Upon returning from summer break, I found a surprising letter awaiting me written by three colleagues from another university, two of whom I’d known and worked with for decades. The letter simultaneously informed me about a conference my friends were organizing and explained — with some anguish I think — that I would not be welcome there.
They note that we’re living in troubled times, that calculated appeals to fear rule the day, and that they hope to counter all of that. Ironically, fear is stamped all over the letter.
I’m reminded of when Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin were hauled before the fearsome House Committee on Un-American Activities, refused to bow, and helped to laugh it out of existence. Or when the universities were cowed by a bullying government into banning the DuBois Clubs — a handful of students in the youth-wing of the CP who were attacked by Richard Nixon for intentionally creating a front group that would dupe people because it rhymed with the Boys Clubs — and we members of Students for a Democratic Society signed up en masse and swelled their membership a hundredfold.
Different times demand different responses, of course, but to claim the mantle of “social justice” while practicing this kind of exclusion is unacceptable.
Their letter to me and my response to them are reproduced below. I’ve edited out identifiable references to my colleagues in order to protect the . . . well, you decide, let’s just say their privacy. I can be reached at billayers.org, or email@example.com. Onward!
University of Illinois at Chicago
This is an unusual letter for us to be writing and for you to receive. We count you among the most noted progressive educators in the country with a deep commitment to teaching for social justice. Yet, after extended deliberation and discussion, we find ourselves in a real quandary. Because of current . . . times, we cannot invite you to an event we are planning for progressive educators. Because we know and deeply respect you and your commitment to teaching for social justice, we felt that an explanation was in order.
Next spring, we will host an event . . . to honor Bob Moses and progressive education. Bob is to receive the . . . John Dewey Prize for Progressive Education. This prize is . . . “to honor significant achievement in progressive education for the purpose of making society more just.” In an era of increasing standardization and heightened inequities, we want to shine a bright light on the ideals of progressive education and remind the public that there is another model for education that attends well to the needs of every child. It is our intention to invite other progressive educators to this convening and to create a significant news and media event honoring the ideals of progressive education [and] the work of Bob Moses. . . .
It is because of our commitment to educate the public and to undertake what is primarily a symbolic project that we cannot risk a simplistic and dubious association between progressive education and the violent aspects of your past. We believe, of course, in your right to express your views, then and now. This is not about curtailing your expression. Rather, in this age when Google summarizes instantly, and often shallowly, who we are, it is about trying to say as clearly as possible what we are arguing for. If we, as educators, want to engage the learner, in this case the public, where they are, then we have to find ways for the public to see progressive education not as radical or threatening but as nurturing and familiar, connected to the very best aspects of their own learning experiences. For the last five years local and regional news organizations have taken the “liberal” . . . faculty . . . to task. It is an environment that we have challenged when key principles were involved, defending and maintaining our . . . commitment to social justice against the state bureaucracy. This event, however, is a celebration honoring two educators’ accomplishments and positively promoting progressive education. We don’t want a shallow press to prevail. We want to engage the public with as little interference as possible.
One major reason for presenting a prize at this time is that progressivism, and progressive education in particular, have been greatly weakened by a broad and calculated appeal to our fears in this changing world. We want to reinsert into the civil dialogue that progressive education stands upon its proven record and can be a viable alternative when our mood turns away from fears and towards hopes. First, we need to get ourselves back to the table, and then position ourselves as polite in our discourse before celebrating the breadth of expression within progressive education. Coming from behind may well demand such strategic thinking, whether is satisfies all of our passion or not.
We hope this letter finds you well and that you understand and possibly appreciate this decision.
“Lauren” and the organizers
August 29, 2006
You have, of course, no obligation to include me in the progressive education conference you’re organizing, certainly not in your deliberations about my suitability to attend. I’m tempted to say, with apologies to Groucho Marx, that I wouldn’t want to attend any progressive education conference that would have me.
Chances are I’d have never heard of the conference had you not written, and in any case wouldn’t have given a second thought to my presence on or absence from the guest list. But since you’ve opened this in the way you have, since you’ve outlined your thinking on the matter and invited me to understand and possibly appreciate your decision, I feel I must respond.
Your hope to position progressive education “not as radical or threatening but as nurturing and familiar” is in some ways a fool’s errand. Of course, no one argues that the progressive movement should threaten students or teachers or citizens — progressive education does indeed hold the hope of realizing a humane and decent education for all within a revitalized politics and a more authentically democratic society. But progressive education, if it means anything at all, must embody a profound threat to the status quo. It is a direct challenge, for example, to all the policy initiatives that deskill and hammer teachers into interchangeable cogs in a bureaucracy, all the pressure to reduce teaching to a set of manageable and easily monitored tasks, all the imposition of labels and all the simple-minded metrics employed to describe student learning and rank youngsters in a hierarchy of winners and losers. It’s a threat to all that, and more.
But here we face a contradiction at the heart of our efforts: the humanistic ideal and the democratic injunction tell us that every person is an entire universe, that each can develop as a full and autonomous person engaged with others in a common polity and an equality of power; the capitalist imperative insists that profit is at the center of economic, political, and social progress, and develops, then, a culture of competition, elitism, and hierarchy. An education for democracy fails as an adjunct to capitalism just as an education for capitalism fails to build either a democratic ethos or a participatory practice. We must engage, then, in the arena of school and education reform as we struggle toward a world fit for all children — a place of peace and justice, joy and balance. The two are inseparable.
And so I believe that progressive education must be part of a radical movement if it is to be worthy of the hopes and dreams of those who fight to bring humanistic alternatives to life. I mean radical in the sense that Ella Baker, one of the unsung mothers of the Civil Rights Movement, used the word. She called herself a radical, and she explained that radical meant “going to the root.” Little reforms here and there never add up unless we get to the core of the problems we face, she argued, analyze our situations, connect the struggles as we work for more fundamental change.
Charlie Cobb, who co-wrote Radical Equations, was also the author of the original proposal for Freedom Schools in the South more than forty years ago. The brief he wrote claimed that while Black children were denied many things — decent school facilities, honest and forward-looking curriculum, fully qualified teachers — the fundamental injury was “a complete absence of academic freedom, and students are forced to live in an environment that is geared to squashing intellectual curiosity, and different thinking.” Cobb called the classrooms of Mississippi “intellectual wastelands,” and he challenged himself and others “to fill an intellectual and creative vacuum,” and to encourage people “to articulate their own desires, demands and questions.” He was urging students to confront the circumstances of their lives, to wonder about how they got to where they were, and to think of how they might change things. He was crossing hard lines of propriety and tradition, convention and common sense, of course, poised to break the law and overthrow a system. His proposal was designed to plow a deep and promising furrow toward the new — more than radical, this was insurrection itself, progressive education linked to radical politics.
Of course, we are required now to make our own contributions in our own time and place; the pathway, the content, and the curriculum must be of, by, and for this moment and this community. We might take inspiration and attitude, sustenance and stance from the Mississippi experience, but only as an orientation toward launch, toward imagining and trying to bring to life something entirely new.
Finally, you refer to “the violent aspects” of my past. As you know I’ve written extensively about politics and protest as well as my own involvements, about the dual responsibilities to act and to doubt, and about the impossibility of claiming a high moral stance while sitting on the sidelines. I’ve accounted for my actions during the US assaults on Vietnam and against the Black Freedom Movement — which is what I assume you’re referring to — and paid the price asked of me by the legal system. And I’ve said often that our society ought to engage in a truth-and-reconciliation process concerning those terrible and wondrous times; in other words, I’m happy to stand up, tell my story, admit my mistakes, and take responsibility — shoulder-to-shoulder with everyone else, including war criminals, politicians, soldiers, officers, frat boys, students, scholars, citizens. Absent that, you seem to say that I have some uniquely dreadful behavior to account for, and I politely disagree.
I worry that you’re imagining a progressivism divorced from politics, the larger world, and any real hope of transformation — a timid, tepid, soft and servile thing. And I worry that your attempt to cleanse your conference of the likes of me has no end: you’ll have to cut out the Marxists and the socialists, of course, anyone who writes critically about capitalism and education, then the militants, the noisy anti-racists, the pushy feminists, the gays and lesbians, anyone who refers to “social justice” — a term under steady attack from the powerful just now. I’m reminded of the last presidential election when several presumably well-meaning liberals asked, in effect, if women would please stop talking so loudly about (or getting) abortions, if gays would please get back in the closet, and if Black people and Mexicans might stay out of sight for a few months so that “we” can win this thing, and then everything will somehow be alright. It’s not only unprincipled, deeply cynical and cowardly, it’s suicidal, a slippery slope with lots of miserable historical precedent.
So, while I think I understand what you’ve said, no, I don’t appreciate it. I don’t rationalize it. I don’t endorse it. And I refuse to participate in portraying myself as a pariah. So invite me.
William Ayers is Distinguished Professor of Education and Senior University Scholar at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and author of Teaching Toward Freedom:Moral Commitment and Ethical Action in the Classroom (Beacon) and Teaching the Personal and the Political (Teachers College Press).