Wednesday, November 19, 2008

A Breath of Fresh Ayers

Remember that really shady relationship President-elect Barack Obama had with some former terrorist dude who was apparently a really dangerous badass back in the day?

Well his name is Bill Ayers, and I had the opportunity to hear him speak at an event hosted by Bus Boys and Poets on Monday evening.

"When we scheduled this 6 months ago," Bill Ayers says to the crowd, "I expected a kind of 10 person round table discussion. Obviously that's not possible now."

6 months ago, Bill Ayers was a mostly forgotten piece of history. Today, he's a name infamously linked with Obama. I'll be honest, there's no way I'd have gone to this event before he became famous, again, during this recent campaign season. I also knew though going in that he was there not to talk about Obama, or the 1960's. Really he was there to discuss his true passion: education reform.

He did address his political action in the 60's (no one died) and did address his relationship with Obama (they shook hands once), so that was kinda cool. But this un-intimidating, un-aggressive man going on 64 years didn't at all seem like the threatening personality he was made out to be on national cable television. He sounded hurt that he had been demonized, and proud that people voted against the 'guilty-by-association' attacks in regards to Obama.

He was though lively and passionate in his discussion of education reform. Ayers was a teacher before he was a radical, and he became a teacher afterward. Living and working in Chicago, Ayers has been pushing for what he calls a more true democracy in public schools. For one of my friends who accompanied me - Darby, a history/education student who's in a social justice class right now - these concepts were not new. But for me they were. And Ayers used colorful personal real-life examples of democracy at work in the classroom.

Follow the stream of thought that is Ayers: The idea that it's better to let kids discover the world for themselves, and learn to think for themselves, and discover their own identity and the idea that the teacher is not automatically the authority and that teachers can learn from students and that students can learn from each other and breaking down the 'i give you info, you memorize it' formula without talking about answering questions that people have and having a true discussion, and teaching from that plane, and the idea that, well, if the communists, fascists, and monarchies all had an education system encourages discipline, learning, being on time, respecting elders, and not doing drugs, then how was our education in democracy any different? It must be different somehow right? Well it's that encouragement for people to think for themselves that sets education in a democracy apart from education in other forms of government.

Really, nothing too radical. It's just not what we practice.

Ayers is a teacher-turned political radical-turned teacher. During that radical period, he was part of the famous New Left movement and part of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), highlighted by a sub-group called the Weathermen, of which Ayers was a sort of leader. Somewhere between then and now, he tried to blow up the Pentagon, among other major government buildings. He's a huge fan of democracy, but not a huge fan of the way the government is run.

Today, he focuses that frustration into promoting true democracy in education. It's probably a more effective and appreciated form of reform, as opposed to trying to reform the shape of the Pentagon (which remains 5-sided... I think).

No comments: