Tuesday, September 26, 2006
A Letter to the Times Found Five Years Later...
September 15, 2001
To The Editors—
In July of this year Dinitia Smith asked my publisher if she might
interview me for the New York Times on my forthcoming book, Fugitive
Days. From the start she questioned me sharply about bombings, and
each time I referred her to my memoir where I discussed the culture of
violence we all live with in America, my growing anger in the 1960's
about the structures of racism and the escalating war, and the
complex, sometimes extreme and despairing choices I made in those
Smith's angle is captured in the Times headline: "No regrets for a
love of explosives" (September 11, 2001). She and I spoke a lot about
regrets, about loss, about attempts to account for one's life. I
never said I had any love for explosives, and anyone who knows me
found that headline sensationalistic nonsense. I said I had a
thousand regrets, but no regrets for opposing the war with every ounce
of my strength. I told her that in light of the indiscriminate murder
of millions of Vietnamese, we showed remarkable restraint, and that
while we tried to sound a piercing alarm in those years, in fact we
didn't do enough to stop the war.
Smith writes of me: "Even today, he 'finds a certain eloquence to
bombs, a poetry and a pattern from a safe distance,' he writes." This
fragment seems to support her "love affair with bombs" thesis, but it
is the opposite of what I wrote:
We'll bomb them into the Stone Age, an unhinged American politician
had intoned, echoing a gung-ho, shoot-from-the-hip general… each
describing an American policy rarely spoken so plainly. Boom. Boom.
Boom. Poor Viet Nam.
Almost four times the destructive power Florida… How could we
understand it? How could we take it in? Most important, what should
we do about it? Bombs away.
There is a certain eloquence to bombs, a poetry and a pattern from a
safe distance. The rhythm of B-52s dropping bombs over Viet Nam, a
deceptive calm at 40,000 feet as the doors ease open and millennial
eggs are delivered on the green canopy below, the relentless thud of
indiscriminate destruction and death without pause on the ground.
Nothing subtle or syncopated. Not a happy rhythm.
Three million Vietnamese lives were extinguished. Dig up Florida and
throw it into the ocean. Annihilate Chicago or London or Bonn. Three
million—each with a mother and a father, a distinct name, a mind and a
body and a spirit, someone who knew him well or cared for her or
counted on her for something or was annoyed or burdened or irritated
by him; each knew something of joy or sadness or beauty or pain. Each
was ripped out of this world, a little red dampness staining the
earth, drying up, fading, and gone. Bodies torn apart, blown away,
smudged out, lost forever.
I wrote about Vietnamese lives as a personal American responsibility,
then, and the hypocrisy of claiming an American innocence as we
constructed and stoked an intricate and hideous chamber of death in
Clearly I wrote and spoke about he export of violence and the
government's love affair with bombs. Just as clearly Dinitia Smith
was interested in her journalistic angle and not the truth. This is
not a question of being misunderstood or "taken out of context," but
of deliberate distortion.
Some readers apparently responded to her piece, published on the same
day as the vicious terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, by
associating my book with them. This is absurd. My memoir is from
start to finish a condemnation of terrorism, of the indiscriminate
murder of human beings, whether driven by fanaticism or official
policy. It begins literally in the shadow of Hiroshima and comes of
age in the killing fields of Southeast Asia. My book criticizes the
American obsession with a clean and distanced violence, and the
culture of thoughtlessness and carelessness that results form it.
We are now witnessing crimes against humanity in our own land on an
unthinkable scale, and I fear that we might soon see innocent people
in other parts of the world as well as in the U.S. dying and suffering
All that we witnessed September 11—the awful carnage and pain, the
heroism of ordinary people—may drive us mad with grief and anger, or
it may open us to hope in new ways. Perhaps precisely because we have
suffered we can embrace the suffering of others and gather the
necessary wisdom to resist the impulse to lash out randomly. The
lessons of the anti-war movements of the 1960s and 70s may be more
urgent now than ever.
Thursday, September 21, 2006
ISRAEL INVADES!!! (the NY public schools)
Two years ago Joel Klein, Chancellor of the NY public schools, bowed
to a heated and disingenuous attack by a group of zealots against any
American academic who had the temerity to deviate from Israel's
elaborate,self-aggrandizing, and thoroughly dishonest story of itself,
and announced that Rashid Khalidi, the esteemed historian from
Columbia University, would not be allowed to speak at school-sponsored
teacher development sessions. Klein in effect scuttled a program in
which Columbia provided, pro bono, academics from a range of
disciplines to engage with teachers in staff development activities.
Fast forward to September,2006---five years after 911. The New York
City Council's education committee approved a curriculum that will
grant graduate credit to teachers who take a 30-hour course of study
on Israel, written by the pr department of the Israeli Consulate.
Consul General Aryeh Mekel understood the import of this unprecedented
initiative: "through the teachers a generation of leaders will be
educated to maintain the special relations between the US and
Israel....We are not bringing politics, but are exposing them to
Israel as we know it and as we would like people to know it." But no
Education is about asking questions, seeking the truth, challenging
dogma and convention, pursuing evidence, opening doors, upending
received wisdom. The City Council is promoting blatant propaganda,and
it should be resisted with the power of real education.
I'm writing these words on September 12, 2006--- the fifth
anniversary of the spectacular hijacking of the monstrous crimes of
September 11. That's right, the hijacking of the hijackings, carried
out in plain sight by a different band of right-wing zealots just as
determined to impose their arid ideology on America and the world as
the thugs of 9-11. It's a hijacking still underway, a work-in-progress
whose disastrous consequences are only partly apparent. But let's
start at the beginning, and remember how we got into this fine mess.
The attacks of September 11 were--- no doubt about it--- pure
terrorism, indiscriminate slaughter, crimes against humanity carried
out by reactionary fanatics with fundamentalist fantasies dancing
wildly in their heads. And in the immediate aftermath Americans
experienced, of course, grief, confusion, compassion, solidarity, as
well as something else: uncharacteristic soul-searching, questioning,
and political openness, but not for long.
A headline in the Onion got it only partly right: "Unsure What to
Do, Entire Country Stares Dumbly at Hands." Actually Cheney, Rumsfeld,
Ashcroft, and their gang knew exactly what to do, and they did it---
they pulled out their most ambitious plans to create a new American
empire, to remake the world to their liking, to suppress dissent, to
bail out the airlines by transferring $20 billion without safeguards
or benchmarks from public to private hands in a matter of days with a
single no-vote in the Senate, to scuttle aspects of the law that
checked their power, to deliver the country, in the words of Arthur
Miller, "into the hands of the radical right, a ministry of free
floating apprehension toward anything that never happens in the middle
of Missouri." The ideologues filled up all the available space with
their fantastic interpretation of events, and they shouted down anyone
with the temerity to disagree, donning the mantle of patriotism to
defend their every move.
The "Boondocks" and Bill Maher came under steady attack, Susan
Sontag and Edward Said were told to shut up, give up their jobs, and
by implication to retreat to their caves with their terrorist
soul-mates. When mild-mannered, slightly right wing Stanley Fish
suggested that all the mantras of the day--- we have seen the face of
evil, the clash of civilizations, we're at war with international
terrorism--- are inaccurate and unhelpful, failing for a lack of any
available mechanism for settling deep-seated disputes, he was targeted
as a destructive leech on the American way of life. Asked to apologize
for his post-modern devil work of forty years, he cracked wise,
telling me he could picture the headline: "Fish ironically announces
the death of post-modernism, millions cheer."
The president said repeatedly that America was misunderstood in the
world, and that what we have here is mainly a failure to communicate.
He sounded like the sadistic warden of the prison plantation in "Cool
Hand Luke," whose signature phrase is the focus of ridicule and
reversal. What's clear in both cases is that a failure to communicate
is the very least of it.
The press rolled over, gave up any pretense of skepticism, and
became the idiot-chorus for the powerful. When the president looked
soulfully out from our TVs and implored every American child to send a
dollar for Afghan kids, no one asked how much money would be required
to feed those kids, or how the food was going to get there and by-pass
their parents. Starvation ahead. The so-called war on terror was
simply accepted on all sides, no one qualifying with the necessary,
"so-called." No one asked whether a crime didn't require a criminal
justice response and solution---perhaps a massive response, but within
the field of criminal justice nonetheless. No one in power asked what
the field of this war would be, or how we would know if we'd won. No
one demanded evidence or proof.
And here we are: international law shredded, torture defended,
citizens rounded up and held without honoring their Constitutional
rights, nationalism promoted relentlessly, disdain for human rights on
the rise, militarism ascendant in all aspects of the culture, the mass
media flat on its back, people nodding dully as we accede to an orange
alert and march in orderly lines through security checkpoints and
random searches, organized vote suppression and rampant fraud at the
polls, mass incarceration of Black men, war without end, and on and
Five years after, we might stir ourselves to impeach the criminal
heading up this cabal, we might prepare for the criminal trials these
domestic hijackers deserve, and, at the very least, we might tell the
truth in the public square and thereby contribute to building a mass
movement for peace and justice.
Thursday, September 07, 2006
Curiouser and Curiouser (this is the next go around to the immeditely prior post)
CURIOUSER and CURIOUSER
Another go-round. The thinking gets twistier.
My son reminded me that Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, a founder of the
ACLU, was expelled from that organization because of her membership in
the CP. Others have sent me wonderful (and quite radical) statements
from John Dewey himself. A favorite anecdote: When Maxim Gorky was
in New York in 1905, he was refused lodging at several hotels because
he was traveling with a woman not his wife. The Deweys "invited the
couple to their home," and hosted a reception for students "in honor
of the non-Mrs. Gorky."
I take full responsibility for being the one who cannot invite you,
but you mistake me if you infer therefore that I think of education
ever as an apolitical endeavor. The politics of what we are doing
here is keenly felt. I embrace having our efforts identified with
radicalism, but I am opposed to the claim that violence should be part
of the solution. Civil disobedience means challenging and even
provoking authority, but it is conscientiously non violent. I am
sorry to be drawn into what seems like a very prissy judgment about
you and your past. It's not about whether you have paid your debt to
society. My primary concern is that your celebrated recent book and
"I regret none of it stance" not become the banner for our School of
I'm sorry if our letter was either hurtful or annoying, since as you
say we had no need to inform you of our non-invitation. Perhaps it
will seem less self-important or weasely if you imagine [your friends]
holding my feet to the fire, making us explain our decision, and
certainly not taking the easier, silent course of action.
I admire your opposition "to the claim that violence should be part of
the solution". I make no such claim myself, and believe, in fact, that
non-violent resistance is preferable whenever possible. Of course your
opposition puts you into direct conflict with your own government, the
greatest purveyor of violence on earth, as Martin Luther King, Jr.
noted more than once. We live in fact in a sewer of violence, often
exported, always rationalized and hidden through mystification and the
frenzied use of bread-and-circuses. If endorsing your opposition is
the oath that must be spoken in order to attend your conference or to
come to your School of Education---and I don't think it should be---
consider the exclusions: both of your US Senators, the president and
his cabinet, the liberal head of the New School and the reactionary
front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination (both of whom
committed war crimes that they've refused to account for), military
recruiters, of course, and anyone not a pacifist, and, oh, don't
forget Nelson Mandela--- he wasn't in prison all those years only for
I've never claimed that my actions were superior to yours, for
example--- actually, I'm not sure what specifically you participated
in then or now, but I know folks who built counter-institutions,
organized in factories, emigrated to Africa or Europe to get away from
the madness for awhile, built communes and collectives, fought for a
peace-and-justice platform inside the Democratic Party, and a lot
else. I don't think all of it was brilliant or perfect, of course, but
nor was it entirely stupid. I've said repeatedly that no one with eyes
even slightly open can reach the age of sixty and not have countless
regrets, and I have my share, but I can't think of a single action I
took against the government and its murderous assault in Southeast
Asia that I regret. Perhaps you can point to something in particular
that you think I should regret, and then apologize for. I'd consider
it. But I certainly don't denigrate non-violent resistance---I've
admired and participated in direct action for forty years, most
recently last week.
I've taught at UIC for twenty years, and I don't think anyone here
considers either my presence or any of my writings emblematic. I've
given several commencement addresses--- one at a school just down the
road from you--- and countless lectures--- two at your university---
and again, I doubt that anyone thought that I'd left a banner---
perhaps not even an impression. I can't imagine what forces would have
to come together to make Fugitive Days "the banner" for your School of
Education. Is anyone proposing such a thing? It seems utterly
preposterous, but it raises a question: are all scholars and educators
who might attend your gathering being scrutinized by the same standard
to determine whether their writings might inadvertently become your
If I'm as radioactive as you seem to think--- so contaminating that
simply being around me is a threat to the good people--- maybe you
should spread the alarm to my dean, my university, my publishers, the
organizers of the dozens of events I've been asked to address in the
next several months. You won't be the first, of course--- you'll be
joining a campaign already underway, fueled by David Horowitz, Sol
Stern, Chester Finn, and more.
Your choice to exclude me is neither here nor there, and I don't take
it personally. Please don't take my response personally either---I
really have no idea about your politics or your commitments or your
activities or your projects, and I'm willing to assume for now that in
your work and in your life you stand steadfastly for humanism,
progressivism, peace and justice.
Friday, September 01, 2006
Love Me, I'm a Liberal
Upon returning from summer break I found a surprising letter awaiting
me written by three colleagues from another university, two of whom
I'd known and worked with for decades. The letter simultaneously
informed me about a conference my friends were organizing and
explained--- with some anguish I think--- that I would not be welcome
They note that we're living in troubled times, that calculated
appeals to fear rule the day, and that they hope to counter all of
that. Ironically, fear is stamped all over the letter.
I'm reminded of when Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin were hauled
before the fearsome House Committee on Un-American Activities, refused
to bow, and helped to laugh it out of existence. Or when the
universities were cowed by a bullying government into banning the
DuBois Clubs--- a handful of students in the youth-wing of the CP who
were attacked by Richard Nixon for intentionally creating a front
group that would dupe people because it rhymed with the Boys Clubs---
and we members of Students for a Democratic Society signed up en masse
and swelled their membership a hundred-fold.
I find myself sitting here humming Phil Ochs' brilliant "Love Me,
I'm a Liberal".
Different times demand different responses of course, but to claim
the mantle of 'social justice' while practicing this kind of exclusion
Their letter to me and my response to them are reproduced below.
I've edited out identifiable references to my colleagues in order to
protect the…well, you decide, let's just say their privacy. I can be
reached at billayers.org, or email@example.com. Onward!
University of Illinois at Chicago
This is an unusual letter for us to be writing and for you to receive.
We count you among the most noted progressive educators in the
country with a deep commitment to teaching for social justice. Yet,
after extended deliberation and discussion, we find ourselves in a
real quandary. Because of current…times, we cannot invite you to an
event we are planning for progressive educators. Because we know and
deeply respect you and your commitment to teaching for social justice,
we felt that an explanation was in order.
Next spring, we will host an event…to honor Bob Moses and progressive
education. Bob is to receive the…John Dewey Prize for Progressive
Education. This prize is… "to honor significant achievement in
progressive education for the purpose of making society more just."
In an era of increasing standardization and heightened inequities, we
want to shine a bright light on the ideals of progressive education
and remind the public that there is another model for education that
attends well to the needs of every child. It is our intention to
invite other progressive educators to this convening and to create a
significant news and media event honoring the ideals of progressive
education [and] the work of Bob Moses…
It is because of our commitment to educate the public and to undertake
what is primarily a symbolic project that we cannot risk a simplistic
and dubious association between progressive education and the violent
aspects of your past. We believe, of course, in your right to express
your views, then and now. This is not about curtailing your
expression. Rather, in this age when Google summarizes instantly, and
often shallowly, who we are, it is about trying to say as clearly as
possible what we are arguing for. If we, as educators, want to engage
the learner, in this case the public, where they are, then we have to
find ways for the public to see progressive education not as radical
or threatening but as nurturing and familiar, connected to the very
best aspects of their own learning experiences. For the last five
years local and regional news organizations have taken the
"liberal"…faculty…to task. It is an environment that we have
challenged when key principles were involved, defending and
maintaining our…commitment to social justice against the state
bureaucracy. This event, however, is a celebration honoring two
educators' accomplishments and positively promoting progressive
education. We don't want a shallow press to prevail. We want to
engage the public with as little interference as possible.
One major reason for presenting a prize at this time is that
progressivism, and progressive education in particular, have been
greatly weakened by a broad and calculated appeal to our fears in this
changing world. We want to reinsert into the civil dialogue that
progressive education stands upon its proven record and can be a
viable alternative when our mood turns away from fears and towards
hopes. First, we need to get ourselves back to the table, and then
position ourselves as polite in our discourse before celebrating the
breadth of expression within progressive education. Coming from
behind may well demand such strategic thinking, whether is satisfies
all of our passion or not.
We hope this letter finds you well and that you understand and
possibly appreciate this decision.
"Lauren" and the organizers
August 29, 2006
You have, of course, no obligation to include me in the
progressive education conference you're organizing, certainly not in
your deliberations about my suitability to attend. I'm tempted to
say, with apologies to Groucho Marx, that I wouldn't want to attend
any progressive education conference that would have me.
Chances are I'd have never heard of the conference had you not
written, and in any case wouldn't have given a second thought to my
presence on or absence from the guest list. But since you've opened
this in the way you have, since you've outlined your thinking on the
matter and invited me to understand and possibly appreciate your
decision, I feel I must respond.
Your hope to position progressive education "not as radical or
threatening but as nurturing and familiar," is in some ways a fool's
errand. Of course, no one argues that the progressive movement should
threaten students or teachers or citizens—progressive education does
indeed hold the hope of realizing a humane and decent education for
all within a revitalized politics and a more authentically democratic
society. But progressive education, if it means anything at all, must
embody a profound threat to the status quo. It is a direct challenge,
for example, to all the policy initiatives that deskill and hammer
teachers into interchangeable cogs in a bureaucracy, all the pressure
to reduce teaching to a set of manageable and easily monitored tasks,
all the imposition of labels and all the simple-minded metrics
employed to describe student learning and rank youngsters in a
hierarchy of winners and losers. It's a threat to all that, and more.
But here we face a contradiction at the heart of our efforts: the
humanistic ideal and the democratic injunction tell us that every
person is an entire universe, that each can develop as a full and
autonomous person engaged with others in a common polity and an
equality of power; the capitalist imperative insists that profit is at
the center of economic, political, and social progress, and develops,
then, a culture of competition, elitism, and hierarchy. An education
for democracy fails as an adjunct to capitalism just as an education
for capitalism fails to build either a democratic ethos or a
participatory practice. We must engage, then, in the arena of school
and education reform as we struggle toward a world fit for all
children--- a place of peace and justice, joy and balance. The two are
And so I believe that progressive education must be part of a radical
movement if it is to be worthy of the hopes and dreams of those who
fight to bring humanistic alternatives to life. I mean radical in the
sense that Ella Baker, one of the unsung mothers of the Civil Rights
Movement, used the word. She called herself a radical, and she
explained that radical meant "going to the root." Little reforms here
and there never add up unless we get to the core of the problems we
face, she argued, analyze our situations, connect the struggles as we
work for more fundamental change.
Charlie Cobb, who co-wrote Radical Equations, was also the author of
the original proposal for Freedom Schools in the South more than forty
years ago. The brief he wrote claimed that while Black children were
denied many things—decent school facilities, honest and
forward-looking curriculum, fully qualified teachers—the fundamental
injury was "a complete absence of academic freedom, and students are
forced to live in an environment that is geared to squashing
intellectual curiosity, and different thinking." Cobb called the
classrooms of Mississippi "intellectual wastelands," and he challenged
himself and others "to fill an intellectual and creative vacuum," and
to encourage people "to articulate their own desires, demands and
questions." He was urging students to confront the circumstances of
their lives, to wonder about how they got to where they were, and to
think of how they might change things. He was crossing hard lines of
propriety and tradition, convention and common sense, of course,
poised to break the law and overthrow a system. His proposal was
designed to plow a deep and promising furrow toward the new--- more
than radical, this was insurrection itself, progressive education
linked to radical politics.
Of course, we are required now to make our own contributions in our
own time and place; the pathway, the content, and the curriculum must
be of, by and for this moment and this community. We might take
inspiration and attitude, sustenance and stance from the Mississippi
experience, but only as an orientation toward launch, toward imagining
and trying to bring to life something entirely new.
Finally, you refer to "the violent aspects" of my past. As you know
I've written extensively about politics and protest as well as my own
involvements, about the dual responsibilities to act and to doubt, and
about the impossibility of claiming a high moral stance while sitting
on the sidelines. I've accounted for my actions during the US
assaults on Vietnam and against the Black Freedom Movement—which is
what I assume you're referring to—and paid the price asked of me by
the legal system. And I've said often that our society ought to
engage in a truth-and-reconciliation process concerning those terrible
and wondrous times; in other words, I'm happy to stand up, tell my
story, admit my mistakes, and take responsibility—shoulder-to-shoulder
with everyone else, including war criminals, politicians, soldiers,
officers, frat boys, students, scholars, citizens. Absent that, you
seem to say that I have some uniquely dreadful behavior to account
for, and I politely disagree.
I worry that you're imagining a progressivism divorced from politics,
the larger world, and any real hope of transformation—a timid, tepid,
soft and servile thing. And I worry that your attempt to cleanse your
conference of the likes of me has no end: you'll have to cut out the
Marxists and the socialists, of course, anyone who writes critically
about capitalism and education, then the militants, the noisy
anti-racists, the pushy feminists, the gays and lesbians, anyone who
refers to "social justice"—a term under steady attack from the
powerful just now. I'm reminded of the last presidential election when
several presumably well-meaning liberals asked, in effect, if women
would please stop talking so loudly about (or getting) abortions, if
gays would please get back in the closet, and if Black people and
Mexicans might stay out of sight for a few months so that "we" can win
this thing, and then everything will somehow be alright. It's not
only unprincipled, deeply cynical and cowardly, it's suicidal, a
slippery slope with lots of miserable historical precedent.
So, while I think I understand what you've said, no, I don't
appreciate it. I don't rationalize it. I don't endorse it. And I
refuse to participate in portraying myself as a pariah. So invite me.
To the Discourse Staff
1. Teachers have to begin by reclaiming the intellectual and ethical
dimensions of their work, resisting all the attempts to deskill and
hammer them into interchangeable cogs in a bureaucracy, all the
pressure to reduce teaching to a simple set of manageable skills.
Teachers have to decide who they intend to be in the classroom—whether
to stand at attention as dutiful clerks, inculcating students into the
status quo, the social order as it is, obediently passing along the
received curriculum that's handed them, or whether to move beyond
sorting and shaping, striking out in pursuit of the new, questioning
and challenging all that is before them, anything that wounds their
souls. Teachers have to ask themselves whether they're up for being
bold and taking risks. If they're not, perhaps they should withdraw
now, for they've cut themselves off from teaching's intellectual and
ethical well-springs, the real adventure of it all before it's even
As a teacher considers who to be and where to stand in regard to
children, to community, to parents, to school change, it's worth
considering motivation. Is her choice based on some deep desire to be
on the winning or the popular side, some cunning calculus of power?
Or can she think, finally, of no way she'd rather live than in
opposition to what she considers inhumane, whether it brings
recognition and reward or not? Accommodation is, of course, always
the easier path, but as Martin Luther King, Jr., said, "it won't lead
to the promised land."
If teachers choose a life of risk-taking—and some always will—new
troubles begin, and a host of other questions arises: How do you
introduce important issues without being just another authoritarian
presence in your students' lives? How do you avoid trampling on their
insights, points-of-view, and experiences? How do you survive in your
Education at its best is eye-popping and mind-blowing—it's about
opening doors, opening minds, inviting students to become more capable
and powerful actors and choice-makers as they forge their own pathways
into a wider world. Education at its best is the practice of freedom.
But much of what we call schooling forecloses or shuts down or walls
off meaningful choice-making. While many of us long for teaching as
something transcendent and powerful, we find ourselves too-often
locked in situations that reduce teaching to a kind of glorified
clerking, passing along a curriculum of received wisdom and
predigested bits of information. A fundamental choice and challenge
for teachers, then, as I noted, is this: to acquiesce to the machinery
of control, or to take a stand with our students in a search for
meaning and a journey of transformation. To be a prison guard or an
educator. To teach obedience and conformity, or to teach its polar
opposite: initiative and imagination, the capacity to name the world,
to identify the obstacles, and the courage to act upon whatever the
Lots of schools built for the industrial age look like little
factories, and the metaphor of production dominates the
discourse—assembly lines, management and supervision, quality control,
productivity, and outputs. Students are intermittently the raw
materials moving dumbly down the assembly line while value is added by
the workers/teachers, or, if the metaphor shifts its angle slightly,
students are the workers themselves, workers-in-training, of course.
When a school functions as a prison, and an increasing number of
schools do, students become its little political prisoners—the most
wide-awake of them know it. Compelled by the state to attend, handed
a schedule, a uniform, and a rule-book, sent to a specific designated
space of cell blocks, monitored constantly and controlled
relentlessly—Pledge of Allegiance: 9:00; No talking; Bathroom break:
10:15-10:20; No eating in the classroom; Lunch: 11:45-12:05; Boys and
girls form separate lines; Dismissal bell: 3:10; No running in the
hallways. On and on and on, the whole catalogue of coercion under
forced confinement—every young body the object of domination and
The little prison administrators expect neither uniform compliance nor
automatic submission from every inmate, hence the elaborate mechanisms
for uprooting deviance, for hammering each one into a model
prisoner—obedient, compliant, conforming. It begins with the
near-universal assumption that schools are in the business of sorting
and labeling—winners and losers, smart and stupid, good and bad. Of
course school people are careful not to be so crude—the kinder and
gentler employ euphemisms with a medical ring (ADD; BD; TAG) or the
sounds of science ("problem with impulse control"). The fog machine
is operating at full force, but let just a little air into the room
and it comes to this: the good and the smart will walk the runway to
the winner's circle, the bad and the stupid will be cast down and
out—losers forever. This is a foundational lesson that practically
every school teaches to every/body every day: there is simply no room
to recognize the unique qualities of each child nor to support the
growth, development, and progress of each.
Another basic lesson is this: school learning is a commodity, traded
at the market like boots and hammers. Unlike boots and hammers, whose
value is inherently satisfying and grasped directly and intuitively,
the value and use of school learning is elusive and indirect—hence,
students are asked to accept its unspecified value on faith and to be
motivated and rewarded externally. The value of school learning,
we're assured, has been calculated precisely by wise and accomplished
people, and the masters know better than anyone what's best. The
pay-off is way down the line, but it's surely there, somewhere, over
the rainbow. "Take this medicine," students are told over and over
again, day after tedious day, "it's good for you." Refuse the bitter
pill, and go stand in the corner—where all the other losers are
assembled. Of course, if you were to point out that lots of drop-outs
did OK for themselves—Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson and Ben
Franklin for starters, Herman Melville, Mark Twain, Joseph Conrad, and
Margaret Mead as well, and John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie for
good measure—you'd be called an impudent trouble-maker, and put in the
corner for sure.
Of course, if people are consistently objectified and victimized, if
they are beaten into submission, trained to suppress their own needs
and desires, rewarded for toadyism, and if they come to feel
themselves to be entirely powerless, then there's little hope for a
life lived freely and fully. If people experience their lives as
wholly determined by powerful outside forces and they develop a sense,
then, that they have no agency or possibility whatsoever, if they are
stuck in passivity, sunk in despair and cynicism—Whatcha gonna do? Do
I make the rules? What can I do about any of it?—if all of this
accumulates and settles, then what could it possibly mean to be "born
free" or "living in a democracy, the best country in the world" or
"getting an education to better myself" or "endowed with certain
inalienable rights"? The meanings are anemic at best—hollow, debased,
spectral. If people are unable to act upon or within their presumed
freedom, then actual freedom is reduced to a shabby and shadowy thing,
and the word itself promotes nothing more than an illusion.
Vulnerability is lousy preparation for citizenship.
We are relentlessly reminded that we are free to choose among
products and brands—even as authentic, consequential choices are
withheld—that consuming is a higher form of citizenship than actual
participation in civic life, and that what's good for Microsoft or the
Pentagon is somehow the common good, a benefit for all. Celebrity
overshadows accomplishment, consuming trumps contributing,
accumulation conflates to happiness. This all develops into a
flattening out of any urgent sense of democracy, of any vital vision
Schools for obedience and conformity are characterized by
authoritarianism and irrelevance, passivity and fatalism. They turn
on what Foucault called the little technologies for control and
normalization in classrooms—the elaborate schemes for managing the
crowd, the knotted system of rules and discipline, the exhaustive
machinery of schedules and clocks, the laborious programs of testing
and grading, assessment, judgment, and evaluation, all of it adding up
to a familiar cave, an intricately constructed hierarchy—everyone in a
designated place and a place for every one. Knowing and accepting
one's pigeonhole on the vast and barren mountainside becomes all the
lesson one needs.
Central to an education for citizenship, participation, engagement,
and democracy—an education toward freedom—is developing in students
and teachers alike the ability to think for themselves—to decide that
this is black and that this is white, that this is false and the other
true. The core lessons of a liberating education are these: we each
have a mind of our own; we are all works-in-progress swimming toward
an uncertain and indeterminate shore; we can each join with others in
order to act on our own judgments and in our own freedom; human
progress and freedom is always the result of thoughtful dissent and
School has always been and will always be contested space—What should
be taught? In what way? Toward what end? By and for whom?—and at
bottom the struggle is over the essential questions: What does it
meant to be human? What does it mean to construct a meaningful,
purposeful, and valuable life in this world, here and now? What
demands does freedom make?
On the side of a liberating and humanizing education is a pedagogy
that has as its beginning and end identical points on a circle: the
act of questioning. This pedagogy of questioning opens rather than
closes spaces of curiosity, perspective, dialogue, and imagination.
It's modus operandi is generous not stingy, revealing not concealing,
unmasking, exposing, embracing. It's a tool that promotes
intellectual growth, awakens curiosity, encourages skill development,
and a lot else. And at its core this pedagogy of questioning demands
something altogether different, something upending and revolutionary
from students: repudiate your subordinate place in the pecking order,
it urges, remove that distorted, congenial mask of compliance. You
must change. All of this requires a radical rethinking of the
relationship of teacher and student, students and learning, schools
and society, education and justice.
And it implies a common faith: every human being is of infinite and
incalculable value—each an intellectual, emotional, physical, social,
spiritual, and creative life-force. We take as standard and guide, as
mission, nourishing and challenging free people to act freely in a
free society—in history—to right wrongs, to repair damage, to correct
errors, to oppose all unnecessary suffering.
One last note: Don't get discouraged by thinking that the so-called
Sixties was a time of easy activism in comparison to today. Those
years have been mythologized beyond recognition, and one negative
aspect of that myth-making is the received wisdom that today's
activists are somehow inadequate, today's students uniquely stupefied,
today's aspirations hopelessly constrained. I disagree. The
responsibility of people who hope to make humane and progressive
social change are the same: analyze the situation before you, learn
all you can, reach out and speak up, organize and take action. And
approach the whole thing with some humility—you don't know all there
is to know—and a lot of hope—if I can understand this or that, then
others can too.
2. NCLB is simply the latest fraud—more comprehensive, perhaps, more
dressed up in the cloak of science, more sophisticated in its putative
concern for the poor—pushed onto the public schools, onto students and
teachers and parents, onto society by the powerful. It relies on
stupid and narrowing notions of human intelligence and accomplishment,
standardization and simple-minded metrics that sort youngsters into
hierarchies of winners and losers.
There are several ways to imagine alternatives. One is to look at
what the wealthy and the privileged provide for their children—small
classes staffed by well-educated and committed teachers, campuses that
are safe and functional and aesthetically inviting, abundant
materials, all manner of clubs and teams and activities—and demand
that for all children and youth. The fact is we know how to create
wonderful schools for kids in every imaginable circumstance. What we
lack is neither knowledge nor resources; what we lack is political
3. The Weather Underground was called a terrorist organization by
the government and the prostate, bought media at the time, and it's
still referred to that way. Of course, it was no such thing.
We should demand a definition each time the word "terrorist" is used,
and we should insist on stable, universal usage applicable to crazed
groups of religious fanatics, cults, political formations, but also to
governments. If "terrorist" means attacks on innocents or
non-combatants, for example, if it means random killing or injury, if
it means coercion and intentional collective punishment… then, no, the
Weather Underground was not terrorist. But the US government was
terrorist in Viet Nam, and is terrorist in Iraq, and Israel offered a
textbook case of terrorism unleashed last month in Lebanon.
4. The point of progressive political action is always to educate,
organize, and mobilize masses of people. You can judge your own
effectiveness by a simple standard: did our activity teach us as well
as others, did it strengthen the movement for change, did it engage
and involve more people who are collectively working toward
I don't advocate "violent protest." We do, however, live in a sewer
of violence in this country, the greatest purveyor of violence in
history. The fact that the violence is largely exported or hidden or
kept from your consciousness through a mighty range of mystifications
and manipulations doesn't make it less true. Part of our job is
taking the pretty mask off the beast, showing what's really there.
And we need to remember that power concedes nothing without a demand,
and that violent thugs rarely give up power willingly.
But back to the point of protest—we need to build a movement for
change, a mighty radical mass movement. We don't need to try to
calculate whether this or that act will get this or that opportunist
to vote our way in Congress. Remember, FDR was not a labor leader,
nor was LBJ a Civil Rights leader—each was a brilliant politician
responding to facts on the ground. Create a different reality—alter
the facts on the ground—and watch what happens.
5. You have to live as if the world could be otherwise: you have to
become the change you hope to see in the world.
For every human being life is, in part, an experience of suffering and
loss and pain. But our living experience also embraces other
inescapable facts: that we are all in this together, and that much
(but not all) of what we suffer in life is the evil we visit upon one
another, that is, unjustified suffering, unnatural loss, unnecessary
pain—the kinds of things that ought to be avoidable, that we might
even imagine eliminating altogether.
In the realm of human agency and choice, we come face to face with
some stubborn questions: Can we stop the suffering? Can we alleviate
at least some pain? Can we repair any of the loss? We lurch, then,
toward deeper considerations: Can society be changed at all? Is it
remotely possible—not inevitable, certainly, perhaps not even very
likely—for people to come together freely, to imagine a more just and
peaceful social order, to join hands and organize, to struggle for
something better, and to prevail?
If society cannot be changed under any circumstances, if there is
nothing to be done, not even small and humble gestures toward
something better, well, that about ends all conversation. Our sense
of agency shrinks, our choices diminish. What more is there to say?
But if a fairer, more sane, and just social order is both desirable
and possible, that is, if some of us can join one another to imagine
and build a participatory movement for justice, a public space for the
enactment of democratic dreams, our fields open slightly. There would
still be much to be done, for nothing would be entirely settled. We
would still need, for example, to find ways to stir ourselves and our
neighbors from passivity, cynicism, and despair; to reach beyond the
superficial barriers that wall us off from one another; to resist the
flattening effects of consumerism and the blinding, mystifying power
of the familiar social evils—racism, sexism, and homophobia, for
example; to shake off the anesthetizing impact of the authoritative,
official voices that dominate the airwaves, the media, and so much of
what we think of as common sense; to "release our imaginations" and
act on behalf of what the known demands, linking our conduct firmly to
our consciousness. We would be moving, then, without guarantees, but
with purpose and with hope.
Education is, of course, one arena of struggle as well as
hope—struggle because it stirs in us the need to reconsider everything
we have wrought, to look at the world anew, to question what we have
created, to wonder what is worthwhile for human beings to know and
experience, to justify or criticize or bombard or maintain or build up
or overthrow everything before us—and hope because we gesture toward
the future, toward the impending, toward the coming of the new.
Education is where we gather to question whether and how we might
engage and enlarge and change our lives, and it is, then, where we
confront our dreams and fight out notions of the good life, where we
try to comprehend, apprehend, or possibly even change the world.
Letter to the Future
September 1, 2006
Because I write books, and because I've been a teacher since 1965 and
a professor since 1987, and because I raised three lovely boys who are
now young men and themselves brilliant teachers and writers, and
because I just spent part of the summer with my grand-daughter, and
because I've been a peace and social justice activist, a rebel, a
revolutionary, and a dissident for over forty years, I feel like I've
been writing letters to the future my whole adult life. You can see
some of this more fully—including some letters to young activists—on
billayers.org. Here I'll be brief.
You're young. And the urgent demand on the young is to live. To
live fully and freely, unbound by stupidity, hypocrisy, all the forces
of death. To invent and reinvent yourselves. To decide what you will
make out of what you've been made. To choose who you will become in
the whirlwind into which you've been thrust. You can't choose
everything, it's true—you didn't choose your parents, for example,
your upbringing, your various privileges and oppressions, nor did you
choose to be born into the age of nuclear threat and globalization—but
you must choose who to be in light of all that. It's up to you.
Think of yourself as an unruly spark of meaning-making energy on a
voyage of discovery and surprise—always contingent, incomplete,
unfinished. Always something more to do and to be.
Remember that you're living in history—always dynamic, uncertain,
in-process—and that what you do or don't do actually makes a
difference, even though powerful voices keep saying that nothing you
do will have any impact. Open your eyes to the world around you, see
what's there, dig deeper, ask questions. There's always more to know,
more to do. Can you draw a free-hand sketch of the Middle-East? No?
Why not? Can you explain the history of the Kurds? Can you name
every government overthrown by the US from 1890-2006? Don't you think
that might explain something? You have work to do.
Americans are known the world over for having neither geographic
sense nor much historic knowledge. Who are we in the world? Where
are we in the world? Figure it out.
Remember, too, that the world is neither one-dimensional nor static.
To understand the world and your place in it, you must act upon it.
Just as you can only know ice cream by tasting it, jazz by hearing it,
bike-riding by doing it, you need to learn about the world through
your actions. When you act on the world, it acts back on you. Think
about it. Your schooling has ill-prepared you for action—it taught
you about nature while you need to learn from nature, it taught about
history while you need to learn from history.
Remember finally to engage all people, to embrace the least of us, to
go with the children and the hungry and the powerless and the people
in prison and the homeless. Don't bow down to either power or riches.
Love your families and friends and the miracle of each day, but be
willing to lend your energy when justice demands it. Love your one
precious life enough to find the joy and ecstasy in each moment, and
love the world enough to lend your weight when needed. Act up against
unnecessary suffering and pain, and anything that offends your soul.
Immerse yourself! Be a mensch! Don't let your life make a mockery
of your values! Dive into the wreckage!
The paradox of education is precisely this—that as one begins to
become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he [sic,
throughout] is being educated. The purpose of education, finally, is
to create in a person the ability to look at the world for himself, to
make his own decisions, to say to himself this is black or this is
white, to decide for himself whether there is a God in heaven or not.
To ask questions of the universe, and then learn to live with those
questions, is the way he achieves his own identity.
Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world
enough to assume responsibility for it and by the same token save it
from that ruin which, except for renewal, except for the coming of the
new and the young, would be inevitable. And education, too, is where
we decide whether we love our children enough not to expel them from
our world and leave them to their own devices, nor to strike from
their hands their chance of undertaking something new, something
unforeseen by us, but to prepare them in advance for the task of
renewing a common world.
The end of all education should surely be service to others. We
cannot seek achievement for ourselves and forget about the progress
and prosperity of our community. Our ambitions must be broad enough
to include the aspirations and needs of others for their sake and for
The drama of education is always a narrative of transformation. Act I
is life as we find it—the given, the known or the received, the
settled and the status quo. Act II is the fireworks, the moment of
upheaval and dissonance, the experience of discovery and surprise, the
energy of remodeling and refashioning. Act III is the achievement of
an altered angle of regard, new ways of knowing and behaving, a new
way of seeing and being. Act III, of course, will necessarily be
recast in some future educational encounter as a new Act I.
This is the fundamental message of the educator: You can change your
life. Wherever you've been, whatever you've done, the teacher invites
you to build on all that you are, and to begin again. There is always
something more to do, more to learn and know, more to experience and
accomplish. You must change your life, and if you will, you can change
This sense of opportunity and renewal—for individuals, for whole
communities and societies—is at the heart of all education, of
teaching and educational research; it constitutes the ineffable magic
drawing us back to the classroom and the into the school again and
again. Education, no matter where or when it takes place, enables
people to become more powerfully and self-consciously alive; it
embraces as principle and overarching purpose the aspiration of people
to become more fully human; it impels us toward further knowledge,
enlightenment, and human community, toward liberation. Education, at
its best, is an enterprise that helps human beings reach the full
measure of their humanity.
At the center of the educational adventure are communities, students
and teachers in their endless variety: energetic and turbulent,
restlessly struggling, sometimes eager, other times reluctant,
stretching, reaching; coming together in classrooms and community
centers, workplaces, houses of worship, parks, museums, and homes.
They gather in the hope of becoming better, smarter, stronger, and
more capable of rethinking and reconstructing their worlds; they come
together to claim themselves as subjects—lively, awake, and on the
move—in the face of all manner of blockades and obstacles. This
priceless ideal is an expression of every person's true vocation—the
task of humanization.
Simple enough to say, and yet, in countless ways, excruciatingly
difficult to achieve. For identifying humanization as a goal
immediately suggests its opposite: dehumanization as both possibility
and practice. Although education can ignite initiative and courage,
it can as easily become the practice of obedience and conformity. If
education stands in one instance for freedom and breaking through
arbitrary and imposed barriers, we can point to other cases where it
parades as a specific kind of repressive training. We are drawn,
then, into the contested space of teaching and research, of education
Education doesn't exist outside of history or culture, of course. It
is, rather, at the heart of each in a reciprocal and continuous
circle—education shapes societies; societies shape education. Our
schools belong to us, they tell us who we are and who we want to be.
Authoritarian societies are served by authoritarian schools, just as
free and democratic schools support free and democratic societies.
Because education is always enacted within a social surround—a
community or a society—it always involves ushering the young into some
social order or other, into an entire universe. So educators and
students must keep their eyes open: Why are we here? What matters?
What is the existing social order? Do we warrant or justify the world
as it is? What alternatives are possible? Who do we want to be?
What do we want to discover or understand more fully? What can we
A functioning, vital democracy requires, in the first place,
participation, some acceptance of difference, some independent
thought, some spirit of mutuality—a sense of responsibility, an
awareness of mutuality and interdependence, a willingness to learn and
grow and change through dialogue and debate. Democracy demands
active, thinking human beings—we ordinary people, after all, are
expected to make the big decisions that affect our lives—and in a
democracy education is designed to empower and to enable that goal.
Education in a democracy requires imagination, initiative, engagement,
and courage. The promise of public education in our democracy—from
the common school movement of 150 years ago until today—is the deep
potential for equity. With great advantage comes great
responsibility; those with the greatest needs require the greatest
resources and interventions.
Teachers, professors, and researchers need to consider what they are
working for, and what they are working against—against oppression and
subjugation, for example, and against exploitation, hatred,
unfairness, and unkindness. We toil toward enlightenment and
awareness, wide awakeness, protection of the vulnerable, cooperation,
generosity, compassion, love, and peace.
Here we focus on teaching, research, and service as intellectual and
ethical work, something beyond the instrumental and the linear. We
understand that education requires thoughtful, caring people to carry
it forward successfully, and we commit to becoming more caring and
more thoughtful as we grow into our work. This focus requires a
leaning outward, a willingness to look at the world of children—the
sufferings, the accomplishments, the perspectives and the concerns—and
an awareness, sometimes joyous, but just as often painful, of all that
we find. And it requires, as well, a leaning inward, traveling toward
self-knowledge, a sense of being alive and conscious in an always
dynamic world. In each direction, each gesture, we acknowledge that
every person is entangled and propelled and sometimes made mute by a
social surround, and that each has, as well, a wild and vast inner
life—a spirit, a soul, a mind.
We begin with a faith that every child and every student and every
informant comes as a whole and multidimensional being—a gooey
biological wonder, pulsing with the breath and beat of life itself,
intellectual and spiritual, evolved and evolving, shaped by genetics,
twisted and gnarled by the unique experiences of living. Every human
being has as well a complex set of circumstances that makes his or her
life understandable and sensible, bearable or unbearable. Each is
unique, each walks a singular path across the earth, each has a mother
and a father, each with a distinct mark to be made, and each somehow
sacred. This recognition asks us to reject any action that treats
anyone as an object, any gesture that thingifies other human beings.
It demands that we embrace the humanity of every person.
We practice multicultural education as a response to reality: we are a
multicultural, multilingual society, after all. What would schooling
be if we rejected multiculturalism? Education for white supremacy?
What does opposition to learning many languages lead to? Promotion of
a barricaded ignorance? Teachers must learn to embrace the students
who actually come through the door—from a range of languages,
cultures, backgrounds, abilities—and challenge them to stretch, to
reach, to go further.
We oppose the manipulative reduction of lives into neatly labeled
packages. We resist both the easy embrace of oversimplified
identities—a reliance on a single aspect of a life to say it all—and
the corrosive gesture of fragmenting lives into conceptually crude
categories. Our stance is identification with, not identification of.
Our approach is one of solidarity, something beyond service.
We see knowledge as a form of power that can transform individual
lives as well as whole communities and societies. But to do so,
knowledge must be freely sought, explicitly linked to moral purposes,
and tied to conduct. It must stand for something. In the College of
Education we stand for humanization—for increasing human capacity,
human creativity, human intelligence and enlightenment, human freedom.
Rick Ayers Retires
Rick Ayers – June 17, 2006
The kind of wisdom and intimacy we see here today is no surprise, but
it is to be noted and cherished. Music, spoken word, children, food,
a little chaos… These things are neither spontaneous nor automatic.
They are hard-won and invaluable.
Because I've known Rick for almost 60 years—much longer than anyone
else in the room… And we're told we look exactly alike… And because we
lived together—off and on—for over a third of that time… And because
we learned a lot about being students and teachers together, wrote
books together, looked out for one another's kids, buried our mother,
and take care of our father together…
And because we fought the power together, came of age in opposition to
the whole nasty mess of racism and war and empire, tried to make a
revolution together, and went on the run together, and plan to be on
the barricades together during the next inevitable upheaval, perhaps
in our walkers or wheelchairs by then…
And because he was the first real intellectual I ever knew, and he
taught me early on the power of ideas, the beauty and importance of
books—which I know he taught many of you—and has been a life-long
model for me—and for many of you—of someone who has both a free mind
and a happy heart, the courage to be exactly who he wants to be… in
the face of all manner of pressures and obstacles.
For all these reasons and more I want to say a word about my brother
Rick on the occasion of his leaving Berkeley High School.
Rick was born into privilege—"Born into Belonging"—in a country
stratified by race and class and standing like a colossus astride the
whole world. He could have had it easy. But he never bought into the
idea that background is destiny, that privilege is somehow deserved,
nor that there is some chosen people who ought to live above and
beyond the rest, and so he chose to exile himself from all that and to
reinvent himself against the facts of his birth—he chose, and this
would astonish our waspish parents, to be re-born a mensch.
Mensch as some of you know, is Yiddish and without an exact English
translation, but Rosa Luvemborg, the great German revolutionary came
close, writing from prison to a friend. Being a mensch, she said, is
a contradictory ideal—it asks that you simultaneously love your own
life enough to find the joy and the beauty and the ecstasy in every
precious moment—the clouds, the sunrise, your friends—and at the same
time that you put your shoulder on history's great wheel when needed,
that you fight with fierce determination against injustice; all the
unnecessary suffering and pain we see everywhere around us. In this,
Rick has always been a mensch: a lover of life who steadfastly refuses
to close his eyes to injustice, someone who rages against injustice
without himself becoming pinched or bitter. Rick is an uber-mensch.
Many of us—appalled by the staggering distance between reality and our
hopes for peace and democracy and justice, horrified by the state of
the world and the criminal misbehavior of our rulers—become
speechless. We're told, even by allies, to trim our sails, to
compromise our principles again and again, to just grow up.
Rick never does.
He speaks, he writes, he acts and his message, harsh and unyielding in
one way is also filled with hope that human beings can be better, that
we can, if we will, find ways to come together and change the things
that matter most.
He brings this contradictory ideal to his teaching, to his
identification with students and their families, to his deep empathic
understanding of others: he challenges and nurtures in the same
gesture; he becomes the other person without ever ceasing to be
himself; he changes while remaining constant.
The great Chicago poet Gwendolyn Brooks, wrote a piece to Paul
Robeson, another freedom fighter, and her words seem appropriate here:
we all heard it,
cool and clear,
cutting across the hot grit of the day.
The major Voice.
The adult Voice
forgoing Rolling River,
forgoing tearful tale of bale and barge
and other symptoms of an old despond.
Warning, in music words
devout and large,
that we are each other's
we are each other's
we are each other's
magnitude and bond.
This is Rick, this is the legacy of his work here, this is his
message: Love one another. Work hard and take responsibility for the
In your family and with your friends and neighbors, in your community
and your nation, in your politics and in your life: be a
revolutionary; be a socialist; at least be a mensch.
Eugenics and Education
As finite beings in an infinite and expanding universe, our
understanding of the world is necessarily contingent, partial, and
incomplete, and yet we live for the most part as if our everyday
assumptions, biases, myths, and common sense are simply and entirely
true. To say that we are—each and all of us—blind to our own
blind-spots is a tautology. To take that tautology as a provocation,
as a point of departure toward upending our own orthodoxy requires
curiosity and courage. Ann Winfield has an abundance of both—a lively
and exquisite mind combined with a willingness to relentlessly poke
around in the dark. The result is a work of power and
importance—breath-taking in its reach and surprising on almost every
page. Here she interrogates—through the lens of a movement and an
ideology that dominated our culture for much of the twentieth
century—the story of democracy, freedom, and exalted forward progress
that we Americans love to tell ourselves. Written out of the official
story as quackery and the handiwork of a few nut-cases, Winfield
demonstrates beyond doubt that eugenics was not only respectable,
mainstream science but also that its major tenets were well-springs in
the formation of American public schools with echoes in the every day
practices of today. Formed in the crucible of white supremacy and
rigid hierarchies of human value, American schools have never
adequately faced that living heritage.
We no longer talk of "miscegenation" or "imbeciles," of course, and
we are likely to look upon forced sterilization and race-based
marriage laws as archaic. But Winfield undermines any sense of smug
superiority we might grant ourselves by drawing a direct line from
those repulsive labels and practices to our own obsessions with
"standards" and "accountability," test scores and grades. White
supremacy surely changes its spots but it remains durable and
Eugenics and Education will change the way you think about,
curriculum and teaching, school reform, educational policy and
practice, and even the current debates concerning immigration and
marriage. This is essential reading for anyone who hopes to
understand the sorry state of our schools today, and the deep changes
we must undertake to improve them. After seeing the world through Ann
Winfield's eyes, when you hear the terms "gifted and talented" or "at
risk" you're likely to wince. Good.
I hate grades -- hate giving them, can't stand getting them (unless,
of course, I get an A+, and then I think I'm cool for a minute, until
I start to feel cheap and silly).
Giving grades drives most thoughtful teachers up a tree. It's one of
the worst moments in teaching -- an insistent reminder that we are all
cogs in a larger certification machine, that thought and care and mind
and heart are not the main things about school, that hierarchy and
one's place in it is more important than engaged thinking, and that
schooling is largely disconnected from learning and only loosely
linked to education.
Grades are distorting in many ways. They drive curriculum and narrow
everyone's perspective. They mean more to some students than to
others, they tend to reward obedience and conformity, they are more
important to students than to teachers, they undermine trust and
cooperation, they twist relationships and encourage toadyism, and they
discourage inquiry, risk-taking, creativity, and much more. They are
about monitoring, controlling, and punishing. They close down
thinking where education is supposed to open it up.
How will you grade when you are teaching? Don't say, "I'll have to
see what system they use." They'll likely use a system like the one
used with you, like the ones just characterized. And remember, we all
succeeded in those systems. So if they seemed sensible and "fair" to
us, we couldn't help but be looking through the lenses of the winners.
Did they help us learn? Learn what? How? What about others?
Should all kids learn? How? Why?
I begin with an assumption that each student brings intelligence,
commitment, concern, experience, engagement, passion, and skill to
class. School (and yes, even this classroom) may fail to access that
intelligence, passion, skill, and so on, but I take that to be my (and
the school or "education" system's) problem. It's too easy to blame
those who don't conform and submit to whatever it is the teacher
wants, to label them as backward or stupid or behavior disordered.
In this class my goal is to create a safe place for us to critically
examine teaching and learning, urban education, school environments,
and the process of becoming teachers. I want us to inquire into the
various contexts in which we teach. That's my main goal. I'd like
you to have in mind your own developing "learning agenda" for this
class -- a statement of your own goals. We'll then have to negotiate
how to meet your goals and my goal together. That won't be
"Objective grading," however, is impossible, no matter how many
little charts or percentage tables a teacher produces. "Fair grading"
is an oxymoron. So I will give you grades based on my judgment and
our dialogue about how you do at meeting your own goals and my goal.
My goal will more likely be met if you: WORK HARD IN CLASS;
PARTICIPATE CONSISTENTLY IN ONE OF THE MANY VENUES PROVIDED; HAVE AN
OPEN MIND; PUT FORWARD YOUR IDEAS; BRING YOUR EXPERIENCE; RESPECT
OTHERS; and FIND A BALANCE BETWEEN BEING A TEACHER AND A LEARNER HERE.
I will partly grade you on effort, and openness, growth, consistency,
and clarity. My bias is to grade high, admitting my own flawed and