Bill Ayers Talks Education/Activism
by Michelle Simmons
April 1, 2011
During a breakfast meeting at the Community Studies Center on Feb. 22, Poitras-Gleim lecturer Bill Ayers talked about the challenges of classroom teaching with about a dozen Dickinsonians. From left: Tiffany Hwang ’11, Ayers, Valerie Harmon ’05, EmilyWylie ’94 and Alejandra Estevez ’13.
The headlines may still focus on the actions of a 25-year-old anti-war activist, but more than 40 years after his involvement with the Weather Underground, Bill Ayers came to campus to share stories and advice about parenthood, education and social justice.
On Feb. 21, Ayers spoke to a capacity audience in the Anita Tuvin Schlechter auditorium as the Poitras-Gleim lecturer, part of the college’s annual Public Affairs Sympos-ium (PAS). A half-dozen student protesters handed out flyers titled “Who is the REAL Bill Ayers?” before the speech and asked probing questions during the Q&A session.
The tone was civil, however, and Ayers interwove poetry with stories about teaching and activism over the course of a long and varied career in his presentation, Igniting the Social Imagination: Organizing in Dark Times. The retired professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of Illinois at Chicago has been teaching since 1965—from kindergarten to college—and has authored nearly two dozen books on education theory and reform.
“He’s a genuine person,” said PAS committee member Giovania Tiarachristie ’13, who proposed the 2011 theme, Social Activism in the Age of Individualism. “Many people have frozen him in time in the ’60s. What’s interesting is that what he cares about is very similar to what those who argue against him believe—that we all should be activists. What you do or don’t do makes a difference.”
The next morning, Ayers joined Tiarachristie, about a dozen other students, professors and administrators at the Community Studies Center (CSC) for a more intimate, in-depth dialogue about the intersection of education and activism.
Master teachers Val Harmon ’05 and Emily Wylie ’94, both of whom teach in New York City, also attended. Over coffee, bagels and lox, Ayers fielded questions—both macro and micro—on topics such as diversity and multicultural issues, education reform, teacher-parent engagement, classroom management and controversial curricula.
“School and education will always be a contested space,” he said. “Let’s try to name that contestation and let’s enter it wisely and forcefully. … The only way to know what you get is to test it with strangers, with people who aren’t like you, in this wildly diverse, crazy country of ours.”
He also exhorted everyone at the table to “make small changes; find ways to work the cracks. If you’re always pushing for the perfect, the ideal, you’ll burn out.”
For Harmon, who teaches English at the Bronx High School for Medical Science, it was an opportunity to share philosophies, “one educator to another,” she said. “This job is really challenging—there’s not a lot of time for reflection. This [presentation] was really good for me.”
A “great conversation” is how Susan Rose ’77, professor of sociology and director of the CSC, described the gathering. “As prisoners of hope in the midst of often difficult times, we need to remind ourselves what we are doing and why. What better way than to bring together people who are committed, inspired and inspiring to remind and re-energize one another.”
View photos and hear audio from the event.