Rebel With a (New) Cause

By David Ruenzel — March 23, 1994 30 min read
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Like miniature billboards, the office doors of college professors advertise the person who works on the other side. Among the long rows of offices at the University of Illinois-Chicago’s department of education, William Ayers’s door stands out for its cheerful iconoclasm. It’s the print equivalent of a Nike shoe commercial, a medley of slogans and images. “Responsible Anarchists’’ is the headline. “Flaunt It--Queer Nation’’ is a subhead, below which is a photograph of two women immersed in a kiss. There are pictures of winsome kids, along with portraits of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.

But what is perhaps more revealing of Ayers--a former leader of the radical Weathermen organization and now a professor of education and author--is a cartoon strip that speculates what might have happened if Prozac, the so-called “miracle’’ antidepressant that levels out doubt and anxiety, had been available in the 19th century. In one frame, a mellow Karl Marx muses, “Sure, capitalism can work out its kinks.’' In another, the German philosopher and atheist Friedrich Nietzsche leaves church with his mother, saying, “Me too, Mom. I really liked what the priest said about all the little people.’'

For what characterizes Ayers is his intensity--a highly calibrated intensity that runs smoothly, even at high speed. He never seems ruffled or at a loss for words. Talking about teaching in his amusingly eclectic office, he’s effusive, effortlessly knocking off paragraphs replete with allusions, rhetorical questions, seamless transitions--and occasional expletives. Dressed in a work shirt and jeans, a nugget of an earring in his left ear lobe, he has--for all of his intensity--a warm, informal air. In introducing himself to a group of elementary teachers, he simply says, “I’m Bill. I teach college.’'

But Ayers’s intensity isn’t just “a style’'; it’s something, rather, that has propelled him to the front lines of battles that have been waged all across America. At the age of 21, he was a teacher and then director of an Ann Arbor, Mich., experimental preschool that was “multicultural’’ years before the word had currency. During the mid-60’s, he was a traveling salesman for Students for a Democratic Society, building chapters on college campuses throughout the Midwest. By April 1970, having six months earlier rampaged through the streets of Chicago during the “Days of Rage,’' he was a Weathermen fugitive, advocating armed struggle against the U.S. government. And now, as a college professor, he is bringing to the teaching of teachers the passion, radicalism, and advocacy for change that have marked all of his adult life.

All teachers, Ayers believes, must have passion in order to fight the good fight. And for the 49-year-old Ayers, the good fight is nothing less than the ongoing battle to transform both oneself and an education system that is dismissive of its disadvantaged.

“If you don’t believe in personal and collective transformation,’' Ayers asks, “then why would you possibly become a teacher? Fundamental to teaching is the belief that you can change the world. If you don’t believe in transformative possibilities, you’re left nowhere as a teacher. You’re cynical and hopeless.’'

Virtually all teachers, Ayers believes, begin as idealists. But this idealism is slowly sapped from them, ironically by the very departments of education that have been charged with their training. Teachers learn that teaching is a series of behaviors rather than rigorous intellectual work. They’re all too often patronized rather than challenged. And, when they finally begin their teaching careers, they’re subject to the dictates--and whims--of principals, administrators, and textbook publishers. As a result, they fall prey to habit, cliche, and convention.

“There’s a struggle for the soul of teaching,’' Ayers says. “Behaviorism, bureaucracy, and standardization seem to be winning, yet there are alternatives. Because of the way we’ve structured colleges of education, we’ve almost insured that teachers become less than heroic. We reward conformity, obedience, the mundane. A few risk-takers open themselves up to pain, and, when they do that, we give them accolades, rewards--as if to say, ‘That’s not achievable by the rest of you.’''

While urban school teachers may face enormous obstacles--they’re too often subordinates in a hierarchical system--Ayers has no tolerance for the whining passivity that permeates so many faculty lounges. In his 1989 book, The Good Preschool Teacher, Ayers writes, “I am disappointed in those who see themselves only as victims, unable to choose, and not responsible for outcomes.’' Time and time again, Ayers speaks of how teachers have a responsibility to resist “clerkdom,’' an obligation to fight a system that would have them function as “cogs in a machine.’' The teacher who thinks in terms of a better package to pass along--the African-American package, the new phonics package--is a teacher inviting failure. Good teaching, by its very nature, eschews the programmatic.

What, then, constitutes good teaching? Ayers, like the more unabashed progressives, does not shy away from loftiness; in his 1993 book, To Teach, he boldly states, “Teaching is primarily a matter of love.’' The teacher’s work is fundamentally ethical and intellectual and begins--though it certainly does not end--with caring and commitment.

“Teachers,’' he says, “need to think of themselves not as conveyors of curriculum but as students of their students; they must be people who can build authentic relationships with other human beings whom they care and wonder about.’'

“In one sense, whether I’m teaching whole language or phonics doesn’t matter because I’m not delivering that to you,’' Ayers says. “We’re involved in a process of going down a path together. You know, when I went to college, the professor had a reading of ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ and it was our job to figure out that true reading. That’s a ridiculous idea of what teaching is about. There are multiple readings of ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ across cultures. I’m saying the same thing for Chicago kids; there’s not one thing for them to know. If I’m teaching kids on the West Side of Chicago, my first task is to figure out who they are and to make a relationship with them. In doing that, we uncover a world that’s infinitely expanding. But you can’t do that if you think, ‘They have to know paragraphs, so I’ll drill that into them.’ It’s not that paragraphs are unimportant; it’s that paragraphs, or any other bit of knowledge, must occur in the context of kids’ lives. If you don’t care about kids’ lives, I don’t care how glorified your curriculum is.’'

Talking about teaching in such affective and empathetic terms is, as far as some critics are concerned, all too elevated; dwelling on who students are and how they feel invites, they say, a kind of cloying pandering. What is needed in this era of declining standards, their argument goes, is a redoubled insistence on the part of teachers that their students stoically master particular skills and subject matter. Former Assistant Secretary of Education Chester E. Finn Jr.--whose book (co-written with Diane Ravitch) What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know? was attacked by Ayers in an opinion piece in a 1987 Education Week--blames 60 years of “Deweyite progressivism’’ for setting American education back so far.

“Adults should know more than students and have the right to decide what it is important for them to know,’' Finn says. “Can we coerce students to learn? It’s better to motivate than to coerce, but we do, after all, tell people that they can’t drive on the left side of the road.’'

Although Ayers does not call himself a progressive (“I reject all labels,’' he says), he is driven to distraction by those who associate progressivism with laxness. “This railing against an imagined progressive takeover is nuts--a public-relations ploy,’' he says. “The belief that there was this progressive takeover isn’t backed up by any data. [Teacher-educator John] Goodlad and others demonstrate that 85 percent of what goes on in schools is textbook dominant, the teacher talking from in front of the classroom.’'

Warming to his subject, Ayers derides the portrait of the progressive as someone primarily concerned with salving wounded self-esteem. “I don’t believe kids should be given a ‘watery’ curriculum. I don’t believe you should pat kids on the head for doing nothing. I think putting Michael Jordan posters in every Chicago classroom is idiotic, as is the fetishism of black role models. Real discovery comes from an engagement with culture, not from bowing down to a symbol. This is again a caricature of progressivism--that you love the kids, so you don’t care that they go forth into the world and stumble, fall, get arrested. If you really care about the kids, you give them the tools they need to succeed.’'

Listening to Ayers talk about his expectations for teachers can make one somewhat incredulous. Transforming society and oneself ... transcending administrative limitations ... meticulously observing each child so that one can meet his or her individual needs: It all seems a bit much. Isn’t he, unrealistically, suggesting that each teacher become a hero?

Ayers does not demur. “I get irritated with the notion that heroism is beyond an ordinary person’s capacity,’' he says. “I’m an ordinary person. Debbie Meier [and] Vivian Paley are ordinary persons. Debbie says that before there was Debbie Meier, hero of [New York City’s] Central Park East, there was just this teacher everyone thought was nuts. So was what she did heroic? I think so, but in an accessible way. You don’t have to be a movie star.’'

Bill Ayers may not be a hero, but it is hard to conceive of him or his life as ordinary. A child of privilege, he was raised in Glen Ellyn, an affluent suburb of Chicago. His father, Tom Ayers, was the chairman of Commonwealth Edison and a key figure in the open-housing agreement that real-estate owners and city leaders negotiated in 1966 with Martin Luther King Jr. The middle of five children, Ayers seemed destined for success. A good student and outstanding athlete--he still has a fullback’s powerful shoulders--Ayers also possessed an unstudied charm that caused people to take notice. “My parents would never show favoritism,’' says John Ayers, Bill’s youngest brother. “But everyone knew he was the real star in this family. He’s one of the most charismatic people I’ve ever known. I used to joke with my Dad [during Bill’s Weathermen years] about how he’s risen to the top of his field. But it’s true.’'

After graduation from the elite Lake Forest Academy, he attended the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, returning home summers to work at the Leo Burnett advertising agency. There, the legendary Leo Burnett found himself charmed by Bill. “Burnett called up my Dad and said his son would make one of the great ad men,’' John Ayers says. “Bill’s a born salesman. People follow him because he has the force of ideas, articulates his vision, and throws himself into issues with abandon. Some people wonder how he can be so nice, so jazzed up. But he’s totally genuine--one of the sweetest guys who ever walked the earth.’'

During Ayers’s high school years, about the only hints of his later radicalism were a fascination with the Beat writer Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road and a vague disenchantment with the conventionalities of suburban life. But something happened to him while at Ann Arbor in the mid-60’s. That something, says Ayers, was the Vietnam War and the civil-rights movement. The former outraged him; the latter suffused him with a hopefulness that remains with him.

“I was influenced, moved more than I can say, by the willingness of ordinary people like Rosa Parks and Septima Clark to risk their lives,’' Ayers says. “I was so moved by it that I began to read everything. I went South and got involved.’'

While Ayers, along with his wife, Bernadine Dohrn, is most famous--or infamous--for his central role in the Weathermen, it is the civil-rights movement that remains the touchstone for his educational beliefs. From it, along with his experiences teaching at the Ann Arbor preschool, he derived his belief that teachers, ordinary as they are, have the capacity to act heroically.

He also came to believe that the teacher, like the civil-rights leader, has an obligation to assist people on the bottom--in this case, urban parents and their children--in what Ayers calls “their self-activity toward liberation.’' This means that the teacher should not be a heavy-handed transmitter of knowledge--thereby hoping to replicate the status quo in children’s pristine minds--but rather a catalyst, encouraging children to reflect on and build on their own experiences. The button Ayers wore while at the Ann Arbor preschool read “Children Are Only Newer People,’' reflecting his belief that children come to us already marked by the particularities of their experiences. To treat them as the proverbial empty vessels waiting to be filled is to negate their history and hence who they are.

Like a vintage Deweyite, Ayers talks a lot about the importance of learning from experience, of letting educational themes emerge from students’ interests. In practical terms--as outlined in the highly personal To Teach--this may mean asking a student to bring in a “cultural artifact’’ from home, exploring the genesis of one’s first name, or finding out the answer to a student-generated question (for example, “Where does the woman in the green shoes who I see outside of Sam Marcy’s restaurant sleep at night?’'). In the book, Ayers recounts how he challenged 10-year-olds to build bridges to exacting specifications, 12-year-olds to follow up their spotting of a snowy owl with a serious study, and a seemingly unreachable boy to teach a mini-course on his passion: skateboarding.

Reflecting his experientialist philosophy, Ayers wants his education students today to learn how to teach by teaching, plunging into the messy, frustrating, and intoxicating reality of the classroom. He disparages the managerial, behaviorist notions that he says pervade most teacher education departments. “Whole courses are centered around the assumption that we’ll teach you a few methods, a set of behaviors that will prepare you,’' he says. “In a class for instruction, a student may hear, ‘Research tells you that if you wait five seconds after asking a question, you’ll provoke greater thinking.’ But if you look at the reality of teaching, here’s this poor person set loose, thinking that if I wait five seconds, everything will fall into place.’'

“No wonder people go into teaching and then look back at the college of education and say it was a disaster, that nothing of value happened there,’' he continues. “Students realize their preparation was inadequate to what teaching turned out to be, and they’re intermittently feeling angry or just alienated. What they’ll always point out is that student teaching was the most valuable aspect of their education. That ought to tell us something about the nature of the enterprise, but it seems not to.’'

Ayers’s vision of education--and of life, for that matter--requires actual practice followed by reflection upon that practice in what is a kind of ameliorative cycle. For Ayers, this is true of all teaching, whether one is a college professor or a kindergarten teacher. Teachers immerse themselves in the practice of teaching--they, like their students, learn by doing--and then thoroughly reflect on their experiences, in what must inevitably be a penetrating and sometimes painful self-analysis. Did I do all I could to help a student pursue a particular interest? Was I overbearing in my presentation of a given subject, unnecessarily making myself the focus of attention? Did my own personal needs cause me to overreact in this or that situation? How could I have better solved a dispute between two students?

These are the kinds of questions Ayers believes teachers must ask. In his scheme of things, after all, the good teacher is one always open to change; this is the only way one can remain open to the transformative possibilities Ayers is so adamant about. Teaching, therefore, is necessarily an open-ended affair. Teachers never “arrive,’' in the sense that they have mastered the intricacies of their craft; they are, rather, always in the process of arriving. “What propels me,’' Ayers says, “is the notion of inventing yourself again and again.’'

In this less-than-idealistic age, the romantic notion of the teacher as a courageous adventurer willing to reinvent him- or herself has enormous emotional appeal. But this leads to a question: If Ayers, as a college professor, doesn’t believe that teaching is a matter of passing on knowledge, then exactly what does he teach? What is the content?

Ayers shakes his head and laughs. “That’s it, the fear college people have that something will be left out. My response to that is, ‘Almost everything will be left out.’ But it is now. And a chance to work with peers and mentors around questions that emerge in practice will serve you well when you’re a teacher. So when people criticize me for not teaching content, I ask them to tell me what you’d want me to teach. Just what is the one thing you think all students should know?’'

After a pause, Ayers answers his own question. “I’ll tell you what they typically say: classroom management first. Now, why is that always the first thing? Because we’re so socialized into the behaviorist model of schooling. We know in our guts that students don’t want to be there. The number-one question, therefore, is how do we keep them there? How do we keep them from riding us out of school on a rail? If we do things your way, people ask me, how will we teach our teachers classroom management? Well, are they right? Will classroom management emerge as a problem? The answer is yes. When will it emerge? Right away. So we’ll take it up right away. Have no fear.’'

On Friday afternoons, Ayers holds meetings at which teachers reflect on their classroom experiences. “At the first meeting,’' he says, “someone talked about all hell breaking loose in the classroom. Instead of me teaching them classroom management as a discrete set of skills, we took up the concrete problems she raised. We interrogated her for 30 minutes. How did it start? What time? Who was involved? Then, we developed ideas on what we thought she might do next week. The next Friday, she came back and said that nothing we suggested worked. So, we’re still in that discussion, which, over time, became one of several discussions, such as ‘I have a kid in the 3rd grade who can’t read, what should I do?,’ ‘I’m terrified of science; how do I teach this?’''

Ayers says he teaches his own students as he would like them to teach theirs, a claim that his students support. They speak of him with unqualified admiration, indicating that he has transformed their own attitudes toward teaching. “He challenges people going to ed school just to get a certificate,’' says Sharon Reyes, an administrator in a suburban school district. “You just can’t do that in his class. He challenges the status quo, bringing a spirit of critical inquiry into the classroom. As a result, students flock to his classes.’'

Ayers’s classes are a movable feast. He takes his students into schools, into the streets, for research. It is also not uncommon for him to invite them into his Hyde Park home, where authors and educators gather in what resembles a 19th-century salon. “This must be the way it was centuries ago at the feet of Socrates and Plato,’' one student says. “Great minds getting together to talk.’'

There is something about the admiration, even adoration, some people express for Ayers that borders on the excessive. Charisma has a way of winning people over even when they shouldn’t be won over, as some say happened during Ayers’s most zealous years of activism. Furthermore, he speaks so well, with such apparent effortlessness, that the listener sometimes wonders if he has, as one acquaintance puts it, “a script running through his head’'--a script that he, like a gifted politician, infuses with a tone of urgency. Indeed, it’s not hard to imagine that, in a very different time and set of circumstances, Ayers may have become, say, a respected senator.

But should one be suspicious of a person simply because of his intelligence and charms? After all, many of those who know Ayers offer unsolicited testimony to his generosity. “I’m a quiet person, not well-connected, and, yet, he took time to nurture me,’' says former student Chris Carger. “I got very sick while doing my doctorate, and he was the first one to stop at the hospital, books under his arm for me to read.’'

Teachers talk of how he offers helpful advice without the least bit of pretentiousness. Lynn Cherkasky-Davis, a kindergarten teacher and the director of Chicago’s Foundations School, says: “I didn’t think I’d have anything in common with Bill Ayers, but then he came into my classroom, and I wished we had been together years earlier. He sees things other people don’t see. Because of him, for instance, I changed the location of the math center; he said it needed to be longer, to have more vertical space. He’s got this sixth sense.’'

It’s true that teachers who develop deep personal relationships with their students run certain risks, as do the students. There is always the chance of a certain loss of perspective, of an adulation that interferes with reason. But for Ayers--and for teachers rooted in the progressive tradition--teaching, if it is to be transformative, must be about caring and commitment. The teacher must breach the distance between teacher and pupil, relinquishing the safe but enervating aloofness that renders the teacher a clerk.

If the civil-rights movement informed the “sensitive’’ Bill Ayers--that is, helped shape the empathetic side that has apparently so inspired his students-- the Weathermen years, many would say, speak of something darker.

For the civil-rights movement was inspired in part by an evangelism that insisted each person had an inherent right to be treated with dignity and respect; the Weathermen ideology, fueled by crude Marxism-Leninism and a smirking arrogance, had a tendency to approach--or dismiss--people as abstractions. Third-world revolutionaries were heroes; police were “pigs’’ (“Oink, oink, bang, bang, off the pig!’' was one of the Days of Rage chants). Members of Students for a Democratic Society who were unwilling to transform themselves into armed insurgents were “movement creeps,’' “right wingers,’' “wimpy.’' At the 1969 “National War Council’’ in Flint, Mich., where the Weathermen irrevocably broke with more moderate S.D.S. contingents, the Weathermen posted an enemies list that included Richard M. Nixon, Hubert H. Humphrey, and the actress Sharon Tate, who had recently been murdered by members of the Manson “family.’' The slogans were “Piece Now,’' “Sirhan Sirhan Power,’' and “Red Army Power.’'

In but a few years, Ayers seemed to have moved light-years from his civil-rights roots. The teacher who had encountered each child as a unique individual, as someone who must be respected for what he or she was, was now part of a splenetic collective that, in its almost eschatological vision, divided the world into revolutionary heroes and fascistic enemies. They were not unlike the socialists in Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man, who approach the black protagonist as a pawn in a grand ideological scheme.

Ayers’s personal history, then, seems paradoxical. How could someone of whom virtually everyone speaks as warm and compassionate, someone who adamantly says, “We’ve got to challenge the arrogance of marking, sorting other people,’' have been a leader of a group that talked of “armed struggle’’ and “trashing the masses’’? The Weathermen’s 1974 political declaration, “Prairie Fire,’' which Ayers co-wrote while living underground, is studded with such statements as, “The purpose of class analysis is to isolate the enemy and to identify our potential friends. ... Our intention is to disrupt the empire, to make it hard for it to carry out its bloody functioning. ... Without armed struggle there can be no revolution.’'

Ayers now acknowledges that “Prairie Fire’’ was rhetorically strident. But rhetoric is never morally neutral; its excesses and distortions reveal an unwillingness to face the truth. The years of Ayers’s extreme activism can perhaps be attributed to youthful grandiosity, along with indignation at the continuation of the Vietnam War. But the activism also seems clearly rooted in his experientialist philosophy. One of the reasons why the Weathermen split with the S.D.S. was because they disdained what they saw as the latter’s interminable intellectualizing; talk was no substitute for action.

“I’ve always thought of myself as a teacher,’' Ayers says. “I have believed since I got into the movement in ’64 and ’65 that we learn from our experience. That’s why I became a large organizer for demonstrations--because I think people learn from their experiences. This was true of the movement. The movement had to learn by doing. You couldn’t learn by sitting in a coffee shop wondering about concrete conditions. Instead, you had to learn by opposing concrete conditions. The mass of people who ended up opposing the Vietnam War learned the nature of society through their opposition to the war. You can only learn so much from a book. You learn by putting yourself in a situation where society reveals itself. For me, one of the most important demonstrations I organized was at the [1968] Democratic convention. Because this was the place where the American government showed itself for what it was: a brutal, divisive, authoritarian force that was doing whatever it took to maintain policies and position.’'

But learning by doing in the schools is one thing; learning by doing through planned violent confrontation is quite another. The former, as in Dewey’s Chicago Laboratory School, is experimental; the latter, on the other hand, is inevitably destructive. During the October 1969 Days of Rage in Chicago, about 300 Weathermen smashed windows and fought with police; 70 people were injured, one critically. In 1970, three Weathermen were killed while building a bomb at a townhouse in New York City’s Greenwich Village. Three days later, Ayers, wanted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation on several riot-related charges, went underground, where he--along with the remaining members of the Weathermen--would remain for 11 years. The Weather Underground, as they now called themselves, went on to bomb a number of other targets, including the Pentagon and the U.S. Capitol.

Ayers doesn’t apologize for his Weathermen years, but he does acknowledge mistakes. “When you’re willing to take incredible risks, to pump yourself up, you do lose perspective, critical capacity,’' he says. “There’s an edge in these kinds of movements for reduction, and, as a result, I’m now allergic to dogma.’' Ayers mentions a recent movie, “Farewell My Concubine,’' that attacks the excesses of the Cultural Revolution in China. The movie, made by a former member of the Red Guards, is particularly harsh in its criticism of the guards. Speaking of the director’s rueful self-assessment, Ayers says, “I feel somewhat that way myself.’'

But any tone of regret quickly disappears; Ayers says he’s proud to have been swept up into a life of meaning. “I didn’t think I’d be here tomorrow,’' he says. “I thought I was going to die for the cause, and some of my friends did. Nothing in art and literature has captured that time because there’s a dimension of it that’s both deeply political and peculiarly American--that’s full of adolescent sexuality and rock and roll. I feel good fortune to have lived through it and not perished in the fire. And I still draw much of my inspiration from it.’'

The inspiration had been fueled by rage during the height of the Weathermen’s activities, but as the war in Vietnam ended and the 70’s moved on, Ayers and the 11 other Weathermen fugitives became increasingly more circumspect, if not contrite. In a communiquÀe titled “New Morning--Changing Weather,’' they wrote, with a hint of longing and regret, of how they had wrongly cut themselves off from the very youthful communities the movement needed for its sustenance. The document seemed to represent, for Ayers at least, a tilting back to the ethos of the civil-rights movement; it was urgent to work for something rather than to align oneself in violent opposition to it.

This sense culminated, years later, in Ayers’s deep involvement with the Chicago school-reform movement, which stripped power from the central bureaucracy and placed it in the hands of local school councils consisting largely of parents.

“Times change, things change, and what was appropriate then isn’t appropriate now,’' Ayers says of his change of course. “I look at the Chicago school-reform movement as an extension and expression of the civil-rights movement. It’s about urban dwellers of the North seizing control of the institutions that shape their children.’'

While living underground, Ayers worked as a laborer, a stevedore, a baker, and a farm worker. In 1977, he and Bernadine Dohrn had their first child, Zayd. Two more sons, one adopted, would arrive in 1980 and 1981.

In 1978, having attained at least a semblance of ordinary life, Ayers--still a fugitive and using the assumed name Tony Lee--walked into a Manhattan day-care center called B.J.'s Kids. It was as if he had never left the preschool he had taught at a decade earlier. Ayers had come merely to enroll Zayd, but manager B.J. Richards immediately wanted to hire him.

“He’s magical with children,’' Richards says. “The moment he left, my co-worker and I looked at each other and said, ‘He has to work here.’'' He soon did.

“He treats each child like a person,’' Richards says of Ayers. “He doesn’t patronize children but just talks to them as they are. He always has a story or song up his sleeve. He also has an ability to spot a problem before it arises, stepping in just when the children are on the verge of conflict. We’d go to the playground, and women from all over New York would say, ‘Oh God, you’re so good with kids.’ No one would ever say that to me.’'

In 1980, after the U.S. Justice Department decided not to pursue its case against the Weathermen, Ayers and Dohrn came out of hiding. Dohrn, whose name had appeared on the F.B.I.'s “10 most-wanted list,’' pleaded guilty to aggravated battery and jumping bail and was fined $1,500 and placed on three years’ probation. (In 1982, Dohrn served seven months in jail for refusing to cooperate with a grand-jury investigating a 1981 Brink’s truck robbery in Nanuet, N.Y., which had been carried out by three members of the Weather Underground. Dohrn is now the director of the Children and Family Justice Center at Northwestern University School of Law.)

Deciding he wanted to be a force for educational change, Ayers attended Bank Street College of Education in New York City and then Columbia University’s Teachers College, where he received his doctorate in 1987. Shortly thereafter, he became an assistant professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago. The man who once wanted to topple the government now seemed to be everywhere, even conducting meetings with powerful business executives involved in school reform.

It is difficult to match up the sensitive, well-connected educational reformer of today with the revolutionary firebrand of the past. But many who know Ayers suggest that he is essentially the same person now as he was then. Fred Hess, the executive director of the Chicago Panel on School Policy, a group that monitors Chicago school reform, points out that sensitivity and anger are closely aligned.

“From my perspective, the Days of Rage were driven by a sensitivity toward the injustices that were happening to the disenfranchised,’' Hess says. “That is, you become sensitive to one group but feel great anger toward another. The same basic motivation drives Bill now that drove him when he was 25: a desire to create a world in which the disadvantaged have an equal shot.’'

Mike Klonsky organized S.D.S. chapters with Ayers in the 60’s and recently studied with him in a doctoral program. He says the Ayers of today is much more tolerant than the person who once tried to stop the war with a band of 100 radicals.

“Now he’s a very patient educator who can talk to people who don’t share his views,’' says Klonsky, who broke with Ayers for 10 years because of his involvement in the Weathermen. “But you have to remember that in ‘68, a lot of people were angry. He’s basically a warm, loving person who ran a day-care center, and if you’re a teacher of kids, it’s hard to see pictures of them being napalmed. You must understand him in this context. Yes, I disagreed with him over the use of terrorism, but the main victims of that terrorism were the Weathermen themselves.’'

In the 70’s, the media often portrayed the Weathermen as pampered rich kids who felt they had license to raise havoc. Such a suggestion angers Klonsky. “He sat at that table,’' Klonsky says of Ayers’s privileged upbringing. “And he didn’t like the taste of the food.’'

On a frigid Friday afternoon, Ayers is talking about developing schools within schools--promoting small schools is one of his current projects--with 17 teachers from the Coleman School, which is directly across the street from the Robert Taylor Homes, the notorious public-housing project on Chicago’s South Side. The meeting is in the library. The room resembles a bunker. There are no windows. The brick walls are covered with fading green paint. There are exposed pipes and ductwork.

Ayers, dressed in a pink flannel shirt and a plaid blazer, itemizes the advantages of starting a smaller school. Kids, he says, will have a powerful sense of belonging, and teachers will have a much greater opportunity to collaborate. He provides examples of how the small-schools concept has succeeded in New York City. Teachers on the bottom of the totem pole can empower themselves, developing a school true to their own conceptions.

The teachers are polite but cautious. They have seen, as Ayers acknowledges, dozens of educational trends come and go. They have a number of questions. Would they still have to administer standardized tests and meet certain state guidelines?

Ayers is reassuring but also honest. Starting a new school is difficult, but it can be done if teachers really want it. Then, he says something that is vintage Bill Ayers. “This isn’t something ready-made that we’re going to give you. It won’t come to you on a plate. We’re not selling you a small school. If you’re interested, you’ll have to decide how to make time to implement it. What we’re giving you is something to think about in terms of teachers seizing control of content.’'

By the end of the meeting, one thing is clear to everyone in the room: Teachers can get help, but they themselves are ultimately responsible for creating change.

John Kotsakis, an assistant to the president of the Chicago Teachers Union, doesn’t think Ayers understands just how difficult transforming schools really is; there are countless things that can happen to a school and staff over which they have no control. Kotsakis offers small schools as an example. “Bill ought to be forthright in telling you just how difficult it is to do small schools in this city,’' he says. “We can’t do here what they do in New York.’' Kotsakis enumerates a host of regulatory obstacles.

But don’t small schools exist in Chicago? Isn’t the reform-minded Foundations School, in fact, an independent school within the larger Price School?

“There are none,’' says Kotsakis. “This is where Bill’s idealism gets in the way, takes off into the atmosphere. Foundations School can be destroyed at any time.’'

A few days after meeting with the teachers from Coleman, Ayers talks once again about the 60’s. “I don’t think we were heroic guerrillas, but we weren’t the ends of civilization either. We took an extreme stance, but what we were right about was taking a stance at all. I don’t feel anger at Vietnam vets, at people who were trying to figure out what was right. But the people I do feel were dead wrong were those who were indifferent.’'

“The horror is going through a life of habit, ritual, convention, and not ever saying, ‘I’m responsible.’ What I ask teachers to do is to be conscious of what they’re doing as a choice. If it’s just a convention, or something scripted, then you’re not alive as a teacher--you’re just a clerk. And one of my major hopes is that teachers can rise above clerkness.’'

A version of this article appeared in the March 23, 1994 edition of Education Week as Rebel With a (New) Cause


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