Those of us who care about education and what’s been done to it in the cruel, foolish, and profligate class war from above over the quarter-century that has been my entire adult life are likely to know Bill Ayers or his work as a scholar, teacher, activist, teacher educator, fixture in Illinois politics, and extraordinarily decent person.
There are any number of folks testifying about the actual life, character, accomplishments and associations of Bill Ayers in response to the shabby propaganda being slung by the desperate bottom-of-their-class duo trying to ride the last, sputtering wave of reaction.
There are two glimpses I find especially evocative. The first is the brief YouTube clip from 1981 talking about his work as a caregiver in an innovative New York City daycare center.
The second is this letter from Ayers’ colleague William Schubert, the former president of numerous scholarly societies who served on the committee that hired Ayers to the University of Illinois at Chicago in 1987. (Thanks to Jamie Owen Daniel for forwarding it.)
The Bill Ayers I Know
I feel compelled to comment on our friend and colleague, Bill Ayers, in view of the disappointing distortions and insinuations perpetrated against him. Here is the Bill Ayers I know.
I have known Bill Ayers as a colleague at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) for over twenty years and know him as a good and just human being. I served on the search committee that selected him as the most outstanding applicant based on his scholarship, teaching capacity, and doctoral work at Columbia University. I became Chair of Curriculum and Instruction at UIC (1990-94) shortly after Dr. Ayers was hired in 1987, and became Chair again (2003-2006) as he became a recognized scholar. Moreover, as a thirty –plus year member of the American Educational Research Association (AERA) and presidents of the Society of Professors of Education, the John Dewey Society, the Society for the Study of Curriculum History, and vice president for AERA’s Division B, I have had ample opportunities to observe the emergence of Dr. Ayers’ outstanding contributions to education. The fact that Dr. Ayers was elected this year as the vice president of AERA’s Division B is a testimony of such a stature and high esteem he holds in the field of education locally, regionally, nationally, and internationally.
Bill has written extensively about social justice, democracy, school contexts, and ethics regarding students, families, and educators. His has written more than 150 chapters and articles that have appeared in such journals as the Harvard Educational Review, the Journal of Teacher Education, Teachers College Record, Rethinking Schools, the Nation, Kappan, and the Cambridge Journal of Education. He has authored or edited sixteen books. His research and innovation based on it has been supported by the MacArthur Foundation, the Joyce Foundation, the Chicago Community Trust, the Annenberg Foundation, Readers Digest, and the Chicago Public Schools.
In many of his scholarly writings, Dr. Ayers has called attention to the role of teachers to demonstrate greater social responsibility in meeting the needs of children. In 1989, he wrote The Good Preschool Teacher, research on six exemplary, though quite different, preschool teachers. He also joined an on-going project that I had developed with graduate students, called the Teacher Lore Project, an endeavor that recognized and interpreted what teachers know from experience, and we mentored several dissertations that strove to understand the meanings of teaching for teachers, culminating in the publication of the book, Teacher Lore (1992, 1999). Over twenty-five dissertations have grown from this project and its offshoot, student lore, an attempt to understand the meanings students glean from their experiences. Several books have been published, based on these dissertations, to enhance perspectives of prospective and practicing teachers.
Social justice in lives of teachers and students was the major theme of another book by Dr. Ayers, To Teach: The Journey of a Teacher (1993, 2001 revised) which was one of Teachers College Press’s best selling books; it was named Book of the Year in 1993 by Kappa Delta Pi, and won the Witten Award for Distinguished Work in Biography and Autobiography in 1995. Dr. Ayers also edited the following noteworthy volumes: To Become a Teacher: Making a Difference in Children’s Lives (1995), a compendium of perspectives on teacher education and dilemmas in teachers’ early career experiences, and City Kids/City Teachers (1996, and recently revised and expanded in 2008), wherein the plight of oppression in our urban areas is portrayed along with imaginative ways to address such circumstances through education.
Bill served as Assistant Deputy Mayor for Education in Chicago in 1990, supported by UIC. Later he applied his concern for social justice in teachers’ lives by founding the Small Schools Workshop (SSW), to provide opportunities through UIC for teachers and students in some of Chicago’s most disadvantaged schools to create small, personal communities and more relevant curriculum and teaching, thus transforming large, impersonal schools with support from many corporate foundations. Over the years the SSW has created approximately 100 secondary and elementary schools, a venture that increased academic performance, attendance, graduation rates, and decreased violence in Chicago schools. Interest from many school systems throughout the U.S. has expanded the positive impact of the Small Schools Workshop as depicted in A Simple Justice: The Challenge of Small Schools (2000), a volume for which Ayers was senior editor. Dr. Ayers was named “Citizen of the Year” for this work by Business and Professional People in the Public Interest in 1994, an award presented by Chicago’s Mayor Richard Daley.
Dr. Ayers and I teamed in the late 1980s and early 1990s to create an alternative teacher education program at UIC wherein students learned theory and research through intensive experience in Chicago schools. This was a precursor to the GATE (Golden Apple Teacher Education) project developed by Dr. Ayers from 1999-2004, an alternative certification program that immersed students in urban school reform in their teacher preparation – emphasizing understanding and action to overcome societal factors that contribute to oppressive teaching and learning conditions. His book entitled Teaching for Social Justice (1998) continues Dr. Ayers’ deep concern for urban educational renewal and the project of democracy. To these ends, Dr. Ayers orchestrated the Chicago Annenberg Challenge (as grant writer and co-founder), a project that brought $49.2 million in a two-to-one matching award for the Chicago Public Schools – a multi-foundational endeavor that yielded approximately $150 million for the Chicago Public Schools.
In the midst of all this work, Dr. Ayers continued his critique of the oppression of people of color by studying youth and teachers in Juvenile Jail and Juvenile Court of Chicago, drawing metaphorically on pioneer social worker Jane Addams’ adage when she founded that institution, saying it should provide a kind and just parent for children in crisis. His book by that title (subtitled The Children of Juvenile Court, 1997) is a narrative based on a year-long ethnography of youth who are incarcerated.
The book led to Dr. Ayers’ nomination by business and community leaders in Chicago to the board of the Woods Fund. Subsequently, he became chair of this Board and helped to restructure it as the largest Chicago contributor to community organizing, granting three million dollars per year to that cause with heavy emphasis on education reform. Addressing racism and incarceration from another angle, he critiqued punishment of children and youth in contrast to their habilitation in Zero Tolerance, a practical and thoughtful handbook for parents, students, educators, and all concerned citizens. Dr. Ayers also founded the Center for Youth and Society in 1999, which studied and assisted urban young persons of color as they face discrimination or oppression based on race, class, or gender in our culture with special emphasis on education. Dr. Ayers’ 2003 book, On the Side of the Child, argues for child advocacy on behalf of educators. He elaborated his concern for freedom, justice, and democracy in two books of illuminating essays published in 2004: Teaching the Personal and the Political and Teaching Toward Freedom. Moreover, Dr. Ayers has created opportunity for other scholars to publish their ideas by developing a successful book series with Teachers College Press: Teaching for Social Justice.
Because of his scholarly work on and insights about social justice, Dr. Ayers is often called upon to speak and advise educators. I estimate that he has averaged a keynote address per week for the past several years. He reviews manuscripts regularly for many scholarly and professional journals, serves on editorial boards, and advises boards of many prominent educational concerns. Amidst all of this work, Dr. Ayers tirelessly serves students and the public. He strives to present fairly a diverse range of perspectives on issues he discusses and never compels students or others to adhere to his convictions. In fact, he relishes seeing students and colleagues soar to heights that surprise him with novel ideas, and then he works assiduously to enhance their ideas and research for publication or leadership opportunities. He has chaired over 40 Ph.D. dissertations and has been a member of more than 50 other dissertation committees, most at UIC, though several at other universities throughout the U.S. and in other nations. He reads students’ writing carefully and takes time to help students, other young authors, and beginning faculty members make the kinds of contributions they want to make.
Bill writes extensively in the public domain as well as in scholarly outlets, e.g., a frequent writer for major newspapers, magazines, and Internet sites. He travels nationally and internationally (e.g., South Africa, China, Korea, England, Netherlands, Germany, Egypt, France, Hong Kong, Venezuela, Canada) to speak and advise. His home is like an intellectual salon wherein he prepares wonderful dinners and hosts a constant flow of intellectuals, artists, concerned citizens, and activists with whom he and Bernardine Dohrn (Bill’s spouse, colleague, and internationally known activist law professor at Northwestern) collaborate. His devotion to his children and family is exemplary.
Bill’s contributions have been clearly recognized at UIC where he has been designated the President’s Distinguished Speaker of the University of Illinois, Distinguished Professor of Education, and University Scholar in perpetuity (normally a three year award). Notably, too, he has been named Randolph Distinguished Visiting Professor at Vassar College, Distinguished Scholar at the McKissick Museum of Education at the University of South Carolina, Visiting Scholar at Lesley College, received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from Nazareth College in Rochester, and has presented invited lectures or colloquia at such places as the American Educational Research Association, American Association of Curriculum and Teaching, Harvard University, Coalition of Essential Schools, University of Washington, the Detroit Institute of Art, University of Ottawa, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, University Libraries Colloquia at Michigan State University, University of Wisconsin, University of Hawaii, Institute for Democracy and Education, Rethinking Schools, University of Michigan, University of Chicago, Los Angeles Public Library, Oregon State Bar, Purdue University, American Psychological Association, AATCE, State Prison of New York, The Gates Foundation, Indiana University, Columbia University, Bank Street College, Georgia Southern University, Colgate University, National Academy of Education, I Have a Dream Foundation, University of North Carolina, Children’s Law Center of Minnesota, Rice University, New York University, Yale University, and many other colleges, universities, public events, private and public schools. All of this bespeaks Bill’s work as a public intellectual based on his scholarly efforts for democracy and social justice, as does his service on several boards of directors, notably a founding member of the board of the Public Square, formerly the Center for Public Intellectuals, and his numerous radio and television appearances.
All of the above is informed by Dr. Ayers’ central concern — an unfaltering and tireless struggle of victims of socio-economic, political, national, and racial oppression.
It has been a pleasure to share over the past twenty years his weaving of tapestries of personal and political experience, teaching, scholarship, and service that inspire educational reformers to challenge oppression and injustice. Ayers has argued that social justice work demands not merely “service to” but “solidarity with” the oppressed. This turn of phrase aptly expresses the efforts of Bill Ayers to contribute to human betterment informed by scholarly work.
Dr. Ayers lives his commitment of concern for others at the interpersonal level. As busy as he is in all of the above and more, Bill is somehow always there for friends or colleagues at important junctures of their lives – for marriages, births, graduations, deaths – and in times of need he is not just a quick visitor, he remains in helpful contact for as long as needed. I have benefited from this immensely amid both tragic and joyful events of my own life.
So, when he has been heard to say, “We didn’t do enough,” it is emblematic of his philosophy that all of us, including himself, can do more to work for liberty and justice for all – a value that is deeply human and part of the best of the American creed.
This is the Bill Ayers I know!
William H. Schubert
Professor of Education and University Scholar
University of Illinois at Chicago
Coordinator, Ph.D. Program in Curriculum
Coordinator, M.Ed. Program in Educational Studies
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