Poor Bill Ayers. The Distinguished Professor of Education at the University of Illinois had just returned to Chicago after a delightful summer vacation in Italy, well rested and ready to launch yet another dazzling academic year instructing future teachers on how to bring the revolution into the classroom. But then Ayers found this mood-changing, bummer of a letter waiting on his desk. It was from three academic colleagues from the education school of another university and explained why they had decided – after much soul searching -- not to invite Ayers to a major progressive education conference to be held on their campus next spring. The professors acknowledged that Ayers was “among the most noted progressive educators in the country with a deep commitment to teaching for social justice,” but they then went on to say that “we cannot risk a simplistic and dubious association between progressive education and the violent aspects of your past.”
Well, you can see how that last sentence must have rattled the Distinguished Professor of Education. After all, the entirety of Ayers’ post Weather Underground career seemed to prove that everything was possible in what he used to call Amerika, even including normalizing radical anti-Americanism as part of an acceptable pedagogy for the public schools. Yet now the ghost of his violent Weatherman past was being dredged up again and being used to justify abandoning the progressive education movement’s own hallowed principles.
Ayers wasn’t about to allow this betrayal by some of his erstwhile comrades to pass quietly. Even though the exchange with the professors was intended as private he published the original letter (but with the names of the three educators and their university edited out) along with his own response in the orthodox Marxist magazine Monthly Review.
He continued to rail against his exclusion from the conference in an interview with the house organ of the Maoist Revolutionary Communist Party, an interview printed right alongside some of the memorable sayings of the party’s Chairman for Life, Bob Avakian. Ayers complained to the RCP interviewer that the conference organizers were “taking the teeth out of the [progressive education] critique” and trying instead to “present progressive education as something nice and familiar.” The result of this deviation, according to Ayers, would be “to separate education from the savage inequalities of our schools, from the drill and kill, from the sort and punish.” And this, the interviewer and Ayers agreed, was all an ill conceived and craven surrender to the right wing cabal, led by David Horowitz, that is trying to politically cleanse the “public space of education” and is also engaged in a wider “frontal attack on the very idea of public education.”
Since I recently wrote an article pointing out the many ways in which Professor Ayers was trying to turn America’s K-12 classrooms into boot camps for the training of future anti-American radicals, I suppose he considers me part of the cabal. Nevertheless, I want him to know that on this issue I am totally on his side
In fact, as my small contribution to getting fair play for Professor Ayers, I will now reveal the identity of the academic institution that was too cowardly to extend an invitation to its progressive education conference to the ex-Weatherman. (Since Ayers left some telltale clues, this didn’t take much detective work). It’s the School of Education at the University of Colorado. Considering how Colorado taxpayers were outraged when they learned that they were paying the salary of fake Native American Professor Churchill, you can see why the Colorado education school professors were less than heroic about inviting Bill Ayers to their conference. After all, Ward Churchill only praised America’s present day enemies and denigrated the victims of 9/11, all in words. As a factual matter, Bill Ayers committed treason by opening up a second front -- with real bombs – in support of America’s enemies in the 1960s.
Still I would agree that it was wrong for the organizers to exclude Ayers -- not only on free speech grounds, but on the merits. The fact is that it’s hard to imagine a big progressive education event without Bill Ayers’ physical presence or influence being felt in one way or another. For better or worse, he is one of the legitimate faces of progressive education in America today. His works are required texts in education school courses all over the country and he’s much in demand as a lecturer in many of those schools. Plus, he’s a pioneer in the progressive education publishing industry, encouraging books by many other authors that show teachers how to bring “social justice” themes -- i.e. the evils of American racism and imperialism – into their public school classrooms.
I predict that now that the contretemps about the conference is out in the open and the institution where it is to be held has been identified, the Colorado Ed school’s exercise in pre-emptive censorship won’t stand. And that would be all to the good. The public interest and the cause of truth in advertising would best be served by having Bill Ayers participate at the conference. As we used to say in the 60s, let it all hang out. Let Bill Ayers be Bill Ayers. Not only should he speak at the conference, he should expound on his academic work in which he explains that existing American education is nothing but capitalist hegemony and that the mission of progressive educators (like himself) is to worm their way into the system, to take back the classrooms and turn them into laboratories of revolutionary change. In fact maybe he should even bring his tenured colleague from the University of Illinois, Professor Eric Gutstein, who has written about how he uses his seventh grade mathematics classroom in a Chicago public school to teach children that the U.S. had no reason at all to invade Afghanistan.
Then let the democratic process work. Let the taxpayers of Colorado and of Illinois decide whether they really want to turn their public schools over to teachers trained by the likes of Professor Gutstein and Distinguished Professor Ayers.