William Ayers hasn’t given up railing against authority figures in the four decades following his time with the Weather Underground. The current target of the perennial anti-conformist: standardized testing and “authoritarian” school structures. And yes, Fox News, which he compared to George Orwell’s “two minutes of hate.”
“In education we’ve labored for decades, but most intensely in the last eight years, around the idea that education in a democracy is a meritocracy and that [the] important thing [about] education is to get the cream of the crop to rise to the top,” said Ayers on November 17, speaking at All Souls Church in Washington, DC. This has led to an “unhealthy obsession” with standardized testing, he argues.
Contesting that schools focus on the “narrowest kind of knowledge,” the education professor argued that “Another way to say it, maybe a better way to say it, is that in a democracy [we] do not educate for obedience and conformity, we educate for initiative, courage and imagination. We educate citizens not subjects. We don’t want you to bow down to the king, we want you to take control of society.”
Ayers is listed as one of David Horowitz’s 100 most dangerous professors in his 2006 book The Professors. “The Weather Underground managed to bomb the U.S. Capitol building, New York City Police Headquarters, the Pentagon, and the National Guard offices in Washington, D.C., among many other targets,” Horowitz wrote.
Ayers’ speech was sponsored by DC Voice, a DC group working to promote equity and academic achievement in the district’s schools through the mobilization of community members.
The University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) professor argued in his speech that social justice is at the center of education and that “the full development of each student requires the full development of all students.” “Or another way of saying this: the condition for your full development is the development of everyone around you,” he said.
“That is a profoundly democratic sentiment,” added Ayers.
For a figure generally considered the progenitor of the Weather Underground philosophy (“Kill all the rich people. Break up their cars and apartments. Bring the revolution home, kill your parents”), one might find it strange to receive a lecture on democracy from such quarters.
The former domestic terrorist argued at the meeting that teachers should “educate kids not just through what we tell them but through how we live, how we model, how we make opportunities for [them].”
He said that the recent scrutiny of his past, making him into a media celebrity, was both “superficial and stupid.”
“So I’m intermittently amused and annoyed to be thought of as a guy of the sixties. I am so much a guy of right now. Okay, I lived in the sixties, I apologize…,” he said amidst the audience’s laughter. He continued,
“But what does it mean to say you’re kinda stuck in a decade? Does anybody live by decades, does anybody say oh, it’s December 31st I guess it’s about to be the 70s, I quit…no, we are living all the time and we are participants in the same world and we live in an intergenerational world. There’s no sixties generation, there’s only right now, right here we’re sharing this room, this community, this little space on Earth.”
He also challenged the audience to think of a foreign policy based not on an America as “the most powerful nation, the most militarized nation” but as a nation among other nations. “Let’s begin to think of ourselves as at the table with the community of nations, a people among people and let’s begin to wonder what it would look like to posit a foreign policy based on justice, not on might, but on justice,” he said.
Ayers said that the guilt by association promoted during the campaign had the “subtext” that “you should only talk to people who you’ve already done the political litmus test with, so you should only talk to people in your corner of your dormitory who actually agree with you and want to sit down and smoke dope and listen to the same music.”
Just as there is a solidarity group surrounding Ward Churchill, fired for “academic misconduct,” so too academics have spun Ayers’ “demonization” as an attack on speech and academic freedom. Drafters of an online petition in support of Ayers write that “Teachers have a heavy responsibility, a moral obligation, to organize classrooms as sites of open discussion, free of coercion or intimidation. By all accounts Professor Ayers meets this standard. His classes are fully enrolled, and students welcome the exchange of views that he encourages.”
“It’s true that Professor Ayers participated passionately in the civil rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s, as did hundreds of thousands of Americans. His participation in political activity 40 years ago is history; what is most relevant now is his continued engagement in progressive causes, and his exemplary contribution—including publishing 16 books—to the field of education,” states the petition.
“Faculty members interviewed for this article stress that Ayers has emerged as a prominent scholar in the field of education, and they say Ayers’s [sic] past is viewed by his colleagues as irrelevant to his current work,” reported Inside Higher Ed on October 14.
The unrepentant Weatherman maintains to this day that he is innocent of violence and wrong-doing. He argues that the media and other critics thrust him “unwittingly” and “unwillingly” into the spotlight this election. Disdaining to give a “soundbite to the sound-bite culture” during the campaigns, Ayers said that the narrative surrounding his life was a “caricature” and “dishonest.”
“When I say a thoroughly dishonest narrative, here’s what I mean: I mean that the demonization of me, the creation of me as a fearsome person, somebody to be worried about and feared, is false and it’s profoundly false,” he said, continuing, “and the big lie that gets perpetrated and perpetrated and perpetrated that somehow I killed people, somehow I’ve been a violent person, all of it false and I couldn’t find a way to interrupt the demonization.”
4,291 people and counting, mainly academics, apparently agree. Maybe one man’s domestic terrorist really is an academic’s freedom fighter.