An Unconditional Embrace

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Editor’s note: Subsequent to the posting of the following article, Bill Ayers became a lightning rod in the 2008 presidential election when opponents of Senator Barack Obama, the Democratic nominee, criticized Obama for his connections to the former anti-war activist. Ayers was a leader of the Weather Underground, a group that claimed responsibility for a series of Vietnam War-era bombings. Along with his wife, Bernardine Dohrn, he was indicted in 1970 for incitement to riot and conspiracy to bomb government buildings. Charges were dropped in 1974 because of prosecutorial misconduct, including illegal surveillance. Since that time, Ayers, now a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, has became a highly respected figure in the field of multicultural education.


At age 20, Bill Ayers literally walked out of jail into his first teaching position. Throughout his career as a civil rights organizer, radical anti-Vietnam War activist, teacher and author, Ayers has developed a rich vision of teaching that interweaves passion, responsibility and self-reflection.

Ayers has taught in public schools and spearheaded alternative education projects. In 1992 he co-founded the Small Schools Workshop, an organization dedicated to bringing about systemic school reform by restructuring large, factory-model schools into teacher-directed, intimate learning environments with close community connections. As a professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, he helps aspiring teachers recognize and tap the potential of every child.

For Ayers, challenging stereotypes and reforming inner-city schools is as much about fighting for social justice as about improving the quality of teaching and learning. Several of Ayers' books outline his powerful call to action. They include The Good Preschool Teacher; To Teach (both Teachers College Press); and, most recently, A Kind and Just Parent: The Children of Juvenile Court

Education activist and former Teaching Tolerance Research Fellow Gabrielle Lyon interviewed Bill Ayers in Chicago in May 1997.

Q: What influence did your own schooling have on your commitment to social activism?

A: I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago and went to an exclusive private high school. The hidden curriculum of that place was that we were learning how to run the world because we were kids from privileged backgrounds. We were taught how to think, how to make decisions, how to read well, how to examine things critically, how to love knowledge. I consider those advantages that all kids ought to have. On the other hand, it was not a place that engaged my passions or my interests. My passions were outside of school.

For instance, at the age of 16 I discovered James Baldwin -- he was certainly not on the sanctioned reading list for my prep school. I consumed everything that Baldwin wrote and, in 1963, when I graduated and went on to the University of Michigan, I was longing to be a person who could make some kind of impact for a better and more just world.

Q: What role did that longing play in your decision to become a teacher?

A: Teaching found me in a funny way. I had been involved in the Civil Rights Movement, and my opposition to the Vietnam War was early, acute and serious. At one point, I, along with several other young people at the University of Michigan, decided to seize the draft board with a sit-in and display our outrage at our government's actions. Thirty-nine of us were arrested. I was put in the Ann Arbor jail and that night met a guy whose wife had just founded an alternative school in Ann Arbor.

After my release, I went over to visit the place because I was intrigued by the notion of a school committed to racial justice. Within minutes I was captured by the kids and found that I not only liked being with them, but I loved the way I was with them. I was a better person when I was with the kids than I ever knew I could be. I was a more thoughtful, more generous person.

That's been the story of teaching for me all along. It enlarged me, it made me my best self. And finding your best self -- who wants to leave that behind?

Q: How can a teacher help students find their best selves?

A: My view of teaching is that it can't be done mechanically, that it's a relational activity. Teaching is human, idiosyncratic, nuanced, specific and never quite the same twice. To do it well requires an intense thoughtfulness that only comes with practice and commitment. You have to pay close attention to who is there in front of you.

You have to make a commitment based on faith that all human beings have capacities and abilities that are not always visible. Your most fundamental job as a teacher is to find the unlimited potential that you assume every child has. You assume it; they don't have to show it to you. The fact that people point to all kinds of limits on that potential can't damage my faith.

Students need to have multiple opportunities to succeed. One teaching goal should be, "In my classroom the wide range of students who show up will have multiple ways to show me their capacities and a wide range of ways to be successful here, so that nobody will walk out of my class saying 'I wasn't successful at all. I failed in every way.'"

I've argued for a long time that labeling kids is destructive and consistently undermines good teaching because so many labels like "learning disabled" or "Attention Deficit Disorder" are based on kids' imagined deficits, mistakes, obstacles -- they conceal more than they reveal. My introduction to kids in juvenile court has only added a kind of extreme dimension to my understanding of that.

Q: You spent five years teaching and observing young people in prison schools within Chicago's juvenile justice system. What impact did that experience have on your ideas about teaching and learning?

A: To go into a juvenile jail is to find an entire population of kids enduring under the most destructive labels, kids about whom society has said, "They're a waste. Throw them on the dump heap." Overlying these labels is the increasingly popular term "super-predator." We have the coded racist "at-risk, culturally deprived" label being recycled in the most hateful, fear-inducing terms.

The whole society -- not just policy, but our popular consciousness -- gets driven by a view that poor city kids, particularly African American boys, are all danger, all deficit, all problem, all encumbrance, all something to overcome. As a teacher I have to look for the unique human capacity to learn and grow, both intellectually and ethically, and then to provide the second chance, the third chance. I insist on it for my own kids, so as a teacher I have to find it for other people's kids as well.

Q: You entitled your latest book -- about the students in Chicago's juvenile court -- A Kind and Just Parent. What is the significance of that phrase?

A: I meant the title to be ironic. When Jane Addams and the great social reformers of Hull House founded the first juvenile court in the world in Chicago in 1899, their idea was that it should act the way "a kind and just parent" would act with a child in crisis. My thought was to contrast that set of ideals with a picture of a system that has become, by all accounts, an unfit parent. The system is inadequate for the job that it's mandated to do and incapable of addressing the larger social issues like race, class and poverty that are the wellspring of the little horrors of juvenile court.

Irony of ironies, when I started to spend sustained time in the juvenile court, I found more than my share of not only decent people but heroic people struggling to lift these kids up when the whole society seemed to be pushing them down. For instance, one teacher, Frank Tobin, would say to students, "You've done something terrible perhaps, but you're also a human being with a mind and a heart and a soul, and you have to find a way to live beyond the worst thing you've ever done." It's a wonderful message that we need to tell all kids.

Q: How effective is the education system as a vehicle for bringing about social change?

A: Because I began teaching right after my release from jail, I've always linked teaching to social justice. There's a whole group of teachers who came out of the '60s who asked themselves, "What can I do with my life that would be consistent within an agenda of social change and hopefulness towards a more humane social order?" The most common choice has been to teach; teaching is seen as an extension of their involvement in social change.

Unfortunately, despite that idealism and hopefulness, you end up with institutions that are not geared towards liberation or a vision of teaching as I've described it but are geared towards reproducing the social injustices and inequities that exist. For a lot of radical teachers, that's where the conflict and pain and burnout come in.

It's important to remember the lessons of organizing for racial justice -- and that the struggle is often hard. A lot of teachers my age have discovered that, even though it feels hopeless at times, kids know who cares and parents know who cares. In the end, that becomes its own reward -- you struggle against the injustices and you also provide hope and opportunity.

Q: What particular challenges face White teachers who teach students from racial and ethnic minorities?

A: When a White teacher encounters a 12-year-old African American child in her class, what does she know? She doesn't automatically know what the kid's life is like, what foods the kid prefers, what music the kid likes or what faith informs their home. She might assume that the kid knows things about growing up among a people who have survived racial injustice, and that the kid's family is more expert than she is on their experiences. But even those assumptions should remain contingent and filled with doubt. The teacher should encounter the child -- every child -- with humanity and a little awe.

The challenge is to take enough into account about children's differences, histories and preferences to understand and appreciate and know them well -- while refusing to make uninformed generalizations or simplistic conclusions about them. Teachers have to create an environment that's broad enough, diverse enough, dense enough for children to find out who they are within a multiplicity of possibilities. Only in that kind of environment can we help children learn to make constructive choices -- in freedom, but also in community.

Q: What advice can you give to parents and teachers who want to help children be open-minded and tolerant?

A: One question to start off with is "How are you going to live your life?" Kids learn what they live. Too often kids see a disjuncture between adults' stated values and the way they're living their lives.

Parenting is a constant struggle of consciousness-raising because your own values are called into question from the time your kids are born. They ask the damnedest things: "Why is that man sleeping in the street? Why is that person begging for money? Why is that person not standing up?" As a parent you have to figure out how to say, in the language of youth, what it is you believe in, and then you have to try to live that.

The thing that took me a long time to learn as a teacher, but came more naturally as a parent, is that your kids require you most of all to love them for who they are, not to spend your whole time trying to correct them. If every sentence you utter to your kids -- especially teenagers -- ends with an implicit "You dummy," they'll feel diminished.

The world will correct your kids constantly. The question is, can you fill them up with enough love and the sense that they are unique and special and important so that when the world corrects them it doesn't devastate them? Well, that's a parent's job, to love without qualifications, to embrace without any conditions. Teaching is not so different.