Bill Ayers in Retirement

At a “fireside chat” that followed his speech to the Association of Teacher Educators on Sunday morning, February 17, Bill Ayers, co-founder of the terrorist group the Weathermen and retired “distinguished professor of education” from the University of Illinois at Chicago, expressed his gratitude that the Atlanta Hyatt Regency Hotel did not “buckle” and reveal to callers when and where he would be speaking during the conference.  There were no protestors, and no visible police.  Few would have guessed that Ayers’s speech would come at 9:45 on a Sunday morning.

I had expected Ayers to be more of a novelty or a celebrity.  But he was treated as a highly regarded mentor.  A few people chatted with him right before his talk, but there was no clamoring throng.  There is no sense of subversive celebrity.  Ayers is one of them, one of the thousands of middle-class, indistinguishable attendees one would expect to see at an education conference.  But education, in the real sense, is the least of Ayers’s concerns.

Ayers’s real concern, and the concern of many in the educating educators industry, which trains and certifies future teachers, is turning classrooms into spaces for activism on behalf of what is called “social justice.”  As they do this, they gloss over the violent past and revolutionary Marxist goals of its purveyors.  Ayers has repeatedly called himself a communist with a small “c,” and the Weathermen were involved in several bombings.

Ayers mentioned that he would be having a meeting with a union in a couple days.  Then I read a report of his speech on February 26 at Minnesota State University, where he is to be scholar in residence. The news report said he spoke about “education reform,” but the quotations from his talk were the same as what I heard in Atlanta.

Ayers quoted his mother: “’Education is God’s work.’”

He also said, “’Education can shape your destiny, and can shape the destiny of a people,’” quoting his father (the wealthy and politically powerful chairman of Commonwealth Edison, Thomas Ayers of Chicago).

Ayers also re-used his observations from his visit to apartheid schools in South Africa.  Among the pearls cast over and over in books, articles, and speeches was this one dutifully reported in the North Dakota paper: “every child should receive the same education in the U.S.”  And this one: “’Every human being is entitled to an education that will develop the whole human personality.’”

No kidding.  But where is the substance?

The answer, of course, is that there is none.  Ayers attempts to subvert education and to turn students into foot soldiers for the Revolution. Teachers, he said in Atlanta, should teach “authenticity,” “initiative,” “courage,” and how to “engage in dialogue.”  Ayers’s speech, like his books and articles, was a stream-of-consciousness pastiche of slogans, rallying cries, anecdotes, and loose references to poetry.

Ayers’s role was to encourage the troops — the comfortable middle-class educators spending a few days listening to speeches like Ayers’s and presenting resumé-enhancing papers to a handful of colleagues.  (One presenter spoke to an empty room.)  “We are world-changers, one student at a time,” Ayers told his appreciative audience.  “World-changers,” of course, have no time for such matters as measuring student academic achievement, adhering to standards, or ensuring that teachers are knowledgeable in their subject areas.  In fact, Ayers considers testing and regularly scheduled class periods to be symptomatic of a prison-like system.  For Ayers, education is “naturally cooperative.”  He quipped, “The idea that education is competition makes what hair I have left curl.”  Titles of panel sessions were in line: “Making the Most of History: Teaching Historical Empathy Across the Content Area,” “Encouraging Equity and Social Justice in a Diverse Society,” and “Cultivating Student Learning: Critical Elements for Enhancing a Global Community of Learners and Educators via Teacher Reflectivity.”

Fellow educators applauded lines from Ayers like, “We are finite beings while plunging through infinite space.”  Yet, Ryan Flessner, of Butler University, who had introduced Ayers, remarked afterward that he was always sweaty after an Ayers talk because of the “intellectual workout.”  There were in-jokes about Marco Rubio’s sip of water and a reference to the “majority” knowing that guns should not be allowed in a city.  Yet Ayers was praised by Flessner for an “ability to see issues from multiple perspectives” because he had invited Tucker Carlson of Fox News into his home as part of the prize in a fundraiser for the Illinois Humanities Council.

The Association of Teacher Educators claims to be “devoted solely to the improvement of teacher education for both school and campus-based teacher educators.”  Founded in 1920, ATE represents over 650 colleges and universities, 500 major school systems, and the majority of the state departments of education.  Based in the Washington, D.C., area, it “represents its members’ interests before governmental agencies and educational organizations,” and has two voting seats on the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education.

So bureaucrats, at both public and private institutions, issuing expense checks for $300-plus in registration and membership fees, plus airfare, hotel rooms, meals, and miscellaneous expenses no doubt justify such expenses under “professional development.”

In spite of the fancy accommodations and warm reception by the education establishment, Ayers told his admirers, “I have a history of being marginalized,” a reference to the controversial association with Barack Obama during the 2008 campaign.  (The project they worked on together, the Annenberg Challenge, with its Ayers-designed radical curriculum, failed miserably to improve educational outcomes for intended beneficiaries, Chicago inner-city students.)

Still, Ayers presents himself as one of the beleaguered world-changers, teachers who have a “mind wrecking and bone crunching” task.  But there is a moral satisfaction: If you want to do something “useful,” without making six figures, become a teacher, he said.  Shortly before he retired, he, of course, was earning a base salary $126,000.  Ayers also made frequent trips for speaking and “research” gigs, courtesy of Illinois taxpayers, as I learned from his records.  He served on numerous dissertation committees, especially at Georgia Southern University.

Now in retirement, Ayers apparently enjoys a lifestyle that requires even less work than he had as a distinguished professor of education.  (His syllabi indicated none of the traditional time-consuming assignments that we professors are used to, but instead “deep” in-class discussions and “reflective” projects.)

Ayers presents a curriculum of questions like “Who am I?  What am I here for?” (verbatim).  He promotes group work to address such questions.  He suggested that education professors ask their students to clarify their own values by writing down three qualities they would bestow on all human beings.  Students should work in small groups to come to agreement and then in a larger group to come to agreement.  The goal?   Learning respect for others and for self, and a “love for humanity.”

Teaching has turned into community organizing, I realized.  Bill Ayers is the mentor. I learned at one panel that some schools now are 24-hour “community centers,” complete with dental care services.  Teachers, who have no memory of the 1960s or 1970s (and thus of traditional education), are enjoined to go into the “community,” to teach students how to talk to parents, to be a “bridge,” to go to churches and neighborhood association meetings, and to visit students’ homes.  The atmosphere was suffused with do-goodism that indicated an alarming violation of teacher-student boundaries, especially in the last session I attended, where two area public high school English teachers with formerly “undocumented” students, both girls, discussed how they used their classes for advocacy on behalf of illegal aliens.

The weekend was surreal.  Ayers studiously avoided any references to his violent past, glossing over facts in his anecdote-filled speech. The North Dakota newspaper reporter described Ayers in the sanitized manner these educators would have used: as an “educational reform advocate and former anti-war activist.”

At the “fireside chat,” Ayers gave suggestions for “How to survive till the Revolution” with “anarchist calisthenics,” at any time during the day when an administrator is not looking over shoulders.  Every institution has “cracks.”

It’s for the kids: “Every kid deserves to get a well-rested and well-paid teacher,” said Ayers.  The way to pay for it has not changed since the 1960s, though: “close the Pentagon.”

He gave both his congratulations and sympathies to a doctoral student from Baylor University for being at a Baptist institution.   Her academic field in education is — a direct quotation — “transformative citizenship.”

Ayers’s mentee Barack Obama is in the White House and going after the military.  Ayers is the “2013 College of Education and Human Services visiting scholar,” delivering the public address and meeting with several classes and discussing curriculum with faculty at Minnesota State University, Moorhead — with security, faculty salaries, overhead, and everything else state and federal taxpayers support to keep a public university going.  It was an education professor, Steve Grineski, who invited Ayers to come and spread his ideas to future teachers and other students.

Today, Ayers is a grandfather and a senior mentor to such professors and students.  Who would have thought back in the 1970s, during his days as a fugitive from the law, that he would spend his golden years basking in such glow?