. But I wish to underscore the profound and sacred oath that we take as teachers, and the roles and responsibilities that accompany the conscious decision of waking each day and choosing to be an educator. As I stand with my “distant teachers,” Dewey, Bode, Margaret Willis, Paul Klohr, Maxine Greene, and others who believe in being “with adventurous company,” I do not ask my students to trivialize the career of Ayers or their university education by deciding if he is “good or bad.” I refuse to allow them to reduce the complexities of the classroom—of thought and action—to such simplicities. Our schools will become more humane communities when we balance clarity of instruction with understanding—or at least the quest to understand—of conceptions, settings, and people.

       
 

“I want to know who was the jackass that invited this prick to speak at my old school? Some heads should roll!!!” (a comment from the Museum’s YouTube excerpt of The Call to Teach by Bill Ayers)

       
 

“This guy is like Adolf Hitler or Charles Manson. Easily masterminds the young college punks into his own army.” (a comment from the Museum’s YouTube excerpt of “Education in a Democracy” by Bill Ayers)

       
                             

I will ask my students to read the work of Bill Ayers and will challenge them when they needlessly label him and others. And I will continue to encourage them to confront “the Bill Ayers Problem” from the perspective of teacher and student. With democracy as our bond, we seek to build a community-in-the-making and reconcile past actions with the public good as we remained troubled by Ayers’ past, ours, and the pasts of our students.

to return to The Bill Ayers Problem
to return to personal reconciliations

“An asshole speaking to SHEEP.”  
(a comment from the Museum’s YouTube excerpt of “Education in a Democracy” by Bill Ayers)

 
 
 
     
             
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