On the evening of Sep. 14, Principia students met with William Ayers at University of Illinois, Chicago (UIC). Ayers is simultaneously regarded as one of Chicago’s most esteemed educational reformers and one of the most controversial figures from a radical fringe of the 1970s anti-war movement.
As a part of the education department curriculum, Principia education majors are required to take a quarter-long block class in which they travel to Chicago to meet with educators as well as teach in urban St. Louis. During this fall’s trip to Chicago, the students met with Ayers, currently a UIC education professor, to discuss his teaching philosophy. Each student was expected to read Ayers’s 2001 book, To Teach, in preparation for the meeting.
Ayers is known for his radical activity as a leader of the Weather Underground Organization (WUO). The WUO was a communist revolutionary group responsible for violent protests against U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. Ayers was involved in the bombing of several public locations, including the New York City Police Department headquarters in 1970, the U.S. Capitol building in 1971, and the Pentagon in 1972. While no casualties resulted from these bombings, three WUO members were killed constructing a nail-bomb intended for a Fort Dix Army Base dance.
After the bombings, Ayers spent the next decade assuming false identities in order to evade law enforcement. The FBI filed felony charges against Ayers, but dropped them in 1973 due to a Supreme Court ruling barring electronic surveillance without a court order. This impeded prosecution of WUO cases. When then-President Jimmy Carter offered amnesty for draft dodgers, many of the WUO leaders, including Ayers and his partner Bernadine Dohrn, turned themselves in. Ayers turned himself in on Dec. 3, 1980 in New York, at which point all charges were dropped. When speaking with journalists Peter Collier and David Horowitz, Ayers said he was “guilty as hell, free as a bird—America is a great country.”
Libby Scheiern, co-chair of the education department and the faculty leader of the trip, wrote in an e-mail, “The message Bill shared the evening we visited him was that we need to care about our children, love them, listen to the multiple perspectives without making assumptions, and to value what we do as educators. One of the key messages sent was that teaching is a noble profession that is both intellectual and significant. We must value all children and recognize all are equal. A key quote he shared was, ‘Don’t let your life make a mockery out of your values.’”
Scheiern continued, “I believe Bill’s message to our students was that we must believe in what we are doing and know that our actions have a significant impact on the children and parents we work with, so we need to be responsible and take what we are doing seriously. Our actions have direct impact on others.”
Despite recent media coverage involving Ayers’s affiliation with President Obama, Scheiern reported that the conversation between Ayers and the Principia students remained apolitical and focused on education. Scheiern wrote, “Our intention for the trip to Chicago is to expose our students to as many philosophies of education in such a short time span as possible. Our visit with Bill was only 30 minutes and our intention was to hear his philosophy on education, it was not political in any way.”
When asked if students were informed of Ayers’s WUO involvement, Scheiern wrote, “I did not bring up his past history because I did not see it as a significant aspect of our visit. This was not a meeting that had any political agenda. Politics is not a part of the conversations we have with any of the educators we visit.”
No mention of radical activity is made in Ayers’s biography on his blog. It describes his accomplishments, such as receiving his teaching degree from Columbia University, securing the positions of Distinguished Professor of Education and Senior University Scholar at UIC, and earning the Citizen of the Year award for his work on the Chicago Annenberg Challenge project.
Although Ayers has separated his life as an educator from that of a young radical, he has commented on his WUO activity in books and interviews. In his 2001 book Fugitive Days, Ayers writes, “Terrorists terrorize, they kill innocent civilians, while we organized and agitated. Terrorists destroy randomly, while our actions bore, we hoped, the precise stamp of a cut diamond. Terrorists intimidate, while we aimed only to educate.”
When asked about the meeting with Ayers, sophomore Grace Hathaway, an education major, described in an e-mail that Ayers “had pierced ears, was wearing old jeans and spoke in such a casual manner, so his outward appearance might not have prepared you for an intellectual conversation, but it was immediately clear that he knew exactly what he was talking about.”
Hathaway added, “We knew that he had been kind of extreme in the 60’s and that he was very influential in the public education especially in Chicago. We also knew that he was Libby Scheiern’s doctoral adviser [at UIC], but that’s about it.”
Scheiern confirmed this in her e-mail, writing, “I had one course with Bill Ayers and that class addressed research methodology. My emphasis in my doctoral program is on assessment and pedagogy. My doctoral research is looking at the development of teacher identity and how a teacher certification program can best prepare our graduates to be effective leaders in the educational field.”
Critical pedagogy is Ayers’s teaching specialty. As described in his blog’s bio section, “Ayers has written extensively [in this field] about social justice, democracy and education, the cultural contexts of schooling, and teaching as an essentially intellectual, ethical, and political enterprise.”
This message reflects the socially conscious crux of Ayers’s works. In To Teach, Ayers writes, “Teachers are expected to cover everything without neglecting anything, to teach reading and arithmetic, for example, but also good citizenship, basic values, drug and alcohol awareness, AIDS prevention, dating, mating, and relating, sexuality, how to drive, parenting skills, and whatever else comes up.”
Ayers’s concern for social balance is also evident in the content of his UIC courses. In the description of his course “On Urban Education” found on his blog, Ayers writes, “In a truly just society there would be a greater sharing of the burden, a fairer distribution of material and human resources.” Sometimes Ayers’s concern manifests itself in criticisms of the capitalist system. In an April 2008 post on his blog, Ayers wrote, “Capitalism played its role historically and is exhausted as a force for progress: built on exploitation, theft, conquest, war, and racism, capitalism and imperialism must be defeated and a world revolution—a revolution against war and racism and materialism, a revolution based on human solidarity and love, cooperation and the common good—must win.”
When asked if concerns were raised about students meeting with Ayers, Scheiern wrote, “No parent or student has spoken to me about any concerns regarding our meeting with Bill Ayers. During the five years that we have visited Bill Ayers on our trips to Chicago, no concerns have been raised about Bill Ayers’ past.”
The students reported that they felt comfortable with Ayers. Sophomore Kristine Cline, an education major, wrote in an e-mail that Ayers “seems to genuinely care about the education of children. I, being a Republican, can say that I generally liked the guy for what we talked about. I may not agree with his past, but his insights to educating children are honest.”
Sophomore Courtney Banko, an education major, wrote in an e-mail, “His book was so different than any other book we read this [fall] quarter because it was practical and methodical. I could see myself applying his teaching techniques to my teaching methods.”
It is through teaching that Ayers now hopes to change the future. Ayers writes in To Teach, “This is why I chose teaching: to share my life with young people, to shape and touch the future.”