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
is unacceptable.
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, or Onward!

William Ayers
Distinguished Professor
University of Illinois at Chicago
Dear Bill,

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

Dear Lauren,

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.