Bill Ayers was once known for setting off bombs during his time with the revolutionary communist group, the Weather Underground, in protest against the U.S. government. Since then he’s become an established academic in the field of education theory. The divisive public figure visited campus on Monday to debate market-based school reform with the YPU, and sat down with WKND to talk politics and activism in America.
Q: What are the biggest problems in the American education system?
A: The biggest problem we’re facing in education mirrors the problems we’re facing in society — inequality, unequal access and a sense of despair among masses of people that their lives can be meaningful and purposeful. What we’re facing in education is a well-funded, corporate movement that is doing nothing to alleviate problems facing children of color and children of the poor. The corporate school reform movement is doubling down on all the features that have created the failing schools in the first place — an obsession with standardized testing and an obsession with obedience and conformity, rather than initiative, creativity and imagination.
They have a sense that control is a way to get poor kids to learn rather than experience and a breadth of opportunities. I feel like we’re in a very backwards moment in schools right now. In spite of the fact that the corporate school reformers have had the big megaphone, much money and bipartisan support for 25 years, they still don’t have buy-in from parents, communities or educators.
Q: What do you mean by “buy-in”?
A: Across the country there’s a growing movement of parents involved in what’s called the opt-out movement. In New York state last spring, the largest civil disobedience in the history of history of the U.S. happened when 20% of parents kept their kids home rather than allow them to take standardized tests … I think people have had it. They feel that the privileged don’t do this to their kids, so why do the rest of us have to play this high-stakes, relentless game? People are fed up with it, and they should be.
Q: In an interview with the media outlet “Truthout” you said, “We’re living in the darkest times for teachers that I’ve ever seen in my life.” Could you expand?
A: What I mean is that teachers have come to represent all the problems of urban education in common discourse. It’s not only untrue and deeply unfair, but it drives people away from the profession. The assumption that teachers are causing the failure in urban schools is patently false and demonstrably false. It’s absurd. Any time a politician says, “We need to get the lazy, incompetent teachers out of the classroom,” everyone nods dully. But that’s the wrong frame [of mind].
Q: I want to make a transition to talk explicitly about politics. How would you define your political views?
A: As an educator, I’ve spent my whole life opposing labels. I’ve resisted any notion that you can sum me up with some of my politics in an easy way. If you were to insist on labeling me, when it comes to economics, I’m a socialist. When it comes to government, I’m a bit of an anarchist. When it comes to [the] First Amendment I’m a fundamentalist. I think labels are weak and lazy, and they don’t capture the complexity of what it means to be a First Amendment fundamentalist that is also a socialist, anarchist and communist. But I am all of those things. At 18 I thought of myself as an anarchist communist, and I still am, but that doesn’t tell you where I land.
I’ve been very active not only in education reform but also in the peace movement. I think we live in a war nation and a militaristic nation. You can see it everywhere, except that we’ve become so accustomed to it. You don’t see it because you’re in it. All the pseudo-patriotism, the marching of military people in sporting events, the ROTC in high schools — this is all a terrible, terrible development for our country. The fact that you spend a trillion dollars on the military and pretend we cannot fund schools is a catastrophe.
Q: What is your response to allegations that you committed terrorism?
A: It’s not true. It’s interesting how that word gets bandied about in a way that covers a multitude of charges and sins. The kid who killed people in Charleston — the FBI couldn’t figure out how to charge him as a terrorist, but his act was pure terrorism. What we [Weather Underground] did was to destroy government property, commit acts of extreme vandalism without terrorizing anyone. We were trying to raise a screaming alarm about a terrorist war. Six-thousand people a week were being killed by our government, with no end in sight. How do you interrupt that? You go to demonstrations, you write letters, you get arrested, you create civil disobedience, you build a nonviolent peace movement. We did all of that and the war went on. What we did was to raise a screaming alarm. Our rhetoric was excessive, as was the rhetoric of many people. It was no different from what the Catholic Left or the Black Panthers were doing.
While I regret many things in my life, I regret nothing about what I did to oppose the government’s genocide in Vietnam. That was a war of terror. John McCain and John Kerry committed acts of terrorism. John Kerry even came back and told the Senate “We commit war crimes every day as an act of policy, not choice.” That was a true reading of what was going on. How do you stop your country from committing genocide? No one really knows. That whole narrative blew up because no one could figure out how to run against Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton started it all by saying we don’t know who this guy is and he has sketchy friends (myself). I like to think that his association with me got him elected.
Q: What do you think of President Obama’s term in office? In what ways has it disappointed you?
A: Great men don’t change history; great movements change history. Barack Obama is exactly who he said he was when he ran for president. He said, “I’m a moderate, middle-of-the-road, pragmatic politician.” I did know him back then, and his record in Illinois reflects this. The right wing looked at him through 2008 and today as a secret Muslim and secret socialist with black nationalist tendencies, and the left saw him as winking in my direction. He wasn’t, and his record shows that. Many liberals were disappointed, but I’m neither a liberal nor disappointed.
Q: What issues do you see with the American Left?
A: I don’t see much of a left. I see the Democratic Party as one of the two greatest war parties that ever existed in history. Even calling them parties is in many ways misdirecting; they’re collections of factions that align and realign. What they all agree is that Wall Street should be mainly unfettered because that’s where wealth and prosperity come from. And they all agree that the Pentagon should call the shots when it comes to policy around war and resources.
Q: What about with new left social movements?
A: When it comes to movements, like Black Lives Matter or the queer rights movement, I think the difficult challenge is to create … a large social movement that can fundamentally transform society. Learning to talk together like this is a revolutionary act. I think that the Black Lives Matter people in conversation with [the] feminist movement in conversation with the queer upsurge are very hopeful. If you look at Black Lives Matter in Chicago, or Black Youth Project 100 or We Charge Genocide, they very much are composed of all kinds of people, but they’re driven by an ideology that is queer-informed black liberation. I think that’s a very hopeful thing. The queer movement has been so exciting because they’ve shown people a different way to organize, not hierarchical but much more horizontal. And the Black Lives Matter people take that very seriously. In Black Lives Matter, leadership is much more diffuse and the organization is leaderful, not leaderless.
Q: Could you use one word to describe Republican presidential debates?
A: Comical or tragic. Comatragic. It’s a rabid racist statement to the bottom.
Q: One word to describe Donald trump?
Q: Would you like to see Bernie Sanders as a new left candidate?
A: I think it’s great that Bernie Sanders is exciting people. William Sapphire said the other day that Bernie Sanders is no more a socialist than George Bush, and he had a point. If by socialism you mean public works and social security, the whole government is socialist in that sense, but they’re not really socialist in asking to end exploitation of capitalism or share the wealth.
Socialism is a common view, and the fact that Bernie Sanders is speaking about wage inequality and war and peace is good. I don’t think he’s clear on questions of race and racism. I don’t think he’s bringing that to the table nor excites a base that could be important to him.
Q: Movements advocating fossil fuel divestment have arisen on many campuses. In April, 19 students at Yale were arrested after holding a sit-in that advocated divestment. What are your thoughts on fossil fuel divestment and what would you say to the Yale administration?
A: I’m not close enough to it to be an interventionist, but I’m very supportive from afar of these students. There’s really a clash of ideas [as to] what the university should be. In this clash, there are always forces that say it’s an institution that has to raise money and have good business practices. Then there are these students, who tend to think the main things to emphasize about the university are intellectual freedom and high moral standing. If you want to be intellectually free and have moral standing, then investment in the war industry, the fossil fuel industry and apartheid is unjust. The world knows it’s unjust.
How can Yale be a fair player or good place for students to be if it’s entangled with the worst aspects of our country? It’s easy to side with students, because there’s an expression wanting a free and moral space of learning. Students don’t want a business that’s invested in the bottom line and don’t think [Yale] should cash in on slave labor to make a nice building. If I said to the Yale administration, “If you could make extra money by investing in modern-day slavery, would you do it?” They would say, “Absolutely not.” Where do we draw the line? What won’t they invest in? I would like the university to be more moral, more honest, and more forthright, as well as a freer space for inquiry without being bothered by mobile oil or the rest of it.
Q: What is your advice to students interested in grassroots activism?
A: I’m at the point in my life where I want to follow them rather than advise them. I don’t feel like I’m a wise elder. I’m so perfectly happy to go to Black Lives Matter protests and sit in the back and follow the kids. What I do know is that if you want to lead a politically engaged life, a moral life, or be an honest intellectual, you have to follow a certain rhythm. You have to be willing to open your eyes, not once or twice, but constantly, and try to make sense of everything in front of you. Since we live in an infinite and expanding world, you can never open your eyes enough. We should be astonished at the beauty of the world but also at the injustices. We should be outraged, and then we should act. The one thing I do regret about the 60s and 70s and my participation is the failure to rethink. If you go out and act, you have to judge what you learned from that and go back to the beginning.