Saturday, October 11, 2008

The Bill Ayers I Know

Because of its current significance, I am posting this letter from University of Illinois at Chicago Professor William H. Schubert , in its entirety.

I feel compelled to comment on our friend and colleague, Bill Ayers, in view of the disappointing distortions and insinuations perpetrated against him. Here is the Bill Ayers I know.

I have known Bill Ayers as a colleague at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) for over twenty years and know him as a good and just human being. I served on the search committee that selected him as the most outstanding applicant based on his scholarship, teaching capacity, and doctoral work at Columbia University. I became Chair of Curriculum and Instruction at UIC (1990-94) shortly after Dr. Ayers was hired in 1987, and became Chair again (2003-2006) as he became a recognized scholar. Moreover, as a thirty –plus year member of the American Educational Research Association (AERA) and presidents of the Society of Professors of Education, the John Dewey Society, the Society for the Study of Curriculum History, and vice president for AERA’s Division B, I have had ample opportunities to observe the emergence of Dr. Ayers’ outstanding contributions to education. The fact that Dr. Ayers was elected this year as the vice president of AERA’s Division B is a testimony of such a stature and high esteem he holds in the field of education locally, regionally, nationally, and internationally.

Bill has written extensively about social justice, democracy, school contexts, and ethics regarding students, families, and educators. His has written more than 150 chapters and articles that have appeared in such journals as the Harvard Educational Review, the Journal of Teacher Education, Teachers College Record, Rethinking Schools, the Nation, Kappan, and the Cambridge Journal of Education. He has authored or edited sixteen books. His research and innovation based on it has been supported by the MacArthur Foundation, the Joyce Foundation, the Chicago Community Trust, the Annenberg Foundation, Readers Digest, and the Chicago Public Schools.

In many of his scholarly writings, Dr. Ayers has called attention to the role of teachers to demonstrate greater social responsibility in meeting the needs of children. In 1989, he wrote The Good Preschool Teacher, research on six exemplary, though quite different, preschool teachers. He also joined an on-going project that I had developed with graduate students, called the Teacher Lore Project, an endeavor that recognized and interpreted what teachers know from experience, and we mentored several dissertations that strove to understand the meanings of teaching for teachers, culminating in the publication of the book, Teacher Lore (1992, 1999). Over twenty-five dissertations have grown from this project and its offshoot, student lore, an attempt to understand the meanings students glean from their experiences. Several books have been published, based on these dissertations, to enhance perspectives of prospective and practicing teachers.

Social justice in lives of teachers and students was the major theme of another book by Dr. Ayers, To Teach: The Journey of a Teacher (1993, 2001 revised) which was one of Teachers College Press’s best selling books; it was named Book of the Year in 1993 by Kappa Delta Pi, and won the Witten Award for Distinguished Work in Biography and Autobiography in 1995. Dr. Ayers also edited the following noteworthy volumes: To Become a Teacher: Making a Difference in Children’s Lives (1995), a compendium of perspectives on teacher education and dilemmas in teachers’ early career experiences, and City Kids/City Teachers (1996, and recently revised and expanded in 2008), wherein the plight of oppression in our urban areas is portrayed along with imaginative ways to address such circumstances through education.

Bill served as Assistant Deputy Mayor for Education in Chicago in 1990, supported by UIC. Later he applied his concern for social justice in teachers’ lives by founding the Small Schools Workshop (SSW), to provide opportunities through UIC for teachers and students in some of Chicago’s most disadvantaged schools to create small, personal communities and more relevant curriculum and teaching, thus transforming large, impersonal schools with support from many corporate foundations. Over the years the SSW has created approximately 100 secondary and elementary schools, a venture that increased academic performance, attendance, graduation rates, and decreased violence in Chicago schools. Interest from many school systems throughout the U.S. has expanded the positive impact of the Small Schools Workshop as depicted in A Simple Justice: The Challenge of Small Schools (2000), a volume for which Ayers was senior editor. Dr. Ayers was named “Citizen of the Year” for this work by Business and Professional People in the Public Interest in 1994, an award presented by Chicago’s Mayor Richard Daley.

Dr. Ayers and I teamed in the late 1980s and early 1990s to create an alternative teacher education program at UIC wherein students learned theory and research through intensive experience in Chicago schools. This was a precursor to the GATE (Golden Apple Teacher Education) project developed by Dr. Ayers from 1999-2004, an alternative certification program that immersed students in urban school reform in their teacher preparation – emphasizing understanding and action to overcome societal factors that contribute to oppressive teaching and learning conditions. His book entitled Teaching for Social Justice (1998) continues Dr. Ayers’ deep concern for urban educational renewal and the project of democracy. To these ends, Dr. Ayers orchestrated the Chicago Annenberg Challenge (as grant writer and co-founder), a project that brought $49.2 million in a two-to-one matching award for the Chicago Public Schools – a multi-foundational endeavor that yielded approximately $150 million for the Chicago Public Schools.

In the midst of all this work, Dr. Ayers continued his critique of the oppression of people of color by studying youth and teachers in Juvenile Jail and Juvenile Court of Chicago, drawing metaphorically on pioneer social worker Jane Addams’ adage when she founded that institution, saying it should provide a kind and just parent for children in crisis. His book by that title (subtitled The Children of Juvenile Court, 1997) is a narrative based on a year-long ethnography of youth who are incarcerated.

The book led to Dr. Ayers’ nomination by business and community leaders in Chicago to the board of the Woods Fund. Subsequently, he became chair of this Board and helped to restructure it as the largest Chicago contributor to community organizing, granting three million dollars per year to that cause with heavy emphasis on education reform. Addressing racism and incarceration from another angle, he critiqued punishment of children and youth in contrast to their habilitation in Zero Tolerance, a practical and thoughtful handbook for parents, students, educators, and all concerned citizens. Dr. Ayers also founded the Center for Youth and Society in 1999, which studied and assisted urban young persons of color as they face discrimination or oppression based on race, class, or gender in our culture with special emphasis on education. Dr. Ayers’ 2003 book, On the Side of the Child, argues for child advocacy on behalf of educators. He elaborated his concern for freedom, justice, and democracy in two books of illuminating essays published in 2004: Teaching the Personal and the Political and Teaching Toward Freedom. Moreover, Dr. Ayers has created opportunity for other scholars to publish their ideas by developing a successful book series with Teachers College Press: Teaching for Social Justice.

Because of his scholarly work on and insights about social justice, Dr. Ayers is often called upon to speak and advise educators. I estimate that he has averaged a keynote address per week for the past several years. He reviews manuscripts regularly for many scholarly and professional journals, serves on editorial boards, and advises boards of many prominent educational concerns. Amidst all of this work, Dr. Ayers tirelessly serves students and the public. He strives to present fairly a diverse range of perspectives on issues he discusses and never compels students or others to adhere to his convictions. In fact, he relishes seeing students and colleagues soar to heights that surprise him with novel ideas, and then he works assiduously to enhance their ideas and research for publication or leadership opportunities. He has chaired over 40 Ph.D. dissertations and has been a member of more than 50 other dissertation committees, most at UIC, though several at other universities throughout the U.S. and in other nations. He reads students’ writing carefully and takes time to help students, other young authors, and beginning faculty members make the kinds of contributions they want to make.

Bill writes extensively in the public domain as well as in scholarly outlets, e.g., a frequent writer for major newspapers, magazines, and Internet sites. He travels nationally and internationally (e.g., South Africa, China, Korea, England, Netherlands, Germany, Egypt, France, Hong Kong, Venezuela, Canada) to speak and advise. His home is like an intellectual salon wherein he prepares wonderful dinners and hosts a constant flow of intellectuals, artists, concerned citizens, and activists with whom he and Bernardine Dohrn (Bill’s spouse, colleague, and internationally known activist law professor at Northwestern) collaborate. His devotion to his children and family is exemplary.

Bill’s contributions have been clearly recognized at UIC where he has been designated the President’s Distinguished Speaker of the University of Illinois, Distinguished Professor of Education, and University Scholar in perpetuity (normally a three year award). Notably, too, he has been named Randolph Distinguished Visiting Professor at Vassar College, Distinguished Scholar at the McKissick Museum of Education at the University of South Carolina, Visiting Scholar at Lesley College, received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from Nazareth College in Rochester, and has presented invited lectures or colloquia at such places as the American Educational Research Association, American Association of Curriculum and Teaching, Harvard University, Coalition of Essential Schools, University of Washington, the Detroit Institute of Art, University of Ottawa, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, University Libraries Colloquia at Michigan State University, University of Wisconsin, University of Hawaii, Institute for Democracy and Education, Rethinking Schools, University of Michigan, University of Chicago, Los Angeles Public Library, Oregon State Bar, Purdue University, American Psychological Association, AATCE, State Prison of New York, The Gates Foundation, Indiana University, Columbia University, Bank Street College, Georgia Southern University, Colgate University, National Academy of Education, I Have a Dream Foundation, University of North Carolina, Children’s Law Center of Minnesota, Rice University, New York University, Yale University, and many other colleges, universities, public events, private and public schools. All of this bespeaks Bill’s work as a public intellectual based on his scholarly efforts for democracy and social justice, as does his service on several boards of directors, notably a founding member of the board of the Public Square, formerly the Center for Public Intellectuals, and his numerous radio and television appearances.

All of the above is informed by Dr. Ayers’ central concern -- an unfaltering and tireless struggle of victims of socio-economic, political, national, and racial oppression.

It has been a pleasure to share over the past twenty years his weaving of tapestries of personal and political experience, teaching, scholarship, and service that inspire educational reformers to challenge oppression and injustice. Ayers has argued that social justice work demands not merely “service to” but “solidarity with” the oppressed. This turn of phrase aptly expresses the efforts of Bill Ayers to contribute to human betterment informed by scholarly work.

Dr. Ayers lives his commitment of concern for others at the interpersonal level. As busy as he is in all of the above and more, Bill is somehow always there for friends or colleagues at important junctures of their lives – for marriages, births, graduations, deaths – and in times of need he is not just a quick visitor, he remains in helpful contact for as long as needed. I have benefited from this immensely amid both tragic and joyful events of my own life.

So, when he has been heard to say, “We didn’t do enough,” it is emblematic of his philosophy that all of us, including himself, can do more to work for liberty and justice for all a value that is deeply human and part of the best of the American creed.

This is the Bill Ayers I know!

William H. Schubert

Professor of Education and University Scholar

University of Illinois at Chicago

Coordinator, Ph.D. Program in Curriculum

Coordinator, M.Ed. Program in Educational Studies

(312) 413-2411


  1. If you don't want people to take Bill Ayers' words out of context, you should refrain from doing it yourself. I have heard the comment in Mr. Ayers' own words. The interviewer told Ayers that we would just like to hear him say, "We were young. We made some mistakes. And we're sorry."

    Ayers replied, "We were young... we made some mistakes...", and then he and Dohrn both laughingly said, "And we'd do it again!" Then they tossed in the comment that they wish they had done more.

    The subject was their terrorist activities, and their cheerful, "We would do it again," provided a clear and undeniable context.

    As to his choice of profession: Ted Kaczynski was an associate professor at the University of Michigan, and yet I find myself unwilling to excuse his terrorism.

    Timothy McVeigh was convinced that his was a righteous cause, as were the 9/11 terrorists, and every abortion clinic bomber. Bill Ayers is no different. He was convinced that his personal vision of right and wrong superceded all others.

    I do not want any person who sees the world in such absolute terms "educating" my children... nor any other children. The fact that you agree with his particular world view is of absolutely no consequence. You approve of him, therefore you say that he is "good". It sickens me to know that there are many people who would provide an equally heartfelt endoresement of Timothy McVeigh.

    My father was also a university professor. One of his colleagues, and a personal mentor of mine, was at Berkeley during the time Bill Ayers was building bombs. We have discussed those times on many occasions. I can assure you that your view of Mr. Ayers is far from representative of all academia. It tells us far more about you that it does about Mr. Ayers.

  2. Scott,

    Thanks for your comment. I assume you are responding to Professor Schubert's post--not mine. Of course you are entitled to you opinion about Bill Ayers--his politics from 40 years ago and now. Without defending either of those politics, I'd take issue with a couple of your points.

    First, no one is asking you to "excuse his terrorism." That's a straw man. Sen. Obama certainly hasn't done that. And let's face it, if this wasn't about your fears about Obama, we wouldn't even be discussing Bill Ayers. Would we?

    Second, if you don't want Ayers, "educating your children" simply don't enrol them at UIC's College of Education. But hundreds of students are choosing to study with Dr. Ayers. It was a rewarding experience for me. He is certainly one of the most popular profs there. He is a Distinguished Professor of Education, and as Dr. Schubert's post makes clear, he has earned that title and his tenure honorably. In other words, you don't get to fire tenured professors because you don't agree with their "world view." Sorry

    Third, nobody claims that Bill Ayers is "representative of all academia." I'm sure he wouldn't make that claim.

  3. I appreciate the time, concern and detailed documentation Professor Schubert has offered in his testimonial about Bill Ayers. It is extremely helpful to have a historical perspective and to have context for filling in gaps left open by the media. I did not know many of these details and would not have known where to go to find out!

    As a working mother, aspiring educator and everyday person struggling to find effective ways to connect my work with individual students' and their lives to a larger system, I often think of Bill and the ideas I've been exposed to in his classes, in his writing, working alongside him, and calling upon him for assistance.

    In my experiences Bill Ayers offers portraits and pictures of how life, education, schools CAN be, and encourages us to aspire to create the kinds of spaces and places we would want for every child - our own child or others' children. He encourages us to try to be our best selves for and with children - and for an with each other.

    Here are some important ideas I have developed while being around Bill...
    *education is a moral act - i am not a religious person and this idea intellectually and in practice has had a profound effect;
    * perhaps the most important starting point for questions about systems is the ask what is right for each child in turn...
    *life is nuanced, multilayered, complex
    *we are all being and becoming...

    Here are some other things about Bill - he drinks coffee from starbucks (yes, the evil empire!); he cracks up at Austin Powers films; he cooks a mean fish in a pan...and that's just the tip of the iceberg...

    I am extremely grateful as a person who is, very much, being and becoming, to have Bill and his family, his experience, perspective and history, in my life.

    Thanks, Professor Schubert for sharing a little more about Bill, and filling in a few more
    details to "the story."

  4. scott7264, let's be clear that Ayers and Dohrn were not saying that would happily go out and kill people. While other members of the group split off and committed murder, these two did not. They were specific about destroying property not people. (Not that I'm condoning that, either, but the conscious decision to not hurt people is important.) And when they say they didn't do enough or would do it again, they are referring to standing up against the horrible acts of a government. Something I wish more us had done in the past 8 years as we've watched our government lie us into an illegal invasion of another country and then detain and torture people illegally. At least Ayers wasn't out to hurt people. Our current leaders are far more heinous than he is.

  5. 40 years ago Bill Ayers wrecked a few men's rooms trying to stop an unconscionable war. 30 years ago John McCain took bribes from a corrupt banker who cost the US a trillion dollars (give or take a few billion). 10 years ago Sarah Palin advocated breaking up the United States.

    One of these people has quietly contributed his life since to improving the lives of children.

    Funny what some people wish to remember, and what they wish to forget.

    I don't always agree with Ayers on education, but his contributions are enormous.

  6. Doesn't this only show that (outside
    the bilge of talk radio) radical leftism/"cultural marxism" dominates "discourse" in the contemporary USA? Is there any objective evidence
    that shows that Ayers has done anything to improve education?

    It could also be that some of Ayer's success derives from his having a very wealthy and politically influential father.

  7. Scott's diatribe tells us far more about him than it does about Mr. Ayers et al. Also, Scott fails to realize that there're no absolute(s), given the ignoramuses to include – the so-called hero – JM's non-strategic exigencies mentioned and not-mentioned i.e... his experience, foreign affairs or otherwise, knowledge and even capacity for the present!

  8. Togo,
    Isn't Bill Schubert's post clear evidence of Bill Ayers' contributions to the field of education? What else do you need to know.

    Then you really confuse things by asking how much of "Ayer's success" derives from his having a very wealthy and politically influential father? But what "success" are you asking about? Weren't you just implying doubt about any and all of Ayers' contributions?

    But if you really want to get into that subject, why start with Bill? I mean, where would Bush2 be without his powerful rich dad? What about McCain's dad and wife Cindy's dad?

    Bill might actually be considered a traitor to his class.

  9. Thanks for the encouraging words from GSU.

  10. GSU student SmallTalk supportersNovember 26, 2009 at 12:43 PM

    Amazing that so many GSU students supported Ayers when they tried to ban him. But some of the wing-nuts there tried to sabotage the message of support (above) they sent. Thanks for taking their stupid link off of our message. We hope Bill gets to finally speak to our students.


Agree? Disagree? Let me hear from you.