A meeting with William Ayers

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.”

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  • mdrudge

    Why are Principia students meeting with a non-repentent, unpunished, self-admitted domestic terrorist? What kind of message does this give to students? This is ridiculous!

  • jimsuber

    My response to Matt Donatelli’s article about William Ayers

    I am deeply concerned about the article, “A meeting with William Ayers” by Matt Donatelli, on so many levels that it would take pages to address all of them. Let me focus on just two concerns.
    1. The questionable judgment of the co-chair of the education department in not informing and even protecting her students from the underlying intention of William Ayers’ political agenda. In the article, Libby Scheiern says, “I did not bring up his (Bill Ayers’) 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…” This doesn’t sync with Bill Ayer’s statement, in the article, that teaching is an “essentially intellectual, ethical, and political enterprise.” My common sense tells me that his intent in meeting with idealistic, impressionable, young future teachers is to further his “political enterprise [of communism, which I learned in CS Primary Class instruction is directly opposite to metaphysics]. I believe that Mr. Ayer’s did not openly discuss politics during his 30 minute talk, but I’m guessing the students were all given his contact information and that they left with the impression that he would love to be their doctoral adviser in the future.
    2. Is Bill Ayers a role model for Principia students? It would seem so. Students read Mr. Ayers’ book, To Teach. Students have visited him for the past five years, and he is Ms. Scheiern’s doctoral adviser. This gives me the impression that he is touted as a role model. Let me get this straight—the article basically says—Bill Ayers is a communist, an unrepentant terrorist, who promoted the use of nail-bombs to kill innocent people and which resulted in the horrific bombing deaths of three of his co-terrorists; who was a fugitive from the law for 10 years; who got off from serving a justified prison sentence on a technicality and then gloated about how he was “guilty as hell”—and Principia seeks him out so that he can offer up educational gems such as “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, etc.” (The faculty member’s description of Mr. Ayer’s message to the students). The fact that the students have read his book indicates to me that they have spent a lot more time than 30 minutes on Bill Ayers and thus his “political enterprise.” As a doctoral adviser for Ms. Scheiern, I gather that she views him as a role model. William Ayers as a role model for any Principia teacher or student is a far cry from one of the role models used in Education at The Principia:

    Abraham Lincoln did not become President of the United States by chance.
    Through a peculiar fitness to meet the great need of his country, he rose to the highest point of honor it could bestow upon him. How was he fitted to do this great work? Through severe self-discipline, through improvement of every opportunity to learn, through obedience to Principle, through appreciation of every God-given ability, a steadfast purpose to keep himself pure, unselfish, and strong, an abiding love for God, and a deep love for his fellow-man, Abraham Lincoln trained himself for service (p. 36).

    Irene Hafen Suber

    As an aside— Matt Donatelli’s article was excellently written with factual information (which I verified for myself) and devoid of opinion (at least I couldn’t detect any). I hope the education students read this article. They’ll be better equipped to form a positive or negative opinion of Bill Ayers.

  • dmiller

    Irene, I must take off my pilot hat for a moment and respond to your comment simply as a current enrolled student with a vested interest in the quality of education offered at Principia. I take issue with three specific points you make, and feel compelled to articulate my disagreement here.

    Firstly, I think we must look at the whole of William Ayers’ career, rather than simply his chosen methods of protesting the Vietnam war, before we judge him completely. While his methods then were certainly questionable, his subsequent involvement in education reform is less so. My guess is that the ed. department were there to talk about education, not how to detonate statues.

    Secondly, while it is no doubt true that Mr. Ayers comes with a particular political agenda, I would like to think (as a student myself) that we are given some certain due respect when it comes to our ability to filter out ideology. Mr. Ayers’ career as an educational reformer and academic qualifications make him a valid choice for a visit from an ed. department. While his past actions are certainly reproachable, I would like to believe that we students have sufficient moral sense to recognise that, and filter out any ideology that he brought to those meetings. Respectfully, we are not in college to be spoon-fed the nice side of things, we need to learn to filter out questionable content, and we learn by doing.

    Thirdly, your assertion that communism is directly opposite to metaphysics is dubious. To set up any human ideology as directly opposite to metaphysics is to put metaphysics on the same level as ideology–an act that I consider at best spiritually dangerous. Yes the communist experiments of the 20th century were epic disasters, but let’s keep the political critique grounded in history, and keep the Christian Science where it belongs: informing us about our unique relationships with God.

    As a committed Christian Scientist, I would like to think that there is no human so evil that I could not learn something valuable from them. We are all free to chose our own role models. As a Prin student I believe that I have the moral courage and intellectual rigour to make those choices wisely, and without being coddled away from potentially dangerous figures.

    D. Miller.

  • Irene Suber

    D. Miller,
    1. Where in my response do I pass judgment on Mr. Ayers? Can we agree that using bombs to force one’s beliefs on people is wrong, even reprehensible and not merely questionable? I do question the judgment of the co-chair of the education department for not informing students about Mr. Ayers’ past history and I ask if he is considered a role model for Principia students. I would very much like an answer to my question. If he is a role model, then I lament the deteriorating quality and standards of role models at Principia. Can we agree that it is a good thing to be fully informed about the significant, controversial aspects of a speaker’s life? I never said that students should not meet with Mr. Ayers. On the contrary, I urge that students be fully informed about him before they meet him especially because he is so controversial. By leaving out Mr. Ayers’ history (as the article states), students were “spoon-fed the nice side of things.” Can you not agree with me on this?
    2. I myself do not assert that communism is directly opposite to Christian Science. It is what I specifically learned in CS Primary Class instruction. And because I value my Class instruction as sacred and unquestionable, I will not argue this point further.

    Respectfully, I’m glad you feel exceptionally confident in your moral courage and intellectual rigor to make wise choices. I myself have often questioned, struggled and been burdened by which choices are best not only for me but for the lives of those for which I’m responsible.

    Irene Suber

  • ianmcleland

    If I may be allowed to weigh in,

    Irene, it seems disingenuous for you to wonder why one might interpret your response as passing judgment on Mr. Ayers when, in the very same paragraph, you “lament the deteriorating quality and standards of” a school that would encourage students to consider his views. You ask if Mr. Ayers is considered a role model by the education faculty, but you seem to have already assumed an answer. If, as you state, you would very much like an answer from Professor Scheiern or the education department, the comments section of the school newspaper website seems an odd place to ask.

    D. Miller, I have to agree with Irene that “questionable” and “reproachable” seem rather lukewarm commentary when speaking of a history of bombing government workplaces. Yes, we should assess Mr. Ayers’ value as an educational reformer based upon his relevant accomplishments. But if we are to be honest in this, let us also be honest in condemning acts of terrorism.

    It seems appropriate to remind us of several characters in the Bible. Noah, with whom God established the first covenant of the Old Testament, was a drunkard. Moses, who freed the Hebrews from slavery and then led them through the wilderness for forty years, was a murderer. David, whose reign is held up as the Golden Age of the Kingdom of Israel, was a murderer and an adulterer. And Saul, featured in last week’s lesson on Love, whose letters make up such a large part of our New Testament, was a religious terrorist. And when he changed, he was not made to live forever in the shadow of his former actions. Just the opposite – he was given a new name so that he could be free to contribute to Christianity without the burden of judgment for his past.

    I do not mean to imply that William Ayers is a prophet, or that his writings have the significance of religious tome. My point is simply that before we dismiss a man for his past, we should both bear in mind our own, and apply the same standards to all whom we would examine.


    Ian McLeland

  • Irene Suber

    1. I apologize for sounding disingenuous. I blame my lack of writing skill. Let me try to be more candid. Bill Ayers is not a role model of mine. My greater concern is whether or not the institution of Principia College considers him a role model. IF so, then I am saddened because of the following reasoning: I consider Education At The Principia. Would I substitute the role model of Abraham Lincoln for that of Bill Ayers? Is Ayers’ example as a human being and contributions to mankind (past or present) equal to or superior to that of Abraham Lincoln’s? My answer is: No. Would I add Bill Ayers as an additional example in the book? Answer: No. Thus, if Prin’s standards today do assess Mr. Ayers as a role model, I conclude that the standards have been lowered.
    2. I have contacted Professor Scheiern but she has not responded.
    3. Yes, several role models in the Bible have received redemption. All of them got down on their hands and knees with their faces to the ground and asked forgiveness from God and it was received. They were changed because they recognized the evil of their ways and never went back to that way of thinking again. They also paid a hefty price for the error of their ways. I have never read that Ayers was sorry for what he did. On the contrary, he has been quoted as saying he was only sorry that he couldn’t have done more. This is not the thinking of a changed man. Please, find me the article where he acknowledges that his former actions were wrong. He was elated at not having to pay the price of going to prison for a justified prison sentence. I would find him more credible if he had served his prison sentence and renounced his actions because it would have been an indication that he was sorry and had changed. Saul killed Christians. And then he spent the rest of his life saving Christians and in the service of Christianity. Mr. Ayers was a communist when he committed acts of terror to force communism on people and he still remains a communist. He has publicly stated that he wishes to revolutionize our form of government [to communism]. I conclude that only his method has changed for achieving his goal.

    I have a friend who committed murder, spent more than a decade in prison, and was released on parole. Not only did he pay his debt to society, he is profoundly sorry for what he did. He has publicly admitted that his actions were wrong. He killed out of anger. He is a changed man because he does not remotely resemble the person of his youth. I recognize this in him and I’m honored to call him my friend. So I agree that one’s past does not have to imprison one’s present situation, but a big reason why Mr. Ayers past clings to him is because he has not renounced it.

    I’ve said my piece and hopefully explained my position and reasoning in a respectful manner. I thank D. Miller and Ian McLeland for helping me put thought and reason to a gut feeling. Both of you are solid thinkers and I will continue to ruminate about your comments.


  • Dick Upshaw

    The respondents on this subject above are undoubtedly very bright and intelligent, and I appreciate them getting involved in presenting their personal views. As an alumnus of Principia College, I am extremely concerned that this visit to Chicago to interview Bill Ayers cannot avoid in any way the perception that the education being received at the College is being severely skewed toward the far left politically, regardless of the claims being made by D. Miller that this interview should be supported and allowed by the education department at Principia in order to provide full views on a broad spectrum.

    My grand niece also attended that interview and, if I read her correctly, I believe she was appalled! Not only was Mr. Ayers physical appearance and personal hygiene an affront, but cocking his feet up on his desk as they talked, showed no respect for his visitors, at best, and total disgust from them, at least. If one would like to learn something about the cattle industry, a college-sponsored trip to the manure pits is not an ideal place to start.

    Let’s get real, folks. At all costs, avoid these types of exposures being sponsored by our dear, dear college, of which we are all so proud, as its founder, Mrs. Morgan, would be of us as well.


  • elleoneiram

    Perhaps the talk about communism being the opposite of Christian science comes from Marx’s comments about everything being material. This is an entirely different note from the current conversation. I was just initially baffled by that comment until I remembered where the idea might have arisen.

  • elleoneiram

    Excuse me, I meant Lenin not Marx I believe.